(JTA) — When Max Grunberg wants to know more about the sex lives of the couples he treats, he asks the women to describe what happens after they return from the mikvah.
Grunberg, a Dutch-born couples therapist specializing in the Orthodox Jewish community, needs to ease clients into talking about sex, an activity many religious couples undertake within hours of a woman’s monthly immersion in a ritual bath. Even in the privacy of a therapist’s office, most are still too hesitant to speak about sex directly.
But as a determined campaigner for the rights of religious women to experience sexual pleasure, Grunberg wants his clients to go way beyond merely discussing sex.
In a move that some say reflects a growing openness in Orthodox circles to sexual coaching, he has obtained the endorsement of prominent rabbis for a guidebook he has written aimed at enhancing women’s pleasure during sex and, more controversially, through masturbation.
First published several years ago, Grunberg’s book, “Femfeeling,” is part of a growing number of sex resources aimed at the Orthodox. But unlike other kosher sex guides, “Femfeeling” advocates the virtues of female masturbation, an activity many in Orthodox circles view as immoral.
“It is my mission to make as many people as possible realize that women have the right to sexual pleasure,“ said Grunberg, a baby-faced 61-year-old who lives in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana. “It will make for happier people and a better world.”
In the guide, Grunberg provides drawings of a woman’s erogenous zones but stops short of giving explicit instructions about how to masturbate. But the book leaves little doubt about his support for the practice, telling readers they can use the guide on their own or with a partner and encouraging women to pursue personal sexual fulfillment.
Grunberg says masturbation allows women to better know their bodies and communicate their preferences to their husbands.
“In Jewish tradition female masturbation is allowed when it’s for exploring oneself and one’s sexual feelings,” Grunberg said. “It is valuable for gaining knowledge about the different parts of your anatomy through touch, which is needed to be a sexually knowledgeable women in order to communicate without fear your sexual needs to your partner.”
To secular readers, such advice seems innocuous. But in sexually conservative Orthodox circles, Grunberg’s recommendations are taboo breakers. Over the years, many Orthodox rabbis have denounced female masturbation as an illicit act that causes psychological harm and does damage to the marital union.
“Some of the things he wrote potentially are deeply empowering to Orthodox women,” said David Ribner, an American-born Orthodox rabbi and sex therapist in Jerusalem who has written several books on sex aimed at religious Jews. “That is a positive contribution and a step in the right direction.”
Grunberg was unable to find a religious publisher for “Femfeeling,” which he ultimately published on his own. He has sold several hundred copies, but believes his message has reached thousands more through a website of the same name as well as women sharing the information with their friends.
Even more noteworthy, he has received the endorsement of several Orthodox rabbis, including Nathan Lopes Cardozo, an internationally recognized authority on Jewish law and dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. In an interview with JTA, Cardozo dispelled the notion that female masturbation is counter to traditional Jewish teaching.
“There is no prohibition on female masturbation,” Cardozo told JTA, adding, “The Jewish tradition has a healthy attitude toward sexual pleasure. I think the Orthodox world was influenced by Christianity to view it as a taboo.”
Ribner says support for the book among Orthodox rabbis is part of a growing acceptance in the religious world of efforts to help couples struggling with sexual intimacy.
A new website with educational resources aimed at observant Jews was launched in September. Growing numbers of Orthodox day schools are using the sex education curriculum “Life Values and Intimacy.” And Ribner’s book, “The Newlywed’s Guide to Intimacy,” was translated recently into Hebrew. Ribner says he has even been given rabbinic approval for some of his patients to use a vibrator if they have trouble reaching orgasm.
“Over the past decade, you started having more Jewish Orthodox sex therapists,” Ribner said. “And sex therapists in general have become more aware of the need to work within the cultural context of their patients. So rabbis today have more confidence that I or my colleagues won’t do anything to contradict them.”
Another factor is the easy online access to sexual information that compels the Orthodox world to provide alternatives that take religious sensibilities into account. “Femfeeling,” which includes information on foreplay, sexual positions, role play and lubrication, is designed so readers can stash or throw away parts they consider too racy.
Rabbis also may have a more practical consideration in mind.
“Orthodox women marry later in life these days, and rabbis realize this raises the risk of them having premarital sex,” Grunberg said. “So even if some rabbis wouldn’t like women to masturbate, they figure it might at least keep them from having sex.”