I won’t say the life of a minister of religion is non-stop sex — but it can sometimes feel like that.
Yes, much of my time as a rabbi is taken up by prayer, discussions about the meaning of life, hospital visits and the like, but it also involves dealing with the messy bits of congregants’ lives . . . which is where the sex comes in.
Over the years, I’ve encountered couples who have broken every ‘Thou shalt not’ in the book. Take the case of Deidre, a woman in her mid-40s, whose personal circumstances took a dramatic turn after she fell down the stairs at home and broke her leg.
Her husband recoiled at the idea of catering to the whims of their three teenage sons alone and so arranged for an au pair to move in and take on all the household chores.
With her leg in plaster and confined to a wheelchair, Deidre accepted every invitation that came her way from friends offering to pick her up and take her out for the day. It seemed like a good arrangement until the day she came home to find that the au pair — an attractive 20-something — had left a notebook on the table.
Yes, much of my time as a rabbi is taken up by prayer, discussions about the meaning of life, hospital visits and the like, but it also involves dealing with the messy bits of congregants’ lives . . . which is where the sex comes in. Pictured: Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain
When she idly picked it up, Deidre couldn’t help noticing that the page at which it fell open featured a sketch of her husband — naked. She flicked through the pages of what turned out to be a shockingly explicit diary with mounting horror. The au pair, who was clearly a domestic goddess in more ways than one, had not only slept with her husband, but each of her three sons.
So it was a distraught woman who called me seeking advice on what to do next.
After much anguished debate, we decided her family was worth saving and that, while each of her menfolk had gone astray, the triumphant nature of the remarks in the au pair’s notebook suggested that the various episodes could be attributed more to her nymphomaniac tendencies than their predatoriness.
The au pair was sacked, the husband severely reprimanded and — to protect their fragile egos — the boys were not told quite how generously their in-house femme fatale had shared her sexual favours.
The leg eventually healed, as did the marital relationship (after the husband was given time off for good behaviour). But the worst part was the waiting as they sought to establish whether any of the various energetic couplings had left the au pair pregnant. Such an outcome would have been devastating — not least because it would leave them with the embarrassing problem of having to work out who was the dad.
If you are wondering why Deidre’s first phone call was to me and not to one of her friends, it is because Judaism has always had a very liberal attitude to sex.
While traditional Christianity often presents abstinence as the ideal — with monks and nuns at the top of the sex-free tree — Judaism sees sex as a positive act. Indeed, a lack of it is grounds for divorce.
If you are wondering why Deidre’s first phone call was to me and not to one of her friends, it is because Judaism has always had a very liberal attitude to sex
The pleasures of the flesh are also discussed very openly in rabbinic writings and sermons, which tend to be about daily realities rather than the next world, so it is not uncommon to discuss one’s love life with a rabbi. The rabbi may not be a sexpert, but he or she is no prude either.
Still, even I was taken aback when a member of my congregation called Kate phoned me in distress. She told me her husband had just walked out to live with another woman, but in a way that made me sense a bigger problem.
I arranged to go round to see her that afternoon and the full story came out: the other woman was her mother. Her husband had run off with his mother-in-law. Now the mother-in-law has been the butt of jokes since Roman times, when the poet Juvenal quipped that one cannot be happy while one’s mother-in-law is still alive, but — while they are often depicted as ogres and harridans — they are never presented as temptresses.
In this case, however, the husband had taken a fancy to his wife’s mum and the attraction had been mutual. It was not only traumatic for Kate, but left her with two other problems.
First, how to explain it to the children? One betrayer in the family was bad enough, but two would be hard for them to accept.
Second, if he had run off with anyone else, she could have turned to her mother for support, both practical and emotional, but that source of comfort had been wrenched away from her. Sadly, Kate faced a toxic mix of hurt and anger that lasted for many years.
By contrast, another congregant called Jonny came to see me because he wanted to make amends. He had had an affair with a woman abroad whilst travelling there on regular work trips.
He claimed it was ‘just a bit of fun: exciting, naughty, but we both knew it would not lead anywhere’ and he’d decided to end it.
I said that I was pleased to hear that, before asking why he had come to see me if it was now behind him? ‘I want your advice as to how to tell my wife,’ he said. ‘I need to come clean, admit the affair and apologise. What’s the best way?’
I looked at him in amazement, not because of his honesty, but his stupidity. Yes, it sounded noble, going on his knees and confessing, but — if she did not know — then why destroy her trust in him or endanger the marriage that he was trying to save? I shocked him by saying that he should not do so and that, if he emotionally dumped on her in this way, he would be being ridiculously selfish.
While he might rid himself of his guilt, he would land her with a world of pain and distress. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. If he felt awkward about keeping it secret, that was his punishment.
Thankfully, he took my advice. They are both retired now, but if ever I ask the wife how she is, she often tells me how lucky she is to have such a wonderful husband.
Brenda used to say the same. She and Cyril had a great marriage until he had a massive stroke in his 50s that left him in a vegetative state. At first she visited Cyril every day in hospital and chatted away to him, even though there was never any response.
Eventually the strain of talking became too much and she took to just sitting there with a book. When she told her new neighbour, recently divorced Pete, how difficult it was visiting Cyril, he offered to go with her that weekend.
He offered to accompany her the following weekend too and it wasn’t long before it became a regular feature. One day Brenda said that, by way of thanks, she could cook him a meal after their next visit. He duly came back to her house . . . and never left. When Brenda came to see me, what struck me was how the hangdog look she had developed in the course of three lonely years visiting Cyril had been replaced by her former joie de vivre. But she needed to share her dilemma.
She did not want to divorce Cyril, or end her weekly visits, nor did she want to give up her relationship with Pete. What did I advise?
It was clearly adultery and, on the face of it, I should have told her to split up with Pete. But Cyril was being visited just as much as before and she was clearly happier than she had been for years.
I felt that reality trumped morality: there was no reason for her to be entombed with her comatose husband. I told her as much, adding that, as long as she continued to care for Cyril, I had no objection to her and Pete staying together.
She was greatly relieved and did both. But the story ended strangely. Two years later, Cyril died from pneumonia and, after a respectable interval, she and Pete got married. Within 18 months, however, they filed for divorce. Had the absence of the silent third person in the relationship led to it breaking down?
Over the years, I’ve encountered couples who have broken every ‘Thou shalt not’ in the book, says Rabbi Jonathan Romain (above)
Most of my relationship conundrums involve an excess of sex but, in the case of a man called Phil, the problem was quite the opposite. Naturally, this was even more of a problem for his wife, Jenny, who had a healthy sex drive. Unusually for members of their generation, they enjoyed a chaste courtship. But Jenny was definitely hoping that she would feel the earth move on their honeymoon. When they got into bed on that first night, however, he simply turned over and slept with his back to her.
At first, she attributed this to shyness or exhaustion. But when it happened every night for the rest of the week and continued after their return home, she realised that married life was not going to be quite what she had expected.
She was upset, not just by his rejection, but because she wanted to have children and that now seemed a remote possibility.
When we spoke, she explained that Phil would not talk about it, nor would he consider any counselling. I asked about divorce but she felt that would be an admission of failure, and anyway, they got on very well out of bed. I also suggested considering adoption, but she wanted a child of her own.
The solution was devious, but it worked. She told Phil that friends were coming for dinner and before they arrived they had a drink. The friends seemed to be late, so they had another drink.
In fact, she had never invited them and pretended she received a message cancelling last minute. It meant they had to eat the meal themselves and finish off the generously filled drinks that she had poured for the four of them.
Then she seduced him. He resisted and she had to chase him round the table, but eventually she got his trousers off and her womanly wiles did the rest.
Nine months later the baby arrived and, although they never had sex again, Jenny decided that was enough and her sexless marriage is still going strong.
Sex and death are often linked and never more so than in the case of Ron, who loved a pint, ate like a horse and never exercised. The result was that his weight ballooned over the years and his doctor often issued dark warnings about the potential consequences of his unhealthy lifestyle.
The inevitable heart attack came about and it proved fatal. It also proved very painful for his wife, for they were making love at the time. Apart from the shock of suddenly losing her husband, his wife also had a more immediate problem.
He was on top of her when he breathed his last and she found herself pinned down by the weight of a morbidly obese man. It took no little time and a great deal of exertion to free herself.
At the funeral, I resisted the temptation to make any quips about him ‘dying with a smile on his face’ or ‘the best way to go’. For his wife, though, the memory of their final moment of intimacy was forever associated with a nightmare that has haunted her since.
Curiously enough, I had to deal with a similar scenario two years later, although this time there was one crucial difference. When the chap died mid-coitus, he was making love to someone who was not his wife.
While traditional Christianity often presents abstinence as the ideal — with monks and nuns at the top of the sex-free tree — Judaism sees sex as a positive act. Indeed, a lack of it is grounds for divorce (Stock Image)
The wife managed to keep the scandal secret from those outside the immediate family and only a few of us knew that her set grimace at the funeral was fury rather than grief.
Concubines on the make can be another type that bring trouble to my door. Albert was a 79-year-old widower, so when his family felt he could no longer manage by himself, they employed a 35-year-old home help to look after his cooking and cleaning. However, at some point on her first day she stripped off and got into bed with him.
While she did find time to do some cleaning on the side, this became a regular occurrence. The family tried to dismiss her but Albert refused to let her go, so they came to me for advice.
My first reaction was to ask why they had a problem with the relationship: ‘After several years of loneliness, isn’t it great that he’s enjoying himself again?’
It turned out that their concerns were financial rather than emotional. They were worried that she would talk Albert into marriage and inherit his house when he died.
So when Albert announced that he and his girlfriend were going on a month-long cruise, during which he planned to propose, they hired a private detective to investigate her background.
What they discovered confirmed all their worst fears: she was already married to a nonagenarian in a care home, while living with a man of her own age by whom she had a child.
They asked for my help in breaking the news to him.
I agreed on one condition — that I wait till after the cruise, so that Albert could enjoy a few final weeks of lustful excess with his conniving lover.
I should stress that I come across many happy couples who do not stray and countless people of integrity. Congregational interactions are not an endless roll call of misdemeanours.
But it cannot be denied that when it comes to relationships, like many a gently flowing river, currents swirl beneath the calm surface with an intensity that would surprise many a passer-by. Sex is often the cause.
Thank you, God, for this wonderful gift — even if it does get some people into all sorts of trouble.
All names changed. Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is minister of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of Confessions Of A Rabbi (Biteback).