Audiences watching The Lost Key will not likely be surprised to see a bearded, traditional Orthodox rabbi telling them that missionary-style with a man on top, a woman on the bottom, in near total darkness within the confines of marriage, is the “right” way to have sex.
But they may be surprised when the rabbi claims that this position will lead to a heightened, perhaps even holy, intimacy and that this and other lessons from the Torah can “usher in a new era of sexual relations,” as the press release (PDF) for The Lost Key boasts.
The documentary, which hits U.S. theaters on August 12, promises to reveal to audiences “how a sexual relationship can go beyond mere physical pleasure and become a spiritual experience where two become One.”
Drawing from the Torah and Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, The Lost Key sets out to prove that the lessons of traditional, Orthodox Judaism can lead to better sex by showing couples how to create a heightened sense of intimacy.
Oneness is the “highest form of physical intimacy,” director Ricardo Adler writes in his director’s statement.
Rabbi Manis Friedman, the author of Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? Reclaiming Modesty, Intimacy, and Sexuality, serves as the leader on this journey to intimacy.
When we meet, Friedman, one of the preeminent leaders of the Chabad (a form of traditional Orthodox Judaism) movement, is dressed in all dark colors and bearing the long gray beard that is traditional of those in his sect of Judaism.
He is flanked by a press rep in a yarmulke and a larger man who is also dressed in traditional garb.
There’s already ample evidence that today’s Orthodox rabbis feel very comfortable talking and, to a certain degree, embracing sexual expression.
There’s a burgeoning kosher sex toy industry.
The Lost Key bills itself as offering a “revolutionary way” for couples to improve their sense of connection. It is cocksure in its instructions, and it leaves little room for deviation.
Part of this restrictiveness is in the sexual logistics: Intercourse with the lights off and the man on top of the woman is considered the best way to achieve the highest level of intimacy.
But there’s a deeper, more insidious set of limits in treating the highest form of intimacy as the exclusive privilege of heterosexual, married couples.
Why does Friedman think this style of relationship works above all others? “We’re talking about 5,000 years of history,” he says.
He and The Lost Key never acknowledge that those 5,000 years (longer, really) are filled with not only unhappy marriages, but physical and sexually abused women, a subjugated LGBT population, and a sexual culture of restriction and shame.
There is zero mention of same-sex relations at all in the entirety of The Lost Key, which is nothing short of shameful and absurd in 2015.
Not only is it factually lacking, it implies homosexual couples cannot achieve this highest intimacy.
“You’re talking to a guy who has been heterosexual since Day One, whose family is heterosexual,” Adler tells me when I ask him about the lack of discussion of homosexuality in the film.
What on earth that has to do with why he didn’t do his full and proper job as a documentary maker is anyone’s guess.
Does he think homosexual couples cannot reach this hallowed intimacy?
“I hope you asked Rabbi Friedman this,” he says with a bit of a nervous laugh, never quite answering the question.
I do, in fact, ask Friedman. Each time I bring up homosexuality, he tries to take the question in another direction. “There are obviously parts of intimacy that should apply in any friendship, any relationship.”
He also acknowledges homosexual attraction, though to create a negative contrast between sex and intimacy.
“What is the unique attraction between men and women? Sexuality is not an answer because it doesn’t take a man and a woman to have sex,” he tells me. “What can men get from women they can’t get from men or from themselves, and what can women get from men that they can’t get from other women or from… other forms of sexuality? There is something unique [to heterosexual couples].”
According to Friedman’s approach, can same-sex couples reach this highest, holy intimacy that is expounded through the documentary?
“I don’t know. It’s a huge experiment,” he tells me.
Under this premise, how would Friedman counsel a same-sex couple seeking his advice, as The Lost Key documents heterosexual couples doing?
“I don’t know that people come to me for that kind of advice,” he says, with a chuckle.
It’s not just same-sex couples that may never reach the holy intimacy heterosexual, monogamist couples can. He is very suspect that couples in open marriages or group marriages, along with those who are single, can ever achieve this intimacy.
“All the experiments of the 1960s and 1970s failed. Open marriages, trial marriages, group marriages, no marriages. We’ve tried everything,” he tells me.
Why does he consider such arrangements “failures” or assume the people in them are unhappy?
“I don’t know. I can’t say what should make people happy or what can make people happy,” he admits. “But I know there is a real need for intimacy, without which there is a hole in your heart.”
The implication is that everyone not in a monogamist, heterosexual relationship has this hole in his or her heart.
While perhaps not out and out derogatory as, say the Westboro Baptist Church, this view of homosexual relationships as inferior to heterosexual ones is as offensive as it is myopic.
Of course, while The Lost Key doesn’t acknowledge homosexuality, it proudly tackles gender roles head-on, stressing the importance of traditional femininity and masculinity.
“I had the idea that men and women are equal, that everything is 50/50,” Adler says in the film. “But here was an approach that said we are different.”
It’s not just that men and women are different. Their sexual energy is specifically different, the film claims, which shapes the roles they play in their marriage and building intimacy.
“The male’s sexual energy is in the genitals and the woman’s sexual energy is in the womb,” Friedman explains in The Lost Key. He describes the womb, specifically the uterus, as “an organ that is purely receptive.”
All of this was a bit confusing to me in the film, mainly because the uterus is part of female genitalia. Wouldn’t men and women have their sexual desires coming from the same source then?
I ask Friedman about this, and he is adamant that men and women have different types of sexual hunger.
“The uterus doesn’t want sex. It wants intimacy,” he tells me. That is why a woman’s “hunger is much deeper and truer.”
How does he define “deeper and truer” when it comes to intimacy?
“The uterus wants to receive someone, not some thing, which is the definition of intimacy. Just like the uterus is invisible, intimacy is invisible.”
It should be noted here that the uterus is not, in fact, invisible. One may or may not want to take sexual intimacy advice from a person who believes that it is.
Unfortunately, the explanation for what it means for men to be masculine and women to be feminine in the bedroom is hardly more satisfying than this discussion of anatomy.
To be masculine, the man must be the one to “give,” and to be feminine, the woman must be the one to “receive.”
But if a woman must always be confined to the role of receiver—and for that matter, her husband must be confined to the role of provider—how much freedom does she usually have?
“Receiving is encompassing someone into your existence. It’s a very passive thing, but a very powerful thing,” Friedman states in The Lost Key.
This inversion of “passive as powerful” is patronizing. It’s telling women they have the authority and initiative when their roles are confined.
While the movie and Freidman make it clear that this stipulation need only apply to the bedroom, both ignore the fact that this subjugation often exists for Orthodox women outside of sexual relations.
When I bring up that the man as giver implies the woman is dependent on him (and thus forces the woman into a role of weakness), Friedman fires back with a larger lament about society.
“I don’t know how this got turned around, but who is more significant: the provider or the one you’re providing for? Who’s more significant: the teacher or the student?”
It’s only later when I am going over my notes that I realize Friedman is implying that the woman is the student in a marriage and the husband a teacher, a power difference if there ever was one.
Yet, Friedman insists that it is women who hold the sexual power in traditional Judaism.
“Look at how it works in Jewish tradition: The relationship between husband and wife is all based on the woman’s mood or receptiveness. When she’s not in the mood, when her womb is not receptive, the relationship stops,” he says.
This is technically true. The Talmud outlines that it is the wife, not the husband, who dictates when and how frequently they have sex.
Of course, it is unclear how closely this is adhered to in the bedroom and how issues like spousal pressure factor into its actual practice.
It’s hard to buy that women have the control when so much of the language in the proscription for achieving this intimacy place women beneath men—quite literally.
The Lost Key says quite explicitly that when it comes to doing the deed in a way that will achieve the highest level of intimacy, the man should be on top and the woman should be on the bottom.
The reason for this is “you draw strength from your source,” explains Friedman. “Where was the man created from? The earth. Where was woman created from? The man. The man faces his source, the earth, down, and the woman faces her source, the man.”
Friedman is surprised when I suggest it is condescending in 2015 to tell women that men are their “source” and should face them during sex.
“No, no, no,” he tells me. “He was a living being she came from. He came from dust,” he says in an effort to explain why it is the woman who is, in fact, in the role of superiority.
I press Friedman on the issue of intercourse position—because, apparently, I am a glutton for punishment.
He suggests I am focusing too much on the physical logistics. “It’s not top and bottom. That’s not the issue.”
Seconds later, he seems to contradict himself by stating the importance of the sexual positioning.
“The woman’s position is superior. She’s facing up. He’s facing down.”
If positioning doesn’t matter, like he just said, why the need to prove she’s “superior” at all?
But the anachronistic messages aren’t confined to discussions of homosexuality or gender norms.
More than the highly confined gender roles, the greatest struggle for modern viewers trying to get on board with The Lost Key may be the premise that sexual pleasure is not essential for a happy marriage.
“Society tries to convince you [that] you can’t go for years without sexual activity. That’s not true. What we can’t live without is intimacy,” Freidman says in the film.
When I question him about the role of pure sexual satisfaction in person, he laughs. “If you want pleasure, eat chocolate.” (He does believe there is a role for sexual experts if a couple is truly not feeling any sense of sexual pleasure on a regular basis.)
What Rabbi Friedman fails to account for is that yes, humans may need intimacy, and we may need intimacy more than we need sex. But at some point, to feel happy and connected with the people we choose to be with, sexual pleasure will have to enter the equation and be a priority.
Whether it’s the existence of homosexuality or the value of sexual pleasure, the failure to acknowledge certain aspects of human sexuality detracts from The Lost Key and Rabbi Friedman’s messages.
That’s a shame because there are certainly some valuable insights contained in The Lost Key.
Perhaps the most compelling is the argument that our notion of romantic love is too flimsy to sustain a long-term relationship.
“We have to disabuse ourselves of the commercial that love will keep us together. No, it won’t,” Friedman says in the movie.
Instead, he sees relationships, and specifically ideal intimacy as a result of some deeper connection that is sustained by more than love.
“To become one with someone is so much more powerful than loving someone. Your spouse is not unique because she is the one you love,” he says when we speak in person. “It changes the love, but intimacy and oneness is so much more for love.”
The pursuit of “maximum pleasure” will apparently lead to disappointment. “Constant pleasure is no pleasure at all,” 18th-century rabbinic sage, the Baal Shem Tov, is quoted as stating.
In that quest to satisfy, “we try to find greater stimulation, a more intense stimulation, an artificial stimulation,” Friedman explains. Of course, as a result, we’re never satisfied and we lose focus on so many other important qualities in people and life.
This point is hardly prudish.
In fact, it is made in Trainwreck when the protagonist expresses concern that her nice boyfriend is good in bed, but not the best she’s been with in her life. “You don’t want the ‘best sex you’ve ever had’ guy,” her sister tells her. “He’s… in jail.”
I never thought I’d connect the words of Rabbi Freidman to Amy Schumer, but it just shows that The Lost Key does offer lessons that can be attractive and useful for those of us navigating the modern dating world.
They are also lessons that can apply to many types of relationships: gay, straight, open, ring or no ring. It’s a shame that so many of these people are effectively turned away before they can glean this insight.
“We can literally change the world one bedroom at the time,” Friedman says at the end of The Lost Key.
What he and his followers fail to realize is that their noble, global aims will only succeed if they stop limiting which bedrooms they enter.