Sunday, April 23, 2017

Am I Really Guilty of Murder?

Please accept my apologies for the long breaks I sometimes need to take between posts.  Pesach, life's necessities, work, and more just get in the way sometimes :-(.  Furthermore, people are constantly sending me new reading material, and of course I have to read it all before I continue to write this blog.  This time I was sidetracked by several books and articles, but most notably by Yaakov Shapiro's book "Halachic Positions" which is plain and simply a spectacular book.  I could not continue to write this blog until I finished it completely. Hence, the long absence, but here I am now, so let's move forward again.

Now that we've analyzed the sugyah in Niddah, it would be appropriate to review the other places in Chazal that discuss issues related to the prohibition of "spilling seed." Specifically, I am going to try to redefine for you what it was that Chazal prohibited, and what the meaning and definitions are of the terms used by Chazal to describe what they believed one may not do.

It is abundantly clear from Chazal, that the prohibition is absolutely not that one may not "spill seed" in a way that cannot potentially lead to pregnancy.  Whatever the nature of the prohibition is, it must be defined differently, and we will be working in future posts to define what is meant by "Hotza'at Zerah L'Vatalah".   In this post I will bring numerous examples throughout the Rabbinic literature that clearly demonstrate that "wasting seed" i.e. ejaculating in a manner that cannot potentially lead to pregnancy, is NOT the true nature of the prohibition.

From here on, I will use the acronym HZLV to refer to the sin that Chazal prohibited.  The reason I will do this, is because I believe that translating it as "wasting" or "spilling" seed causes a huge misunderstanding and is not an accurate translation at all.

Allow me to explain why this is so important.  There is a huge amount of literature that describes the "sin" of masturbation as one of wasting potential life.  We already saw how the Zohar and Chazal compared this sin to murder, and the explanation that many sources have given is because the semen contains the "seed" from which life is born.  Thus, by wasting it, one is "killing" the potential offspring.  As you can imagine, this can be a source of immense consternation to a young Yeshiva bochur who occasionally masturbates due to the normal sexual arousal that happens to a healthy young man from time to time. People like Yosef Mizrachi use this idea to promote guilt, shame, and dangerous misconceptions in videos such as this one on YouTube.

In fact, Chazal could not possibly have believed that HZLV is prohibited because one is killing potential lives.  The comparison to murder has to mean something else entirely.  That is because there many places where Chazal permit or even recommend ejaculation which cannot lead to pregnancy for various purposes.

Just a few examples,

  1. "Biah Shelo Kedarkah" which the overwhelming majority of commentaries understand refers to anal intercourse.  See Nedarim 20a - 20b where it is expressly permitted.
  2. "Letzorech Bedikah" refers to intentionally causing ejaculation in order to examine if a man falls under the Halachic category of a "K'rut Shafchah"  , see Yevamot 76a where it is expressly permitted
  3. Unintentional seminal emission as a positive thing.  See Yoma 88a where it is described as a positive sign if someone has an emission on Yom Kippur.  Although it is clearly referring to an unintentional act, it is inconceivable that Chazal would describe "murder" in such a positive way if indeed "spilling seed" was akin to murder in the way it is often (mis)understood.
There are other examples from the Aggadic literature that also clearly demonstrate that Chazal did not consider any ejaculation that cannot result in pregnancy to be akin to murder in the way it is understood  by many. I will choose not to mention them for the sake of brevity, but if there are enough requests I would be happy to bring more examples. 

If the reason HZLV was prohibited is because one is "killing" potential human beings, I don't believe that anyone can reasonably explain why the above examples were expressly permitted by Chazal. Clearly, something else is involved here.

(Now, I am fully aware that many poskim and commentators over the centuries have taken the approach that HZLV is prohibited and is compared to murder because potential life is being wasted. See Maharal Be'er HaGolah p213-214 for one of many many examples.  I plan on dealing with this at great length in a future post.  Right now, I would like to first be allowed to make the point that this is clearly not exactly what Chazal had in mind, and I will come back to the obvious objections to my claim later, BL'N.)

So far, I have given enough evidence to prove that when Chazal state that HZLV is akin to murder, and they compare those who commit "ni'uf beyad ub'regel" , that they do not mean that it is murder because one is spilling potential life.  So what did they mean? Why did they compare it to murder?  We will investigate that in my next post.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Let's Get Back to Halachic Basics - The Discussion of Wasting Seed and the Halachic Process


Every time I tackle a topic, I always have to find a balance between being both comprehensive, and staying relevant and readable.  Needless to say, there is so much related material that I have to make serious decisions about how to approach each step of this analysis.  The biggest one of course is the one I am about to make, that is the Talmud itself on the subject of Hotza'at Zera Le'Vatalah.  This is going to form the basis of our Halachic analysis, as the Talmud is of course the basis of Halachah.  Everything we say from this point on will somehow have to relate back to the Talmudic discussions which we are about to analyze here.  

I also will have to go out on a dangerous limb and make the following statement of policy.  This statement was reiterated numerous times before on this blog, most especially during my discussion of the treatment of Gentiles on Shabbat.

My statement is as follows.  I am fully aware that often times my analysis will not reflect the analysis and understanding that was made by the majority of commentators and Halachic Decisors over the centuries.  I therefore declare openly that if a reader of this blog will criticize my analysis on the basis of  "most poskim hold ...etc..." then your criticism is valid, and you should probably go to another blog.

On the other hand, if you are interested in a reading of a particular sugyah (topic) that is BOTH halachically valid AND consistent with rationalist principles, then please go ahead and read further here.  That is my goal.  I am trying to look at this sugyah and understand it in a rationalistic AND halachically valid way.  So I will often have to choose and find halachically valid but sometimes minority opinions that will help us understand the sugyah.  It is well known,  and there is significant precedent for deciding halacha according to minority opinions when the need to do so is extenuating. I will freely admit that I believe that these are extenuating circumstances that require us to find a Halachic path that is both halachically acceptable AND Rationalist.

If you want to know what the principles of Rationalist Medical Halacha are, please refer back to the first post of this blog, where I laid out the five principles of RMH.

Now, let us begin.  The most important reference to the issue of masturbation in the Gemara is in Massechet Niddah 13a-13b.

The text is too long to quote here, so I very strongly recommend that you go get yourself a gemara, and learn the sugyah yourself before you read any further.  If you are finished reading, or if you are such a BAKI B'Shas that you already know the daf by heart, or if you are willing to trust my admittedly very rushed and inadequate summary, go ahead and read further.

Here is my summary of the sugyah.

First, the mishna states that a man who "checks himself" too often should "have his hand cut off" (obviously not literally .. but that it is a bad habit).  The gemara then explains that since a man is "sensitive" he shouldn't check because it may lead to arousal.  The gemara then explains that under certain circumstances it would be OK, like to use a cloth or other item to check himself or clean himself.

The second part of the sugyah records a discussion between Rabbi Eliezer and the Chachamim.  Rabbi Eliezer stated that anyone who holds his male organ is bringing a "mabul" to the world.  The assumption is that it will lead to spilling seed and this was one of the sins of the generation of the flood. The chachamim were concerned that someone really should hold his penis while urinating because if he didn't his urine would spray wildly and people would think he was a "K'Rut Shafcha" meaning that his urethra was damaged and therefore they would suspect that his children were not really his own, as a Krut Shafcha cannot father children.  Rabbi Eliezer felt that it would be better to cast aspersions on his children then to do such a terrible sin as to potentially cause himself to have an erection which may lead to committing the sin of spilling seed.

The gemara goes on to qualify this prohibition of Rabbi Eliezer by bringing some examples where holding oneself would be permitted.  These examples would be cases where one is near his teacher, standing in a high place where he needs to maintain his balance, or a person who has sufficient fear of heaven that he doesn't need to be worried about stimulating himself.  The gemara also states that it does not refer to a married man, because even if he did become stimulated, he has permissible ways to relieve his sexual urges, and only refers to holding oneself at the tip of the penis but not the shaft.

The gemara brings several statements about the extreme severity of this sin, comparing it to the "big sins of idolatry and  murder and states that one who commits this sin deserves the death penalty.

The last segment of the gemara (mostly on 13b) continues to bring more related admonishments, criticizing one who intentionally arouses oneself to the point of getting an erection, and it describes how the Yetzer Harah works, first he gets you to arouse yourself, and then eventually he gets you to commit more egregious sins.  The gemara continues to criticize those people who "Commit adultery with hands and feet" and those people who "play with children".

This gemara is the most explicit and most important source for the idea that spilling seed is a sin and a severe one at that.  So please learn through it carefully on your own.

On page 82 of the thesis of Shilo Pachter, that I have mentioned several times, he begins a lengthy analysis of the opinion of the Rambam and how the Rambam interprets this Gemara.  One of our readers has brought to my attention that though I have been referring to Shilo as a "she" that was because I do not know him personally and the only other "Shilo" that I know is a woman.  Shilo is actually a man, so I apologize for this mistake.  Thank God, I live in a time when I have read enough extremely erudite and insightful Halachic analyses written by women that I could easily make the mistake of assuming that the writer of this incredible thesis could have been a woman as well as a man.  Blessed are we who have arrived at this point in history.

Without quoting all of the lengthy passages of the Rambam (I will gladly provide anyone who asks with the full thesis of Shilo Pachter, just send me an email and I will send it to you), I will summarize the approach of the Rambam.  The Rambam includes the laws of "spilling seed" among the laws meant to keep one away from from committing the worse sins of actual adultry and forbidden sexual relationships.  According to the Rambam, there are two problems with "spilling seed".  One problem is that it may be a method of preventing one from fulfilling the mitzvah of procreation.  This was the sin of Er and Onan, who purposely spilled seed in order to prevent their wife from conceiving a child. The second is that by arousing oneself to the point of masturbation, one brings himself closer to committing the deed of actual forbidden relationships.  When one is married and when it does not interfere with the mitzvah of procreation, there would then be no prohibition against types of sexual activities that do not lead to conception.

The scary pronouncements regarding the sin of spilling seed, are therefore, according to the Rambam, meant to keep us away from unholy activities that potentially lead one to much worse transgressions. They are intended to keep us holy and involved in holier pursuits.  When one looks at the gemara in this way, it all makes a lot of sense.

  1. Not to hold oneself in a way that may arouse you, unless circumstances are such that it is unlikely to lead to arousal
  2. Not to intentionally arouse oneself sexually
  3. Not to intentionally think about sexually arousing thoughts 
  4. Not to commit adultery "with the hand"
  5. not to "play" with children in a sexually arousing way
One who does these things brings him closer to the edge of the prohibited  sexual acts, and creates an environment that can lead toward sin. This explains why this was relevant to the generation of the flood.  It was not the "spilling seed" per say that was the problem, but the unholy environment that was created by their attitude that led to a generation full of immoral behavior.

Most interesting is the interpretation of the Rambam of "committing adultery with the hand and foot".  It has become almost a basic assumption that this refers to masturbation.  This seems to be how most poskim understand this gemara.  By masturbation I mean a person stimulating himself with his own hands in order to reach orgasm and ejaculation.  This however was not at all what how the Rambam understood it.  

The words of the Rambam Pirush HaMishnayot Sanhedrin 7:4 (my translation)
"One who has intercourse with any of the prohibited relations" ..... or if he caresses or touches one of her limbs in order to derive pleasure, regardless of which part of her body he touches for example he rubs himself against her arm or leg. this type of abomination is what the Chachamim referred to as "committing adultery with the hand or foot" 
This is quite different from the "conventional" understanding of "Ni'uf Be'yad" which was so highly condemned by Chazal.  It is very different from what the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh condemned in the quote we brought in the last post.  But it also is so much more accurate of a translation of the language!.  Ni'uf everywhere else has other people involved.  The way the Rambam understood the gemara makes so much sense!  The gemara begins with admonitions not to touch oneself in a way that might cause arousal (even under circumstances that he has no intention of arousing himself as he is only holding himself to urinate), then continues with admonitions not to think arousing thoughts, then continues with admonitions not to intentionally cause oneself to have an erection, then continues to warn that touching a woman (obviously not referring to his spouse!) in a way that causes arousal or even ejaculation is a terrible sin that will often lead to actual intercourse, then continues to warn against touching children in a way that leads to arousal (God forbid).

So we now have a completely different understanding of the sugyah.  The prohibition of "spilling seed" is not an issur in and of itself.  Rather it is a safeguard against getting involved in sins of much worse consequence.  The severe pronouncements about the severity of the sin are meant to scare us away from activities that may lead us down a bad path.  They are not meant literally to say that one who masturbates is actually akin to murder.  There are myriads of examples where Chazal used similar terms to refer to sins as being vastly more horrible then they actually are, and conversely, relatively minor mitzvot that are given way more importance in order to impress upon us how special they are.

How would the Rambam advise a young man who was stimulated sexually by something that he saw, something that he read, something that he dreamt about etc., and then he had an erection and masturbated?  Obviously, I have no right whatsoever to speak on behalf of the Rambam.  However, I would assume that he would advise him to do as the Rambam himself states in Issurei Biah 22:21.  Try to focus your thoughts on holier matters.  Do not ever intentionally arouse yourself. He would then tell him to find a wife so that he can satisfy his sexual urges in a permissible way.  He would certainly not tell him that he is liable for death as a murderer for spilling his seed.

There is so much more to be said of course. However, I am not going to pretend that I have explained the sugyah according to every Rishon and Acharon.  I am only telling you how the Rambam understood the sugyah, and the most readable and rationalistic way of understanding the Gemara.

In my next post, I plan on analyzing several other sugyot in the Talmud that demonstrate that "spilling seed" in and of itself is not a sin, as long as it is not done intentionally to arouse oneself sexually in such a way that may lead to sin.  In other words, not being done in a way that the Rambam would strongly disapprove of.



Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Tum'ah Ve'Taharah" Ritual Uncleanliness and Spilling Seed

Before I begin the topic of today's post, I would like to add a source to illustrate the point I was trying to make in the last post.  If you recall, I developed the idea that the Zohar, and it's interpretation of the Parsha of Onan, became highly influential in how we view the sin of Onan.  This is turn influenced our interpretation of halacha to the extent that the sin of masturbation has become identified with the sin of Onan.  This is true, even though it is quite clear that the sin of Onan was clearly not that he masturbated and spilled seed, but rather that he refused to carry on the name of his brother.

The best example of this is the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.  The Kitzur was one of the most influential works of Halchah of the 19th and 20th century, and acted (and still does) as a practical halcahic guide for generations of Halacha-abiding Jews for generations.  Here are his words (my translation) 150:1
"It is prohibited to waste seed. This sin is more severe than any other sin in the Torah. These (or this refers to:) are those people who commit adultery with their hands and spill their seed for naught. Not only is this a severe prohibition, but the one who does this is excommunicated, and regarding these people it is said "Your hands are filled with blood" and it is as if he is guilty of murder. See what Rashi writes about this is Parshat Veyeshev regarding the story of Er and Onan who died due to this sin. Sometimes, do to this sin, one's children may die when they are young, or they will be ill, or a person will sufffer from poverty."
There is SO much that can be said about this quote, but the points I would like to make are the following.  A practical Halachic work of incredible influence has just taken the theme of our last post full circle.  The sin of both Er and Onan was spilling seed (specifically by masturbation) .  It is akin to murder. One suffers horribly from it. He even interprets Rashi this way, although that is far from clear - as we saw in our last post.  The ultimate source for everything in the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh and the interpretation of the parsha is completely and totally taken from the Zohar.  This clearly and undeniably demonstrates the point I was trying to make.

Now I would like to move on to an area of influence that we are not used to talking about when discussing practical halacha in modern times.  The laws of Tu'mah ve'tahara, or ritual uncleanliness.  Ritual uncleanliness is a concept that was at one time in our history highly influential in the day to day practice of traditional Jews.  Especially during the time of the Bayit Sheni, it was the reason our ancestors, the forebears of what eventually became Halachic Judaism, were called "perushim" or Pharisees in the secular literature.  However, we no longer adhere to these rules, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this blog.  However, there are a few areas where the influence of the laws of Tu'mah ve'tahara are still felt in our days, and our current topic is one of them.

 In Vayikra 15 we have the following three verses (cut and paste from JPS 1917 edition):
"16 And if the flow of seed go out from a man, then he shall bathe all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the evening. 17 And every garment, and every skin, whereon is the flow of seed, shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the even. 18 The woman also with whom a man shall lie carnally, they shall both bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the evening."
The meaning of uncleanliness is a topic which is beyond the scope of this blog, but there are several observations that are very relevant to our discussion here.  First of all, this verse is clearly referring to "seed" that has been ejaculated in any way, both through normal marital intercourse, and through masturbation. Indeed, this "uncleanliness" even extends to the woman who has seed inside her vagina due to normal intercourse.  It is therefore clear that this seed makes one "unclean" even after doing what is traditionally considered a great Mitzvah, an obligation upon every man to procreate and engage in normal sexual activity to enhance his relationship and to satisfy his and his spouses normal sexual needs.  This is similar in many ways to the "uncleanliness" that comes upon a person after engaging in one of the greatest and most holy deeds that one can possibly do, that of taking care of a human body after death.

Why it is that a great mitzvah can bring one to "uncleanliness" is beyond the scope of this article, but it has been the topic of many a sermon over the years.  For our purposes here, as a blog dedicated to Halachic Rationalism, I just want to point out that ritual "uncleanliness" and whether an act is prohibited halachically have very little correlation to each other.  Nonetheless, for whatever reason, in the area of spilling seed, the topic of uncleanliness has had significant influence in making the act of masterbation quite "taboo".

The uncleanliness that the Torah refers to prohibits a Kohen from performing the Avodah, and indeed anyone from entering the Har Habayit.  It prohibits a person from coming into contact with holy items related to service in the Beit HaMikdash.  None of this has relevence in our time, and does not relate to what a person is allowed to do or prohibited from doing.  However, it is well known that Ezra HaSofer decreed that one who is Tameh from spilling seed cannot read from the Torah (Berachot perek 3). It is also well known that this Takanah did not stand and is no longer relevent today (Talmud Berachot 22a, Rambam Hilchot K'riat Shemah 4:8).

None the less, it has become the practice of many Jews, mostly Chassidic Jews, to go to the mikvah every day in order to fulfill the Takanah of Ezra.  It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this custom of going to the mikvah on the overall idea of the prohibition and "uncleanliness" associated with the "emission of seed".  In the mind of most people, one is not only washing away ritual uncleanliness, but one is washing away sin.  This is true despite the fact that the "uncleanliness" is sometimes a result of one of the greatest Mitzvot, and therefore is not at all related to sin and prohibition.

The sifrei Chassidut, and the works of the Mekubalim of Tzefat, often intertwine the issues of tum'ah with the sin of  wasting seed.  At the same time, the special holiness of the marital act is considered something which brings purity and holiness to the world.  One would get the impression from reading these works, that Tum'ah only comes from the "wasting" of seed, and not from normal marital intercourse.  This point was made by Shilo Pachter in the thesis I mentioned in the last post.  She brings the extremely influential source the "Igerret HaKodesh" which served as the basis for almost all Kabbalistic discussions of sexual intinacy that succeeded that work (origin is in the 13th or 14th century and variously attributed to several different Kabbalists).

The point that I would like to make is as follows.  The emphasis of today's Chassidim on takanat Ezra is one of the very few modern remnants of the practice of Tum'ah ve'tahara.  If you combine this with the association of tum'ah as coming from sin that was emphasized by the kabbalists, one gets a sin that carries a huge amount of "metaphysical weight". In the non-rationalistic world of right wing Orthodoxy today, this makes this quite a scary sin!

None of this of course, has any real Halachic weight.  Tum'ah, we have shown quite clearly is not a result of doing prohibited acts. The practice of mikvah in modern times for takanat Ezra, is not Halachically required, and even if it is recommended for some spiritual reason, certainly has nothing to do with the sin of spilling seed (as it would apply to one who engaged in normal marital intercourse as well).

In the next post I hope to begin the Halachic discussion of the origin of this sin as interpreted by the Halchic sources.  This will obviously take a while, so I hope you are ready for a nice ride.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Biblical Sources and the Story of Onan

It is always a challenge to figure out where to start when discussing a topic as vast as masturbation in Halachah, so the best approach is to start with the first major verses of the Torah that are relevant to the topic, the story of Onan in the Torah.  This is the first, and most explicit mention of the "destruction of seed" in the Torah, and any search for a biblical source for this prohibition has to start here.

I have found over the years that it is useful to divide any study of a parsha in the Torah into two distinct categories.  There is what I will call "parshanut"  and what I will call "halachic".  I know that many traditional sources like to discuss "pardes"  which divides the meaning of each pasuk into four categories Pshat - the simple meaning, "Remez" - the meanings that are only hinted at but not explicit, "derush" - usually moral messages one can derive from the verse, and "sod" - usually referring to hidden kabbalistic meanings.  However, I find that it is more useful to lump all of those four categories into one and call it "parshanut".  

Parshanut in my scheme refers to the entire body of literature that studies and explains the pasuk.  This encompasses a huge range of styles, traditions, and methods.  The range includes all the way from Lurianic Kabbalah to Rationalistic Rishonim to scientific and historical scholarship.

Halachic refers specifically to how a pasuk is used to derive practical Halachah.  This generally follows the familiar accepted pattern from the Talmudic interpretations to the rishonim, Rambam, acharonim, Tur, Shulchan  Aruch, poskim, she'elot v'teshuvot etc...

I am going to start with an analysis of the "parsha" of Onan from a parshanut perspective.  Obviously, it would be impossible to do a comprehensive treatment of this (or any) parsha in the Torah on this blog in a post like this.  However, I do hope to give a general taste of how this parsha has been and can be interpreted and explained from several major vantage points.  I will start of course, with basic p'shat.  By "p'shat" one means a simple reading of the text, according to the principle "ein mikrah yotzey midey peshuto".

The best treatment I have ever seen of this parsha from a "p'shat" perspective is found in the doctoral thesis of Shilo Pachter entitled "Shemirat HaBrit" and submitted December 2006.  I don't have an online link to this paper, which is recommended reading for anyone who wants to research this topic, but I can send a copy of her paper to anyone interested by email, so feel free to request it.

To summarize her approach, a reading of the parsha makes it clear that the Torah is trying to emphasize the importance of the continuation and perpetuation of the family's lineage.  The sin of Onan was clearly, according to the pasuk, due to the fact that he did not want to contribute to the perpetuation of his deceased brother's name.  He therefore "spilled his seed" instead of allowing Tamar to become pregnant.  The rest of the parsha continues with this theme, and demonstrates how God's plan to bring forth the future Kings of Israel, and indeed the Moshiach himself, continued through Yehuda and Tamar.  The sin of Onan then, according to p'shat, was that he did not want to do his part in the continuation of his family's name and mission.

Next I would like to mention the Kabbalistic approach to this parsha,  In this analysis, I do believe that this approach is particularly important.  That is because I believe that the influence of Kabbalah upon the development of the halachic approach to masturbation has been very influential.  As we continue to delve into this subject, I hope to demonstrate this.

The Kabbalistic approach obviously has gone through many iterations over the years, Lurianic Kabbalah, Hassidic approaches (both Chabad and "non-Chabad"), and other schools of Kabbalah.  However, they all begin with the foundation text of the Kabbalah, the Zohar.  So I will bring here my own translation of the Zohar's words on this parsha. By no means do I pretend to think that this constitutes anything close to a full analysis of the parsha of Onan in Kabbalistic sources.  However, I do believe that it will be exceedingly clear from the "get-go" how the Zohar, and almost all Kabbalistic works that follow on its heels, view the meaning of the sin of Onan. Here is my translation:
"Genesis 38:10 "and it was evil in the eyes of God, that which he (Onan) had done, and God killed him as well" ... and come and see, among all of the sins that one can contaminate himself with in this world, this sin is the one with which a person can contaminate himself the most, both in this world, and in the next world. One who spills his seed for waste,  and draws out his seed with his hand or leg and contaminates himself with it. as it states (Tehillim 5:5) "For you are not a God that desires wickedness, and evil does not reside with You" Therefore, such a person will never merit to see the "Atik Yomin" (the presence of God that the righteous will see in the next world), As it is written here "Evil does not reside with You" and it also states here that (Genesis 38:7) "and Er the first born of Yehuda was Evil in the eyes of God (here the Zohar is making the assumption that the sin of Er was the same as the sin of his younger brother Onan - which the Torah does not explicitly state, but the Zohar - and the Talmud as well as we shall see - make this assumption - RMH).  Regarding this it is also written, (Yeshayahu 1:15)  "Your hands are filled with blood"
The Zohar is making several assumptions and assertions that are by no means reflected in the text of the Torah, but it forms the basis of all subsequent Kabbalistically influenced understandings of this parsha.  The Zohar assumes that:

  1. The sin of Onan is the sin of "wasting seed" (as opposed to the sin of not wanting to perpetuate the family name or some other explanation)
  2. The sin of the older brother Er (which is not specified in the Torah) is also the sin of masturbation
The Zohar also makes the following assertions:
  1. The reason for the sin of masturbation is that it is akin to murder
  2. One who is guilty of masturbation has no portion in the World to Come
Needless to say, these assumptions and assertions are quite powerful. For those schools of Judaism that have been heavily influenced by the Zohar, which in many ways includes most of mainstream Halachic Judaism today, this has had a very strong influence on how masturbation is viewed and how the story of Onan is interpreted.

I would like to go back to the subject of P'shat now, but take it a little deeper.  While the Pachter thesis I mentioned takes the approach of an analysis of the text itself, obviously there is a vast and rich heritage of commentators who explain the text according to its simple meaning.  I think it is obvious to anyone who studies the Torah with the traditional commentators that each commentary has an approach that is variously influenced by many factors including, the Talmud. Midrash, Halacha, Various philosophical schools, Kabbalisitic, and other historical factors.  

Most well known and most influential of course is Rashi, who consistently uses the Talmud, Midrash, and Halacha in his explanations of P'shat.  Therefore, in the minds of most of the readers of this blog, Rashi's interpretation of this Parsha remains the most prominent explanation of the lessons of the story of Onan.

To summarize Rashi, the sin of Er was that he did not want his wife's beauty to be tarnished by pregnancy, and he therefore spilled his seed instead of engaging in natural intercourse.  Rashi's source is the Talmud in Yevamot, and we will delve into that later in the blog extensively. This is a classic example of how Rashi uses a Talmudic interpretation for the explanation of the simple meaning of a verse.  Rashi, in his usual fashion, uses the Talmud to explain the plain meaning of the pasuk, even though the pasuk does not explicitly say anything about Tamar's beauty or about Er spilling his seed.

Many other well known commentators follow Rashi's lead when they explain the sin of Er, including the Rashbam and others.  However, notably, the Ramban explicitly points out that the Torah does not specify the sin of Er, thus leaving it open for interpretation. Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and many others focus on the sin of Onan as the desire not to perpetuate his brother's family name, which adheres much closer to the simple meaning of the text. They choose not to discuss the sin of masturbation at all when explaining this parsha, as it is not necessary for the understanding of the text.  The Ramban does go into depth explaining the mystical significnace of the mitzvah of Yibum in perpetuating the brother's family name.  Although he veers deeply into a mystical topic, he still stays within the plain meaning of the text that does indeed mention that Onan sinned in that he did not want to fulfill that commandment.

To summarize, in this post I tried to demonstrate several approaches to the reading of the story of Onan.  I demonstrated that a simple reading of the Torah says nothing about the sin of spilling seed, but that various traditions have superimposed the sin of spilling seed onto the Parsha in order to explain the narrative.  Rashi used the Talmud and Halachic process to explain the story, and the Zohar used its understanding of the sin of spilling seed in order to explain the Parsha. Ramban and Ibn Ezra used the simple meaning of the text and did not use either Talmudic or Medrashic sources in order to understand the text.

I do ask you to be patient as we move through this topic.  There are many other proposed sources for this prohibition which we will encounter as we go through the Halachic analysis, and a halachic anlysis of this parsha is forthcoming.  For those who are familiar with my style, you already know that I will try to leave no stone unturned, but it takes time.  I do sincerely welcome comments, criticisms, etc, as I find them to be a huge source of information, opposing thoughts, and opinions.  What you tell me does influence my thinking greatly as I try to always keep an open mind.

In the next post I plan on discussing the issues of Tum'ah v'tahara - ritual impurity, and its influence on the prohibition of masturbation.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Masturbation and the "Wasting of Seed"

I have received many requests to discuss various topics in Halachah from a rationalist perspective. However, by far and away the most frequent request is to discuss masturbation and the "wasting of seed".  This was at first quite surprising to me, but after thinking about some of the emails and what people were writing, it dawned on me that this is probably one of the most important but least discussed topics that affect Orthodox Jews and their social and emotional well being.

The impact of this issue on the sexual, emotional and social well being of the Orthodox Jewish male, as he grows through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, cannot be overstated.  (I am specifically discussing male masturbation, because this is a Halachic blog, and there is no extensive discussion of female masturbation in the Halachic sources.  It is obviously a very important subject in its own right, but since I am not a sex therapist or a social scientist, I will not be discussing it here). The general impact of this issue on Orthodox society is one that I am not competent to assess, but it must be very significant.  Obviously, the Orthodox male has the same sexual issues as every other human being, Jewish or not, but there are several factors unique to our community that make this a topic that really is appropriate for a blog like this one.  

Factor one.  Orthodox Jewish society shies away from discussing topics of a sexual nature.  Ostensibly, this is often justified by claims that to discuss these issues in public is a violation of the principles of modesty or "tzniut".  This argument has some merit of course, as long as the topic is not ignored and that alternative and more "private" types of guidance  were provided to our youth.  Unfortunately, because these subjects are not discussed in public, there is less guidance available to youth, they are often not aware where to turn to for real advice, and the advice given, in the few cases when it is given is often misinformed, to say the least.  

Factor two.  There is a prohibition against masturbation, at least against male masturbation, the well known halachic prohibition against the "wasting of seed".  When a normal human activity such as masturbation is prohibited, this can be a source of huge guilt and shame for an Orthodox youth that is unfamiliar with normal sexual development, and unaware of where he can turn to for help.  Up to 80% of normal male teenagers masturbate, and even if these numbers were different for Orthodox teens, there is still certainly a large percentage of boys that do. The mass psychological impact of  up to 80% of our children being engaged in an activity that they know from the Torah is a sin is something that must be huge.  I am not a social psychologist.  However, I know from my own experience growing up in this environment, and from the few people that have had the guts to openly discuss it, that this issue is extremely important.

Factor three.  The trend toward a more mystical understanding of our religion and away from a more rationalistic perspective is one that readers of this blog are very familiar with.  Anyone with any familiarity with the topic of masturbation in Jewish literature is surely aware of the association between the severity of the "sin" of masturbation and the mystical sources of Judaism.  While there are clearly mainstream halachic sources for the prohibition (which we will discuss in detail when we get into the primary discussion in this series of posts), the mystical sources take this topic and turn it into one of the major sins with cosmic importance way beyond what mainstream halachah dictates.  This can be a major source of despair for teenagers struggling with the issue, especially since they are also the least equipped to understand and differentiate between real halachah and scary pronouncements in mystical sources.

Factor four.  If you remember way back in the beginning of this blog, I discussed the "historical corruption principle" as one of the five principles of rationalist medical halachah.  This principle is extremely relevant to this discussion. This is because so much of the halachic discourse on masturbation is based on the works of medieval Halachic scholars who were heavily influenced by the beliefs of their time regarding the health "dangers" of "wasting seed".  Understanding this is crucial to any rationalistic discussion of the topic, and we will of course be delving into this in much more detail.  However, today's Orthodox youth are often taught in Yeshiva that a historical analysis that associates the Halachic process with  any sort of connection to current scientific and cultural understanding is nothing short of outright heresy.  As such,  an Orthodox youth will often actually believe that he is destroying his brain and his life force when he masturbates, as this is what the "seforim" say, and he wouldn't be able to understand that these things were often simply in full correspondence with the "scientific" beliefs of the time in which they were written.  This adds to the guilt and consternation of the unfortunate and unguided youth of our day.

Factor five.  The meaning of the idea of Jews being a chosen people is often interpreted today that Jews are somehow intrinsically different from everyone else.  Dr Menachem Kellner has demonstrated in his many scholarly works, that rationalist scholars such as Maimonides had a dramatically different view of the meaning of the Jews being a "chosen people".  However, the belief that Jews are intrinsically different is a prevalent idea in many Orthodox circles today.   This leads to suspicion regarding scientific and cultural writings that some Orthodox youth may on occasion be exposed to.  So the rare Orthodox youth who may happen across an article, or even encounter a therapist or teacher, or health care professional who may offer some reasonable guidance on the subject, this can often be rejected due to these suspicions.

Factor six.  The taboo against reading or seeing secular books and articles, especially those regarding sexual matters, make it less and less likely that an Orthodox youth will ever have the chance to be exposed to responsible writings about normal sexual behavior.  The little sexually related material that an orthodox youth may see will often be inappropriate and misleading, and sometimes simply pornographic and potentially dangerous to his healthy sexual development.  This makes it difficult for the typical "yeshiva boy" to understand what is scientific and responsible, and what is dangerous and unhealthy.

There is more to write in this introductory blog post, but I think I have sufficiently demonstrated why this is a particular problem for an Orthodox Jewish male growing up in today's Orthodox world. I think it is obvious that the sexual health and development of the men in our community has a profound and deep impact on our community's health in general. Because I am not a social scientist, I will choose not to go into detail about the type of impact this has on our society. I hope that you agree with me at least that this is an extremely important subject, and that a rationalistic halachic approach may be  very beneficial to the Rationalist Jew.