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.