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.


  1. The Torah says that its a sin. Its a sin to be avoided, and we put up gedarim, such as single sex schools, and when the sin happens, we do our best at teshuva, but its still a sin. Quite a few sins can be rationalized. Why keep kosher anymore? I really don't see where you're going with this.

    1. I am trying to be a rationalist, not a rationalizer. Not sure what keeping Kosher has to do with anything. As far as where I am going, I guess we will see, and you can feel free to judge and comment of course.

    2. Exactly where the does the Torah say masturbation is a sin.
      Please show me the Verse.

  2. When I learned about this prohibition, it was all in the context of the story of Onan. The problem here is that Onan wasn't killed for masturbating, but for premature withdrawal during sex, and specifically in the context of having a divine obligation to give Tamar a child.

    It has always seemed to me that had Onan given Tamar a child, and later "spilled seed" in some other context, he would not have been killed. Which calls into question the traditional understanding of the passage.

    I will be very interested to read the sources you are able to bring forward in your articles.

  3. רע בעיני ה': כרעתו של אונן משחית זרעו, שנאמר באונן (פסוק י) וימת גם אותו, כמיתתו של ער מיתתו של אונן, ולמה היה ער משחית זרעו, כדי שלא תתעבר ויכחיש יפיה:

  4. I just hope that your talk about "reasonable guidance" and "normal" teenagers and "scientific and responsible" information does not mean that you will be suggesting that we lend credence to the current Western societal view that masturbation is harmless and normal. You mention halachists being influenced by their time, but we should also be careful not to be too influenced by our own time. Just because modern doctors and scientists believe masturbation is harmless does not make it so -- they are very biased, and science as it is practiced now is not perfect. Perhaps there is reason to influence students that the mystical view on the effects of masturbation is not something someone is obligated to believe in. But that doesn't mean we should promote the modern hedonist notion that there's nothing wrong with masturbation (or that refraining from it is physically or psychological harmful, chas v'shalom). It is still a sin and as with any sin, like Kashrut or Shabbat, all we know about the punishments are from our sages.

    1. For starters, thank you for your valid points. To be 100% honest, I don't really have anything specific in mind when I say "reasonable guidance'. I know that there will be many versions of different reasonable approaches that will vary across the spectrum depending on many factors. I am not a social psychologist, nor am I a mental health care professional or even a high school teacher. The ONLY thing I do absolutely have in mind is that any counseling should be based on reality, real truth to the Torah, and to the best of our abilities, science. I will leave it to the experts to decide how to counsel our youth. I will have to take care of my own children of course, but I am not developing public policy. I won't mind of course if my words do influence public policy, hopefully for the better.