osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Sensative Topic

Zev pointed me to this interesting piece on the subject of masturbation in Judaism. Link and my response under the cut.

The article.

The author proposes that (a) just about all males masturbate, particularly young ones; (b) masturbation is widely regarded as a terrible sin and deviant act in Orthodox Judaism (citations provided in article); (c) this has the unfortunate effect of traumatizing young men and prompting them to leave the proper derech because they (1) masturbate anyway, and (2) feel awful about it, but (3) can't discuss it with respected halachic authorities.

The piece is thoughtfull and well written. I have only a few caveats.

1) With regard to the strength of the Talmudic injunctions against masturbation (and follow ups in the medieval halachic literature), it helps to be familiar with the literary style. For example, the rabbis of the Talmud explain that one who says the sh'ma standing in the morning and lying down in the evening in order to follow the ruling of Beit Shammi rather than Beit Hillel is worthy of death. One may find similar injunctions against other kinds of conduct that might be considered minor or not easily detected. While I believe the rhetoric is intended to underscore the seriousness with which such things are to be regarded, they are not nearly as monstrous and condemnatory as the author of the article (and, sadly, later Rabbis and moralists) make them.

It is also important to note that masturbation is hardly unique in the matter of sexual coduct so condemned. For example, the Rabbis condemn a man who fantasizes about another woman while having sex with his wife as an adulterer (another practice described as common by sex researchers). They likewise condemn as an adulterer (and therefore worthy of death) one who has sex with his wife while drunk, or takes his wife against her will. As Eliezer Berkovits writes, this has to do with the Rabbinic attitude on sex. That it is not rejected and shunned, but nor is it to be purely physical. Rather, sex (as with any other physical desire and sense) is to be channeled and elevated in accordance with God's instructions. While not making the analogy explicit, Berkovitz's argument is similar to other areas of Judiasm, such as kashrut, where physical senses and desires are channeled and circumscribed, but full enjoyment and fulfillment of these desires within the context of halacha is considered not merely permissible, but encouraged.

2) The context of the condemnation of masturbation is also important. In a society in which life was rigorous, availability of nutritious food spotty, and existence precarious, I'm not sure male masturbation was as frequent simply as a matter of physical capacity. Then add the fact that the Talmud also extolls marraige for men, not merely women, at a relatively early (for us) age and the fact that onset of puberty in this environment would have been later rather than earlier. (the author notes these changes, but not the ideological context)

As a consequence, teenage boys in Talmudic times would have spent little time between sexual awareness and marriage. If one reads mesechet Ketubot, one can see that the Rabbis had a significant concern that, in an era of arranged marraiges and tremendous uncertainty for individual safety and the continued survival of the Jewish people, that married couples should feel affection for one another. In this context, sexual fantasizing and masterbation are not sex substitues or part of sexual development as they are today. They would have been viewed as potential distractions from forming a bond with one's spouse -- to the detriment of the marraige as a whole. Given that Kiddushin tells us that the occassions on which a married woman may demand the sexual attentions of her husband is limited to once a month for laborers in arduous trades, it is perhaps more understandable why the Rabbis would vigorously condemn a practice they saw as "squandering" an opportunity to both enhance the emotional bond of the couple and produce a child.

3) I confess I seem to be in a world of blissful ignorance and self-delusion when it comes to the author's dire prophecies and predictions. The article aslo seems rather high on speculation and low on research as to actual state of affairs among Orthodox boys. Perhaps this has become a more dire issue in the last 20 years or I lived a sheltered life, but I don't see awful crippling guilt manifesting itself all over as the masturbation plague sweeps young men. Nor can I support an approach which encourages the elevation of personal fulfillment and sexual development via masturbation.

Nevertheless, I think the author makes a vaild point with regard to updating sex education in Jewish day schools. At Maimonides, we did not discuss the matter in any depth. Acually, if memory serves, we got sex ed as part of Jewish Philosophy. Setting things in the historical context and ideolgical context would be a wise thing.

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