While male masturbation is unequivocally prohibited under Jewish law, this prohibition often creates serious conflict and guilt in the religious and private lives of young Orthodox men, with serious long-term consequences. In this episode of Intimate Judaism, Rabbi Scott Kahn and Talli Rosenbaum discuss this important topic, and attempt to outline how parents, teachers, and children should navigate the dual tracks of strengthening a commitment to Halacha, while enabling healthy sexual growth and attitudes.
ח וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה לְאוֹנָן בֹּא אֶל אֵשֶׁת אָחִיךָ וְיַבֵּם אֹתָהּ וְהָקֵם זֶרַע לְאָחִיךָ. ט וַיֵּדַע אוֹנָן כִּי לֹּא לוֹ יִהְיֶה הַזָּרַע וְהָיָה אִם בָּא אֶל אֵשֶׁת אָחִיו וְשִׁחֵת אַרְצָה לְבִלְתִּי נְתָן זֶרַע לְאָחִיו. י וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינֵי ה’ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיָּמֶת גַּם אֹתוֹ.
Masechet Nida 13a
…דא”ר יוחנן כל המוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה חייב מיתה שנאמר (בראשית לח, י) וירע בעיני ה’ (את) אשר עשה וימת גם אותו רבי יצחק ורבי אמי אמרי כאילו שופך דמים שנאמר (ישעיהו נז, ה) הנחמים באלים תחת כל עץ רענן שוחטי הילדים בנחלים תחת סעיפי הסלעים אל תקרי שוחטי אלא סוחטי רב אסי אמר כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים כתיב הכא תחת כל עץ רענן וכתיב התם (דברים יב, ב) על ההרים הרמים ותחת כל עץ רענן.
Rambam Hilchot Isurei Biah 21:18
אסור להוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה לפיכך לא יהיה אדם דש מבפנים וזורה מבחוץ ולא ישא קטנה שאינה ראויה לילד אבל אלו שמנאפין ביד ומוציאין שכבת זרע לא די להם שאיסור גדול הוא אלא שהעושה זה בנדוי הוא יושב ועליהם נאמר ידיכם דמים מלאו וכאילו הרג הנפש.
The latter two Halachic sources, which are representative of the common position, make it clear that masturbation is an absolute prohibition.
From a mental health perspective, this prohibition, and the strong language used to condemn this prohibition, can cause difficulties. The normal sexual development of a person includes experimentation with feeling one’s genitals. Ejaculation is seen as part of a process of physical development in adolescence. Moreover, the common emphasis on the prohibition of masturbation has led to excessive guilt, problems in later married life, and rejection of a Torah lifestyle altogether. Some men have decreased self belief that they can regulate themselves around sexuality, leading to behaviors like pornography and extramarital affairs. While the Halacha obviously must be accepted – as Orthodox Jews, we dare not suggest that the Halacha is mistaken – we may need to change the way we teach it to our students and children, so that we avoid the many negative consequences which have resulted from the common methods of education currently used. This is largely because the problems arise more from guilt than from arousal.
One approach is based upon the Torah’s teaching that we must regulate our behaviors and primal urges in all aspects of our lives. Indeed, there are many behaviors that must be regulated, and we need to put into perspective what is healthy and what is normal, alongside the demands of Halacha.
Because of a common tendency to overemphasize the evils of masturbation, If someone struggles with this issue, he likely will label himself as a bad person. Sexuality, in particular, can cause guilt —- from arousal as well as masturbation. We must fight against the tendency towards excessive guilt. A person who violates a prohibition has done just that, and not more than that; he must be taught not to label himself based on any given action. This does not define you, it’s a part of you.
Admittedly, the above Gemara states that if one masturbates, he deserves the death penalty. However, there are also other transgressions that also are liable for death penalty, according to Chazal – including, for example, saying Kriat Shma after midnight (Berachot 4a). The Gemara in that instance openly acknowledges that it is speaking hyperbolically; the same is likely true for masturbation. Acknowledging this does not take away the prohibition; it may, however, help put the prohibition into perspective, thereby alleviating the crushing guilt associated with it. Once it is put into perspective, some of the negative religious and emotional consequences mentioned above can be avoided.
For this reason, avoid shaming boys and using scare techniques. Instead, explain that ejaculation is a normal part of sexual development, AND that the Torah has prohibited it. We don’t justify the action; we put it into a context where it no longer defines the adolescent.
Additionally, once we have removed the excess guilt associated with masturbation, we allow ourselves to have a healthier discussion about it. Just as lashon hara is by all accounts prohibited, yet people generally do not define themselves by it – and its violation generally does not create a sense of crushing guilt – the same can be true for masturbation. Once excess guilt is removed from the equation, the discussion of this prohibition (without denying in any way that it is a prohibition) may proceed in a healthier direction.
The Torah wants couples to relate to one another with mutuality, respect, compassion, and love. Sexuality is a language to create intimacy with one another, and a means to bond. It is not merely an outlet, and a wife is not merely an object. Thus, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the strong language used in the Talmud against masturbation is potentially speaking largely to married men who choose to masturbate rather than having intercourse with their wives. (This may be validated by the fact that the Talmud clearly did not see its primary audience as 18-year-old single boys.) Masturbation is thus the flip side of the selfishness associated with seeing one’s wife as nothing more than an outlet for sexual desire. Rather than using sex as a means to give pleasure to his wife, a husband who masturbates – just like a husband who uses his wife for his own gratification, rather than trying to give her pleasure – is being extraordinarily selfish. This may be a large part of Chazal’s calculus when they expressed the prohibition against masturbation in such strong terms.
We should also teach that masturbation, like most things that we do, is a choice, not a loss of control. We all must take full responsibility for our choices and decisions. This places the individual back in the driver’s seat, and allows him to understand that even if he masturbates, he is doing so because he chooses to do so. He is not the victim of forces he cannot control.
We want to raise our children with balance and moderation. They should be taught that they need to make choices and decisions regarding all types of behaviors.
Sexuality needs to be discussed with children like any other matter within the context of the family’s philosophy. Do not shame children for asking questions. If they are struggling with something, use the discussion as an opportunity to teach and discuss. Help explain what is normal and healthy. You need tools so that you can have these personal talks that demonstrate respect, within the context of your own sexual values.
Keep in mind that if parents don’t talk to their children about sex, children will probably find other outlets in order to answer their questions. These will likely be much more problematic and inaccurate.