Masturbation: A Touchy Subject

Though traditional Judaism frowns upon male masturbation, today there may be reasons to be more permissive.

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Ritual Impurity

The first of these concerns accounts for the most common line of reasoning. Exposed semen, in the view of those who take this approach, somehow contaminates the environment and taints its holiness. The sources do not go into great detail as to how or why this happens, but that is because they rely on earlier sources regarding purity.

In the Torah, impurity results whenever there is a loss of elan vitale, of life energy. The extreme case of impurity is therefore a dead body, the most potent source of spreading impurity as "the father of the fathers of impurity" (avi avot ha-tumah). Impurity arises also, however, when bodies deviate in any way from their wholeness. This happens even when what is going on is perfectly normal and natural, such as a woman's menstrual flow or a man's ejaculation.

At that point, the woman or man becomes impure, which means that she or he is unfit to engage in public rituals until a prescribed time has passed and a ritual of ablution, later transformed into immersion in a natural body of water or a specially constructed pool (mikveh), has been fulfilled.

Even though, ironically, the public, ritual disqualifications of men after seminal emission fell into disuse, the initial sense that ejaculation produced impurity persisted, and that undoubtedly undergirds much of the talmudic and medieval horror concerning masturbation.

What is the point behind the Torah's laws of impurity in the first place? One common scholarly theory is that impurity marks the loss of life energy. If that is correct, the medieval concern with masturbation as polluting the man who masturbates (and possibly anyone else who comes into contact with the semen) is simply a ritual expression of the same medical theories expressed in Maimonides' medical language. That is, masturbation is objectionable because it saps the sexual energy of a man and thereby threatens his health and well‑being. That is why the exposed semen and the man himself become impure.

Onanism

While this [impurity] is the primary concern about masturbation expressed in the sources, the mystical tradition in Judaism gave particular emphasis to another objection. In the Bible, Onan is killed by God for "wasting the seed." The act to which this phrase refers is interrupted coitus, but the Jewish mystical tra­dition applied it to masturbation as well.

Taking their cue from this biblical phrase, the mystics asserted that since a man who masturbates prevents the use of that semen for conceiving a child, he is guilty not only of murder but of the murder of his own (potential) children. He is therefore a criminal more reprehensible than any other. On the other hand, ejaculation is prized in heterosexual relations, even in those that do not lead to procreation, and no "murder" is said to take place, nor are the forces of evil enhanced.

The mystics also claimed that even involuntary emissions of semen created demons, which were a danger not only to the man who masturbated but to the entire community. Such notions appear in folk literature as well as in rabbinic mystical texts. Thus the narrator in I.B. Singer's short story, "From the Diary of One Not Born," says: "I was not born. My father, a yeshivah student, sinned as did Onan, and from his seed I was created‑half spirit, half‑demon…I am and I am not."

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.