In five installments I’m going to discus:
- 1 – Orthodox Judaism and Sexuality – I did here
- 1a – Orthodox Judaism and Self-Gratification – below
- 2 – Orthodox Judaism and the Two Sexes – later
- 3 – Orthodox Judaism and Transgender – later
- 4 – Orthodox Judaism and Homosexuality – later
Here’s the second part of Orthodox Judaism and Sexuality.
1a – Orthodox Judaism and Self-Gratification
Sorry for a euphemism for masturbation in the title, but I’m not into shocking people, and this is a sensitive subject. And again, I promise not to write anything iffy or vulgar.
At the lecture I gave about sexuality, which I mentioned at the end of the previous part, I addressed only one thing: questions from the audience.
I have a good reason for that. My experience is that it’s quite useless to give lots of information about intimacy and failed intimacy to groups of people who meanly dose off into comparing what they hear with their memories and histories of sexuality. The people who came to the presentation were most happy with my proposal. The lengthiest answer I gave was to the following question — from a guy with a small kipa. Let’s see how much of my answer (which was some half an hour) I can remember or reconstruct and how much I can add to it.
His question was: Is masturbation really so bad? It makes me feel good, relaxes me, it seems emotionally healthy and besides the hint in one story, the Bible says nothing about it. Is it really so bad?
My long 18-fold answer:
a. Judaism teaches that sexuality is a good thing, a Heavenly gift (see part 1) that people need and should have.
b. I became convinced that sexuality’s restrictions that the Sages and Rabbis have formulated are meant to make sex work better for us, not less, and to help us have sex rather than that sex has us.
c. You will never find any Orthodox rabbi who will say that masturbation for men, in general is kosher or half-way kosher. (They may add that for women it would be ill-advised.) Most rabbis and codifiers seem to hold that it is as treif as eating pork and probably worse than that. Forget about finding a rav say that it’s not so bad.
Keeping Shabbat is also barely mentioned in Torah, besides not making a fire, and also with this, violation is as unkosher as it gets. That is what the Rabbis call (Mishnah Chagiga 1:8): as mountains (of Halacha) hanging by a hair (only a hint). The wish is the father of the thought; Jewish law flat-out rejects masturbation for men.
d. There are exceptional situations in which Orthodox rabbis have permitted someone who asked them (no blanket permission) to perform the lesser sin of masturbation as a very very last resort not to commit some even bigger sin at that moment (not as general permission, but in an acute emergency).
For instance, an atypical man who would be unable (meant is unable, which is not just that it would be haaard) to refrain from intimacy with his wife on days that he is forbidden to touch here even pinky to pinky. Such a man should take up deep therapy immediately, because also on permitted days, he’s bound to make a mess of what should be the icing on the cake of their relationship.
e. However, you won’t hear me say that masturbation is so bad, because even if it’s not so good, if we are tempted to masturbate, a condemnation generally will only make us feel bad, which easily would lead to doing it more. Much like saying that smoking kills leads most smokers to feel fear and smoke more. So even if I would speak not so favorably about it, I won’t condemn it harshly, because I’m into helping people live better, not worse lives.
f. Rabbi Nachman from Breslav teaches us to run from feeling bad about ourselves. First of all, our Evil Inclination often portrays mistakes we made as much worse than they were, in order to make us feel down. When we’re down enough, we’re ready for committing any sin in the Book, Heaven forbid. In any case, no matter how wrong it was what we did, run from feeling bad.
I add: a tiny bit of guilt feelings is good — it shows that we are moral beings knowing the difference between good and evil. But any itsy-bitsy more than a tiny bit of guilt: run from it, because feeling so bad will not help you improve. We should strive for improvement from now on, rather than just feel terrible about the past. (There is an important place for feeling terrible remorse and admitting our failures, to clean up our past, but that is best after we have committed ourselves to a better life and compensated people we have harmed.)
g. You may slow down and breath now. I don’t want you to just read on and get all worked up about what I’m going to say next. Relax — your life or happiness are not at stake here. Sorry if you didn’t need this reminder. Some do.
h. I can (and now will) tell you about my therapeutic insights into masturbation. Unfortunately, I’m not trying to or capable of giving a comprehensive overview or deep analysis of what the Sages and the Rabbis teach us about it. So if I say: bad idea, I mean: for our emotional health, not necessarily for our halachic balance sheet.
However, Judaism does acknowledge Reality. We add a Supernatural but we don’t deny the Natural, including Scientific findings. (We might draw a line at their philosophy but not at their discoveries.). Therefore, I believe that proper Jewish Law generally will reflect Sexological findings. I haven’t found much contradiction between the two. Yet, when I say Sexology, I do not mean just any philosophy that specialists or lay people may have about sex.
i. The ins and outs of sexuality can often be understood better by comparing it with eating, with which most people are more familiar from a younger age and which is often less surrounded by taboos.
Eating sugar may give us a boost. Something sweet as dessert can be charming. Yet, eating refined sugar instead of a meal is not so good. It still gives a boost, but after the initial high, we fall even deeper than we were before, because we need a real meal. Now, I will not preach against eating sugar to people who have no access to anything else. They need real food. To tell them that junk food is bad is no help to them.
Comparably, it’s of little use to condemn masturbation to people who have no steady sexual relationship and no friends. They are so lonely that their real psychological problem is the loneliness, more than their misuse of sexuality.
When all is well, sexuality connects us deeply with the person we do that with. Unfortunately, when we do that without another real person present, we connect to nothing, and when the best moment has passed, we feel even more lonely than before. Which makes men want to have sex, which when done in isolation would again make us more lonely — a vicious circle that can only be broken by seeking deep friendships.
So, masturbation makes us more lonely. I don’t think anyone needs that.
j. A major misconception is that masturbation is a good way to practice sex, prepare us for a sexual relationship. It might very well teach us the wrong thing to learn.
Sexuality creates deep bonds between people having sex with each other. That should be done in addition to their deep mutual friendship. Sexuality then becomes part of their reciprocal giving and receiving. (No, a good relationship is not give and take; it is give and receive.)
But masturbation is pure taking. In fact, it has nothing to do with true sex. I love you then becomes a form of I love to take from you. (Just like people who say: I love fish but mean: I love eating fish.) When we approach our sexual partner with a wish to take, we take away any possibility to real sex. Mutual masturbation is not sex. It does not bond but rather makes us more lonely and addicted to continue this futile activity that gives highs but no bonding.
k. Don’t get stressed out now. I’m not condemning you or your life or trying to make you feel bad. Rather, I’m trying to encourage you and teach you how you can improve your no-doubt already great life.
l. Many people, but not all, who masturbate use fantasies or memories, often of people’s body parts or activities that they somehow find titillating. But in a halachic sexual encounter, fantasizing is forbidden! No doubt, Jewish law wants both partners to be present and connect with the other, not with a daydream. Fantasizing about another than the person we have sex with prevents us from bonding with our partner and is halachically strictly forbidden. So also in this, masturbation may teach us an unhelpful thing.
m. Many people, but not all, who masturbate use pornography of some sort (I’ll spare you the details). Pornography has many problems. That doesn’t mean that masturbation without pornography is better; it only means that masturbation with porno are two problems, at least.
Much if not all pornography is produced in ways that take advantage of poor, powerless or greedy people. It often ruins their privacy, dignity (but even more the dignity of the ones using it) and makes them do sexual things that cheapen and ruin their sexuality and make them more addicted and lonely. You don’t want to facilitate and be co-responsible for the creation of this. The best way to uproot this is to stop using it. That also makes it easier for G-d to forgive you for it.
And again, pornography too may teach you a wrong thing about sexuality. It gives totally wrong expectations of what your partner “should” do, look like or sound like. People addicted to it may need to detox before they can start seeing the real flesh-and-blood present partner in front of them to connect with!
Using pornography may enlarge our shame and secrecy, which makes us – again – more lonely. Feeling bad about it doesn’t mean that we should then normalize its use. Rather, we should stop it – and we’ll feel better already.
Using pornography costs precious time and money. Just like quitting smoking frees those up, to stop using porn does the same.
n. Masturbation is often rationalized and justified as a freedom that hurts no one. Above you saw how untrue that can be. It hurts and addicts the person doing it, and that is still besides other ills we mentioned or will mention. How true is what the Sages say (Mishna Avot 6:2, based on Exodus 32:16) that freedom only comes from learning that elevates us!
Our G-d wants us to serve Him for our own good (He doesn’t really need us but boy do we need His instructions) and from our own Free Will. The latter means that we should not be coerced, threatened or shamed into obedience. (But we can entice ourselves with rewards.) So even if masturbation would be the worst sin in the world (but it is not), still, people who do not comply should not be prosecuted or persecuted about it. One of the great things about sex for humans is that is connects two free people very deeply. One can’t force freedom and one cannot enforce it either. (Pornography (see above) can be/should be outlawed because it exploits and hurts people involved.)
o. For the average person it is completely impossible to abstain from sexuality in total, unless … they can be hopeful about having a fulfilling sexual relationship in the near future. So, rather than explaining to ourselves or others how we could “never” refrain from sex altogether, we should put our energies into making friends and telling them to find us a proper spouse.
p.Eating in order to try controlling our fears, loneliness or boredom is a false use of our ability to obtain nutrients. After the first pleasure, we actually will be in worse shape than if we would have done nothing — let alone if we would have properly dealt with our distress (laughing, seeking company, yawning).
Having sex in an attempt to resolve stress or loneliness is similarly an improper deployment of a resource, our capability to deeply connect with another human being. Following the initial satisfaction, we really suffer more than if we just had stayed passive – all the more so if we would have suitably coped with our upsets (crying, seeking company).
q. The more we understand the all the above, the easier it becomes to forgo masturbation completely. In the beginning it might be tough but abstaining will become second nature quickly the more we’ve let it go and the more we focus on combating loneliness and advancing our likelihood of life with a fitting spouse in the near future.
Then we can see that masturbation makes us sex obsessed, rather than the other way around.
r. So the true issue is: how could sexuality work best for me, rather than: what’s so bad about masturbation.
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