After a One-Month Break, “The Joy of Text” Discusses Much-Awaited Topic
After a one-month break from its regular monthly podcast, “The Joy of Text” returned last month with a much-awaited topic. Having come up in multiple previous episodes, [male] masturbation was finally discussed. After taking its first month off since it began in January, the October episode of “The Joy of Text” was also the first full episode in three months, with the previous episode, in August, being a mini-episode.
As was typical for the series, for the conversation, Rabbi Dov Linzer provided perspectives from halakhah while Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus provided perspectives from the medical field. Rabbi Linzer, rather than dive into specifics of the texts or why masturbating is problematic, provided a formalistic overview. While he did mention the story of Onan performing coitus interruptus with Tamar in the book of Genesis, he said that, “The simple sense of those verses, that the sin…wasn’t the actual wasting of seed, in itself, it was not fulfilling his brotherly obligation to his brother’s wife.” However,
The end of the story is that God kills Onan, so that leads to a statement in the גמרא that whoever wastes seed is deserving of death and it quotes this passage from the Torah, from the story of Onan. But, in the Torah, itself, you never really see explicitly that this is a problem and, at most, semen coming out at night leads to some sense of impurity, but the same way a woman who menstruates and a million other things lead to impurity and there’s nothing really halakhically problematic.
One thing that has complicated halakhic conversations about masturbation is that, Rabbi Linzer pointed out,
The Kabbalah says that this is considered the worst sin, worse than any other sin in the world and there’s no repentance, there’s no תשובה, for this sin, although other statements in the Zohar indicate there is תשובה and some later kabbalists even felt that that was a little bit too heavy because תשובה is supposed to work for everything and they try to navigate those two statements. There’s even a statement in the Zohar, I believe, that, for a man who masturbates and who has seminal emission, it’s worse than having sex with a non-Jewish woman; that the very fact that semen is going nowhere is this terrible sin.
As Rabbi Linzer summed up, “The Kabalah is definitely what has added this tremendous, tremendous weight in the cosmic destructiveness of this.”
Dr. Marcus was able to shine some important light on the conversation about the reality of masturbation and the dangers in not doing it:
I can tell you from the people that we see, the men who stop themselves from masturbating, who never masturbate, who stop themselves from ejaculating, do have problems later. That’s where I sort of have an issue, because I feel that telling a boy to never masturbate is actually harmful.
One question which arises is the ability for wiggle room, however, Rabbi Linzer put a helpful caution into the conversation: “Before we get to halakhah and talking about ‘Is there some halakhic latitude?’, I think it’s just more important to also just calm everybody down, because the guilt is only counter-productive.” Moving into how such a leniency would work, Rabbi Linzer said that “There definitely is this sort of framework within halakhah to argue that this can be permitted within certain parameters, because we know that it is exactly this question ‘What is defined as לבטלה?’” He goes on to say that
I have heard people that have speculated – although I don’t know if anybody has put it in writing – that maybe we can argue that, given what we know nowadays, in terms of medical science, and given the realities about the age that people are getting married, maybe we can say that a certain amount is not considered לבטלה, a certain frequency is actually something that is healthy for somebody’s sexual development and psychological development and so on. So, that idea is out there, whether people are actually paskening that way or not, I don’t know.
Why it hasn’t been publicly been decided could be because of certain reasons:
That is the halakhic argument to be made. I don’t know if people are aware that that’s the possibility out there, because it’s one of these things that gets talked about in secret, because of these taboos out there and because there has not yet been a case where halakhah has applied it in this type of a context to define the parameters and this type of context, but particularly because of those taboos, people are afraid to go out and be the one to say it.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Linzer said that, despite what various rabbis may be offering, the messages more locally are important:
It seems to me here the bigger issue is how the messages we’re giving at home and at school, which maybe doesn’t require an actual halakhic פסק, maybe if we’re aware that there’s that idea out there, even if nobody’s actually paskened it, we can start communicating a healthier message around this issue.
The featured guest on the show was Dr. Shira Berkovits, JD, who is, amongst other things, a WINGS Youth Consultant for the Department of Synagogue Services at the OU, who helps advise synagogues on various policies, especially concerning abuse. When asked about setting policies, she said that
It’s complicated to put policies in place; it’s a process and it takes a long time, and, sometimes, people will say things like “That’s a lot of effort you’re asking us to invest.” But if you were to ask any youth-serving institution who has had a scandal break out what’s their message, they would say to you, “My God! Put policies in place beforehand, so that you know what to do, how to prevent this, and how to respond if abuse does happen.”
Dr. Marcus also asked her about talking to kids about sex, she said,
A lot of times, parents are very uncomfortable about this, and they’re very uncomfortable talking about sex, generally, but also about abuse and bodies and they’ll tell me, “It’s not appropriate”, “It’s not צניעות”, or “I don’t want to scare my child.” Of course, society is replete with messages about sex, so if you don’t talk to your child about sex, they’re going to hear about it from their peers, the media, or, God forbid, a child molester.
Some of the things parents can talk to kids about, for starters, they need to use anatomically correct terms when talking about bodies and teach their children these terms and it all has to be age appropriate, but there should be some age-appropriate information about bodies and sex. Beyond that, there needs to be a conversation about boundaries and personal space. So, for starters, you want to give express permission for a child to disobey any adult if that adult orders them to do something wrong, to do something that they’re uncomfortable with. And adults need to model respect for children’s boundaries so that children know they’re in charge of the physical affection they’re receiving. And they need to normalize a child’s right to decline affection.
For the question and answer segment, the question was
I know, in principle, the laws of יחוד, being alone, and נגיעה, touching, apply to members of the opposite sex, but what about two gay members of the same sex? And what about a straight member of one sex and a gay member of the other sex?
Rabbi Linzer began by saying that
Halakhah tends to work in formal categories, so if halakhah says that a man and a woman can’t be in private together, because it might lead to them having sex, then it tends not to distinguish between “Are they attracted to one another? Are they not attracted to one another?” It tends to be a categorical type of a statement.
The rest of the answer is in the podcast 😉