Judaism, Masturbation and Me
My struggle to refrain from self-satisfaction.
A note to readers: This article deals with a sensitive – and important – topic. Reader discretion is advised.
Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kapar says, “Jealousy, desire and honor drive a person from the world” (4:21, Ethics of the Fathers).
The second one, (the original Hebrew word is taivah) can be also be translated as lust. The sexual drive has been described as the single most difficult struggle a person can wrestle with. So naturally as a young, adult, single male such a struggle is on my mind frequently. Growing up non-religious, the struggle was never about holding back such urges. And I never had any qualms or shame about relieving my urges through self-satisfaction. I considered any notions to restrain or resist as puritanical.
But when I read the famous pickup artist book, The Game by Neil Strauss (certainly not religious book by any means), I came across the following:
If you regularly masturbate, you can easily become addicted. This addiction comes in the form of daily regularity that curbs your desire to go out. It also does not allow you to harness your sex drive, which can be used to motivate yourself to work on wealth-building projects.
This was the first time I had heard any secular reason to not masturbate. I filed that notion away and continued on with my life. However, when I started to become religious I gave this concept another thought. I didn’t drink the kool-aid yet, but when I went to Israel on a group trip, I decided to refrain the whole time. During the trip I noticed a healthier connection with women and an added sense of confidence. Resisting this drive, even if only for two weeks, seemed to imbue me with something.
As I became more religious my connection with God grew stronger. But I usually maxed out after a two-week period.
When I returned home, that energy continued. Until I gave in. Instantly the clarity and confidence I had achieved from my trip dissipated. Something had changed. I decided that maybe I should try to give Neil Strauss’s advice a try. Over the next year or so I started curtailing my habit and noticed added focus and drive at work. As I became more religious my connection with God grew stronger. But I usually maxed out after a two-week period. And when I did indulge, it all seemed to go away.
For a time, I resisted looking into what Judaism actually said about masturbation. I was sure it wouldn’t be pleasant and I wasn’t looking forward to any condemnation. But finally, I bit the bullet and looked into the Talmud. What I found was… exactly what I expected. However, I decided to press forward rather than shy away and confronted a Rabbi about how the Talmud could so strongly condemn an act that everyone struggles with.
He pointed me to Kabbalistic teachings, notably about the nature of Yesod, one of the ten sefirot. As with most Hebrew terms, they don’t have perfect English translations. Yesod is the quality of selflessness. But it is also about foundation, which is what the Hebrew word literally means. How are selflessness and foundation connected? Selflessness is the foundation of every relationship. What else is Yesod connected to? The sexual drive. Because the truest expression of that drive is a sexual relationship done for the sake of connection between husband and wife. What is masturbation? The exact opposite of that. It takes the holiness and beauty of intimacy and turns it on its head.
I didn’t love that answer but at the same time, I was seeing real and demonstrative benefits of holding back. So I decided to take the struggle a little more seriously. During Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, I decided to go the whole month, the longest I had ever gone. At the peak of the High Holidays, it was like I was on fire. They say that Rosh Hashanah is about seeing the best possible version of yourself and I was there.
But it’s no easy feat to resist indefinitely. Once you beat the yetzer hara, the part of you that pushes more animalistic drives, it comes back stronger. This created in me a binary mindset. Mindset A: being committed to growth and abstaining, and Mindset B: indulging and facing the reality that I can’t will my feelings away. Over the next months, I tried to get back to what I had on Rosh Hashanah, but never came close.
When Passover arrived, the time of our freedom, I was determined to tap into the holiday’s energy. I wrote down the desires I wanted to be free from and threw it into the fire during the burning of chometz. When I took my first bite of matzah, I imagined the freedom of living in “mindset A”. Did I think I was going to be free of my urges forever? Of course not. But at that point I had a goal to go the entire seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot masturbation-free. I would use the counting of the Omer to raise myself up spiritually like the Jews in the desert. Then at Shavout, I would have an amazing feeling of accomplishment in knowing that I ruled over my desires, my desires didn’t rule over me. And I would tie that to the receiving of the Torah. Who knows where I’d go from there?
Without going into too much detail of the struggle, I’ll just say I managed to go five weeks. Longer than I’ve ever managed to go in my life, but still two weeks shy of my goal. I can look at this as a failure or as an accomplishment. I’m realizing that I’m never going to be a complete master of my sexual desires. I’m not supposed to be. I’m supposed to get married. And believe me, I’m trying, but as long as that’s not happening, I’m in a tricky place.
I’m climbing the ladder and will sometimes fall, but at least I’m on the ladder and shooting for the heights.
There are rabbis and speakers who will say that the Torah has the ability to change your nature. And to some degree I’m sure that is true. But it is a life time of work and I don’t believe you can ever fully uproot a desire. It’s being in the spiritual fight that’s meaningful. I’m climbing the ladder and will sometimes fall, but at least I’m on the ladder and shooting for the heights.
There’s no escaping that fact that when I am in “mindset B”, my connection to God is weaker. I don’t want to pray and when I do, I’m more likely to speed through my prayers. I’m less likely to be authentic in asking for what I want. Why bother? I don’t deserve it!
But then I remembered a teaching someone told me a while back. The first line of the first paragraph of the Shema reads, “And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” There’s an unusual thing about the Hebrew word “all your heart” – it’s spelled with a second beit. The word leiv, heart, normally has just one. The Talmud says that because of the second beit, the word should be translated not as heart, but as hearts. Judaism recognizes that we have two aspects to our character, the yetzer hatov our good inclination, and the yetzer hara, our wicked inclination, and that both of these drives should be devoted to loving God.
I had known this teaching for years and it never really resonated with me. But shortly after falling off my abstinence wagon, I went to pray. As I was getting ready, feeling like it was more of an obligation than something I could connect with, I remembered the two hearts. And then even though I was more identifying with mindset B, I was able to connect, both hearts, unified in prayer.
It was an interesting experience and a very different quality of prayer. It felt like the whole of me was invested. There wasn’t this resentful side of me dragging its feet resisting the process. Even though I wasn’t able to pray with the full intention that I normally do, I was fully at the table.
Yes, it’s a struggle. A struggle that I never expected I’d be okay with taking on. Yet somehow, I am.
So at this point, I have my base of two weeks. I can get to that pretty easily. From there, it’s about knowing I’m capable of more because I’ve done it before. Yes, it’s a struggle. A struggle that I never expected I’d be okay with taking on. Yet somehow, I am. So even though the Talmud gives virtually no leeway in even the occasional indulgence, there is the recognition that no one is perfect. The Torah wasn’t given to angels. But the decision to take on the struggle is something meaningful. And the fact that I’ve grown as much as I have is something to be proud of.