ויאמר יהודה לאונן, בא אשת אחיך ויבם אתה. והקם זרע לאחיך. וידע אונן, כי לא לו יהיה הזרע והיה אם בא אל אשת אחיו, ושחת ארצה, לבלתי נתן זרע אחיו. וירע בעיני הי אשר עשה. וימת גם אתו.
Judah said to Onan, "Go in unto your brother's wife, and perform the rite of a levirate, and raise up progeny for your brother." Now Onan knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when we came to consort with his brother's wife, he wasted his seed in order to not give seed to his brother. What he [Onan] did was evil in G-d's eyes, and G-d put Onan to death. -Genesis 38:8-10
Under normal circumstances, it is forbidden for a man to have sex with his brother's wife (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). However, an exception is made when the married brother dies without a male heir. If this happens, the man is obligated to marry the brother's wife in what is known as levirate marriage, or yibbum [ייבום] (Deuteronomy 25:5). In the Deuteronomic passage, there is a ceremony called chalitzah [חליצה] that allows for the two to get out of levirate marriage if they so desire (Deuteronomy 25:7-9). The above passage in Genesis is not simply the first documented levirate marriage in Judaism, but it also the passage traditionally used to justify Judaism's traditionalist stance against male masturbation.
The topic of male masturbation is one I would like to cover today, particularly given the passage in this week's Torah passage. As a caveat, I will cover male masturbation only because a) the vast majority of Jewish law discusses male masturbation, and b) only men are obligated under Jewish law to procreate, the discourse here will focus on male masturbation. I will start with covering the biblical basis for this prohibition, followed by the rabbinic to see how much of the texts withstand scrutiny.
The only biblical text that has been traditionally used to justify a prohibition on male masturbation is the passage cited earlier in Genesis 38. The first glaring issue with this passage is that there is no indication of masturbation whatsoever, let alone an explicit prohibition of masturbation. What happened in the passage is that they entered in levirate marriage in Verse 8 (ויבם אתה). Jumping to Verse 9, whenever Onan joined with his brother's wife (והיה אם בא אל אשת אחיו), he made sure to spill his seed outside of Tamar, or as the literal Hebrew says, "he let it spoil on the ground" (ושחת ארצה). Verse 9 ends by saying that upon doing that, he did it in order to "not provide offspring for his brother" (לבלתי נתן זרע אחיו). In Verse 10, G-d was displeased and took Onan's life.
Aside from not mentioning masturbation in the passage, what the passage does describe is a case of coitus interruptus, which is what the verse meant by "he let it spoil on the ground." Onan pulled his penis out of Tamar's vagina prior to ejaculation and subsequently ejaculated away from her to avoid impregnating Tamar. Coitus interruptus is the action the biblical verse describing, not masturbation (Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 55:5-6; Rashi's commentary on Genesis 38:9).
Now that we know what Onan did, we can get into why he performed coitus interruptus. What was his motivation for such an action in the first place? The verse itself provides two pieces of the puzzle. The first piece is that Verse 9 states that he knew that the progeny would not be his (וידע אונן, כי לא לו יהיה הזרע). There was no requirement to name the son of such a union after the dead brother (see Genesis 38:29-30 and Ruth 4:5, 10, 17). Nevertheless, the living brother became the surrogate for the child. The deceased husband posthumously gained a child through social acknowledgment as a result of this practice, which is why Onan realized that the son would not be considered his. The second piece is later in the Verse, where it states that he performed coitus interruptus so that he did "not provide offspring for his brother." The verse does not tell us why Onan would not want to provide offspring his brother, which is why rabbinic commentary has to fill in the blanks here:
- Committing incest: Onan evaded his responsibility of impregnating Tamar that was part of the levirate marriage. By avoiding that responsibility, he was effectively committing the major legal violation of incest, which would explain why G-d punished Onan the way He did (JPS Commentary).
- Greed and Avarice: Money talks, and I don't think this situation was an exception. Upon the death of Onan's brother, Er, Onan would inherit one-half of his father's estate. This inheritance would be diminished if he provided an heir for his brother because the child would receive part of the inheritance (Onkelos; JPS Commentary). Given the socio-legal nature of inheritance law at the time (e.g., Talmud Yevamot 40a), this explanation falls within the realm of plausibility.
- Other Forms of Selfishness: Selfishness potentially plays a role here. One rabbinic explanation is that Onan did not want to raise children (Josef ben Yitzchak Bechor Shor, Genesis 38:9). Another is that because the offspring would not legally be considered Onan's, he is being selfish because he wants credit for the progeny. By not wanting to give credit to Er (Genesis 38:9), Onan dishonored the memory of his deceased brother by showing a lack of familial duty by not going through with the levirate marriage (R. Michael Samuel).
- Sexual Exploitation: The fact that Onan wanted all the privileges and none of the responsibilities translates into sexual exploitation. How so? While it treated women as part of an economic transaction, levirate marriage was an institution that also helped by providing women economic support and a livelihood in a time where it was nigh impossible for a woman to be economically independent. Even in an arrangement that offers the woman certain guarantees and protections, it still allows for men to take advantage. In the Talmud (Yevamot 34b), it states that both Er and Onan committed the same sin. Onan wanted to have sex with Tamar without taking on the responsibilities of levitate marriage. According to Rashi, Er performed coitus interruptus because he didn't want the process of pregnancy to mess with Tamar's physical beauty. Not only were both men avoiding the mitzvah of procreation, but they were also treating women as sexual objects within the letter of the law. Let's not forget that the Ramban believes that you can still be a scoundrel within the letter of the law (Commentary on Leviticus 19:2). Sexual exploitation is a major motif in the Torah. Whether it is the story of Dinah (Genesis 34), David and Baatsheva (II Samuel 11), or Sodom (Genesis 18; Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a), the Bible shows how sex can be used as a power play for exploitation and domination, which can be part of the problem with Onan's indiscretion.
- Mysticism: Ramban had a more mystical explanation as to why Onan did what he did. For Ramban (Commentary on Genesis 38:9), there was a transmigration of souls, i.e., the child born as a result of the levirate marriage would have the soul of the deceased father. Once Onan realized that the child would be a reincarnation of Er, Onan put a stop to it (Artscroll).
In one respect, it is easier to understand the later rabbinic texts because they are more explicit and emphatic about their stance on male masturbation. The Talmud (Niddah 13a) compares those who masturbate with their hands should have their hands cut off because the wasted seed the man caused makes his hands "full of blood." Going off this commentary, Rashi thought that masturbation was bad enough to have caused the Flood in the Book of Genesis. The Zohar opines that masturbation is the gravest sin in the Torah (even in spite of it not being mentioned in the Torah) because it defiles the soul in this world and in the next (Zohar 1:56b-57a, 188a, 219b), even though this mystic explanation does not provide any substantiation as to how masturbation causes these dire consequences in the cosmic realm. R. Moses de León, who is accredited with being the lead composer of the Zohar, says that anyone who ejaculates "in vain" will fail to see the Face of G-d. Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Issur Biah, 21:18) says that anyone who releases sperm with their hands and wastes it has not only committed a great transgression, but should also be excommunicated. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (151:2) says that it's a severe transgression to sleep on your back or stomach because it can lead to the wasteful emission of seed. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch even goes as far as saying (151:4) that you should not eat foods at supper that would heat up your body and cause you to have an involuntary ejaculation. In short, traditional, post-biblical Jewish texts view masturbation not simply as wrong, but as a major transgression.
What I would like to do here is challenge the traditional concept here, particularly in the concept of waste. But first, in spite of the language of cutting off hands, and defiling your soul and excommunication, this language is not meant to be taken literally, and is instead meant to act as a literary device to not masturbate. As the leading authority on the Shulchan Aruch's Even Ha'Ezer, the Beis Shmuel, states, this is meant to be used as a scare tactic to help men avert sin (S.A., Even Ha'Ezer 23:1).
But let's get back to the idea of wasting seed. The premise behind the traditional prohibition reminds me of the Monty Python sketch "Every Sperm Is Sacred." Any waste of semen is bad, but all the more so if the waste is prevalent. The major point to contend with is that insemination is as messy as it is inefficient. Depending on the ejaculation, you can be releasing anywhere from 30 million to 750 million sperm! You only need one sperm to fertilize an egg, but you release an average of one hundred million. Out of the 100,000,000 sperm ejaculated, only one sperm is successful. The process wastes 99.999999% of all sperm, and that assumes that insemination takes place on the first try. If G-d did not want men to waste seed, why did He create a process that is so inherently inefficient and imprecise? If G-d is truly this concerned with the waste of semen, He has a funny way of showing it. Not only are we not even considering that insemination succeeds the first time or that we're assuming the man isn't shooting blanks, this does not even account for nocturnal emissions, which are involuntary. The average frequency of nocturnal emissions ranges from 3 weeks for 15-year-olds to 5.5 weeks for 40-year-olds. Why would G-d create a no-win situation?
Now that we have established that ejaculation and insemination are messy and inefficient processes, let's segue into some other facts, which are that sperm regenerate and that men can remain fertile even through old age. If you're looking to conceive, maybe it's not the best idea to constantly masturbate since it does take a few weeks for the sperm to regenerate. But saying "it's either procreation or masturbation" is presenting a false dilemma, e.g., Tosafot (Sanhedrin 59b) conflating the prohibition on masturbation with the mitzvah of procreation. You can fulfill the mitzvah of procreation while still have enough sperm for masturbatory purposes.
Even if you want to put the emphasis on procreation, another point to be made is that Judaism does not have the view that sex is strictly procreative in nature. Providing pleasurable sex is also part of Jewish law. As a matter of fact, it is a mitzvah for a man to pleasure his wife (עונה), even if they already have children. More specifically, coitus interruptus is not entirely forbidden under Jewish law. Women can hinder reproduction with inserting a moch [spongy substance] (Yevamot 12b, 100b; Ketubot 39a; Niddah 45a). The Tosafists (Commentary to Yevamot 12b) say that if a relationship requires a form of contraception that results in coitus interruptus, e.g., medical reasons, it is preferable to have coitus interruptus over abstinence, provided it does not have a malicious intent that is similar to that of Onan.
Maimonides has an alternative explanation as to why masturbation is bad: excessive ejaculation is bad for your health (Mishneh Torah, De'ot 4:19). Historically speaking, masturbation has been viewed as a perversion or as a sign of poor health, either mentally or physically. However, it is largely considered a natural and harmless activity, and some experts go as far as saying it actually improves sexual health and relationships.
Just so we can recap, there are a number of explanations as to why Onan's behavior was problematic, none of which had to do with masturbation. Even the rabbinic arguments don't do a particularly job of withstanding scrutiny when one considers the realities of ejaculation and insemination. In short, the arguments don't stick. Conversely, if there is one motif I can derive from the traditional explanations that I think still hold weight is that of sexual excessiveness. According to rabbinic tradition, Er didn't want to mar Tamar's beauty with pregnancy. One of the interpretations of Onan's sin is that he wanted the sex without the obligations. Masturbation could be a symbolism of excess focus on sex, which if we take a broader definition of idolatry being "taking G-d out of the equation" or "making it about us," then this can be construed as idolatry. The lesson here could be to not be so hedonistic as to have your life revolved around or obsessed with sex. This lesson is amplified considering that acting as a scoundrel within the letter of the law was done in G-d's name, which could arguably be a violation of the Third Commandment of "don't take G-d's name in vain."
Maimonides believed in the Golden Mean (שביל הזהב, דרך האמצע). While it was primarily applies to balance of spiritual characteristics, it also applies to the physical realm (Mishneh Torah, De'ot 5:1). If we applied the idea of avoiding gluttony to the topic of masturbation, it would mean that one the one hand, we don't sweep it under the rug. When we make sexual expression a taboo topic, it leads to sexual suppression, which doesn't do Jewish boys and men any favors, or any men, for that matter. One the other hand, our lives shouldn't become obsessed with sex or masturbation. It detracts us from G-d, Torah, Judaism, and more generally, life. How do we adhere to Jewish values while still making sure Jews are sexually healthy human beings? The question does not have an easy answer, but if we are to come up with an answer that reflects the human condition and basic facts about science, then discussion is a key element. Without it, we just continue getting the shaft.