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Sexual Intimacy, Spilling Seed, and the Rationalist-Mystical Divide
When I first began exploring the differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought, my impression was that it related primarily to topics such as interpreting Bereishis and science in the Gemara. I then discovered that it also relates to topics as diverse as shiluach ha-kein, what one can do for someone who has passed away, and the function of Torah study. Slightly to my surprise, I recently discovered that it also relates to the laws of marital intimacy. Topics like this are not easy to discuss in public, but it is important to correct some misconceptions in this area.
Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion In The Marital Bed is a new book by Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, the first in a proposed series entitled Sexuality and Jewish Law: In Search of a Balanced Approach in Torah. (This is not the Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro of Satmar/ Frumteens notoriety, but a different person.) It is a fascinating, though very intricate, discussion of the development of halachah in this area.
The author earned his rabbinic ordination in a Chabad yeshivah, but clearly no longer regards himself as bound to Chabad ideology. This is expressed in his lengthy discussion and rejection of the ancient belief, strongly expressed in chassidic communities in general and Chabad in particular, that a baby's looks and personality are significantly determined by what the parents think about during coitus, by the nature of the coitus, and by what the mother sees during pregnancy. Thus, at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we have received a call from a pregnant woman who wanted to ensure that she could visit without seeing non-kosher animals (alas, this was not possible, and she did not want to risk giving birth to hyena-boy or gator-girl). And in some Chabad chosson/kallah classes, they are taught that during climax, they should visualize the Rebbe. Rabbi Shapiro explains at length why there is no reason for people to fear that their children will be born with congenital defects if they do not follow these notions.
However, the primary focus of the book is to address the history of the halachos of which sexual positions and techniques are permissible within marriage. Rabbi Shapiro demonstrates that the earlier sources, i.e. Chazal and the Rishonim, are far more lenient in this regard than are many later halachists, permitting forms of intercourse which do not lead to pregnancy. He traces the later stringent approach to several factors. One is what appears to be a copyist's interpolation into a manuscript of Rambam's Mishneh Torah, that alternate sexual positions are only permitted if one does not waste seed, which was later incorporated into halachic discussion as being Rambam's own opinion. (Rabbi Shapiro points readers to a 2001 responsum by Rav Yehudah Henkin, Bnei Banim 4:18, which discusses this textual discrepancy at length).
But the primary factor responsible for the change in halachic trends appears to be the Zohar, which strongly condemned the wasting of seed, and the influence of subsequent mystics. This is not to say that all contemporary rabbis of a mystical persuasion follow the Zohar in this area, nor that all those who take a stringent approach are relying on the Zohar. However, it is certainly a significant factor.
The Zohar was not the first source to condemn wasting seed. The Gemara speaks harshly against spilling seed in vain, comparing it to bloodshed. However, the Gemara does not clarify exactly what "in vain" means. Is it "in vain" when it gives pleasure to the wife, or the husband, even if it cannot lead to pregnancy? There are a range of views in the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding this question. For example, Tosafos (Yevamos 34b) quotes Rabbeinu Yitzchak of Dampierre (Ri) who permits occasional intercourse for the sake of sexual fulfillment performed in a way that does not lead to pregnancy. As Shapiro demonstrates, the majority of extant medieval writings that weigh in on the question endorse this approach of Rabbeinu Yitzchak.
But the Zohar goes vastly further than the Gemara in condemning wasting seed, saying that it is worse than any other sin! And it is the view of the Zohar, rather than the Gemara and other Rishonim, which is endorsed by R. Yosef Caro (in Bedek HaBayis, Even HaEzer 25), where he writes that "had Rabbeinu Yitzchak seen the punishment that the Zohar forewarns for the wasting of seed in vain, that it is greater than that of any other sin in the Torah, he would not have written what he did."
However, the status attributed to the Zohar by R. Yosef Caro and other adherents of mysticism was disputed by others. As noted here, for example, Chasam Sofer held that very little of the Zohar was actually written by R. Shimon bar Yochai. Furthermore, as Rabbi Shapiro documents, other halachic authorities were more lenient than R. Caro. And one acharon, R. Shlomo Yehuda Tabak, disputes R. Caro's claim that Rabbeinu Yitzchak would have retracted his view had he seen the Zohar; he argues that the Zohar's severe words about wasting seed apply only to a person whose intent is to avoid having children or who does so constantly. Rabbi Shapiro also suggests that even with R. Caro, his baseline legal opinion may be more lenient. Thus, Rabbi Shapiro concludes, there is far more room to be lenient with regarding to the laws of sexual intimacy than is commonly assumed.
This is, of course, a much-simplified version of Rabbi Shapiro's book, which is a very in-depth work that requires lengthy study. You can purchase it on Amazon at this link, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in these halachos. Rabbi Shapiro also has a website, Sexuality and Jewish Law, with more information and resources on this topic.
Also relating to the topic of wasting seed and the influence of the Zohar, the erudite but anonymous Rationalist Medical Halachist is back in action and has begun a series of posts which you can read at his blog, www.RationalistMedicalHalacha.blogspot.com. He discusses how the Torah's story of the sin of Er and Onan is explained very differently by the Zohar than how it was understood by other Rishonim.
One should not think that Rabbi Shapiro is the only person to advocate for a lenient approach in this area. Rav Eliezer Melamed, whose praises I have sung in a recent post, also takes a relatively lenient approach to the laws of marital relations in his Simchat Habayit U-birchato (see too the companion Harchavot volume). Whereas Rabbi Shapiro's book is an in-depth study of one very particular area of these halachos, Rav Melamed's books are more of a general guide to the halachos of this topic. They are an invaluable resource and would make a good gift for newlyweds who have perhaps not received the best education in chosson/kallah class. (They are also a good gift for people who are not newlyweds, but it's often a little more socially awkward to give such books to people who have been married for a while.)
Interestingly, Rav Melamed downplays this part of the Zohar in a different way than Rabbi Shapiro. Instead of pointing out that there are other halachic authorities who dispute the Zohar's approach in this area, or R. Caro's interpretation of it, he downplays the Zohar itself; not the authenticity of it, but the meaning of it. Rav Melamed says that the fire-and-brimstone expressed by the Zohar against spilling seed in vain is simply an exaggeration. He further points out that the Talmud's severe-sounding comparison of spilling seed to bloodshed is a rhetorical flourish, noting that the Talmud says the same about someone who embarrasses others in public or who does not escort his guests out. As Rabbi Shapiro notes, the same interpretation of such condemnations in the Talmud is given by Rivash, as well as by an early Acharon, Rav Yehoshua Heschel of Krakow, specifically in this context.
The approach of Rivash, Rav Yehoshua Heschel and Rav Melamed stands in sharp contrast to people such as (Rabbi?) Yaron Reuven, a protege of (Rabbi?) Yosef Mizrachi. In a lecture that you can watch on YouTube, Reuven takes the Talmud's comparison of wasting seed to murder very literally. Incorporating the modern scientific revelation that ejaculate contains around 300 million spermatozoa, he rails against teenagers who masturbate, claiming that they are mass-murderers who are killing as many people as the entire population of the United States! Yosef Mizrachi also has a lecture on YouTube in which he presents the "kabbalistic secret" that all the souls in the spermatazoa were supposed to enter this world, but instead are doomed to remain in the netherworld, waiting to confront the teenager after his death and seek revenge. "You have millions of sons now," he says, "and they all hate you!"
Yaron Reuven also boasts that he, Yosef Mizrachi, and another one of their chevra are the only rabbis on the internet who are brave enough to discuss this topic. For the sake of hashkafic and halachic truth, as well as the psychological well-being of countless teenagers whom Reuven condemns to Gehinnom, it's important to counter such extremist presentations of the Zohar. Baruch Hashem for the works of Rav Eliezer Melamed and Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro; let's hope that they receive much publicity.