No, it wasn’t the department of Religious Studies’ version of an April Fool’s joke. But on April Fool’s Day, as part of the year-long Religion, Culture and Identity series, Rebecca Alpert, a rabbi and professor at Temple University, was welcomed to the College to present her lecture, “Jewish Views of Solitary Sex.”
By “solitary sex,” she meant masturbation.
“I didn’t bring any visual aides for this. I thought I might get arrested for them,” Alpert said. A few nervous chuckles were heard from students, who in the presence of a rabbi, were still trying to pretend they had no idea what masturbation was. However, it quickly became apparent that Alpert wasn’t threatening students with blindness or hairy palms for masturbating. In fact, she was there to promote it.
Beginning with a brief genealogy of the biblical figure Onan, Alpert explained the origins of “solitary sex” found in the Talmud, a written record of Jewish laws, ethics, customs and history. According to ancient Jewish customs, if a family’s oldest son died, it became the responsibility of the younger sons to continue the family blood line by impregnating the dead brother’s wife.
For some “unfathomable” reason, Onan was disturbed by the idea of having a child with his brother’s widow and refused. Alpert expressed her uncertainty over whether he engaged in “coitus interruptus” with the woman, which is not a spell from “Harry Potter,” but the technical term for the highly ineffective birth control method of pulling out, or whether he masturbated to lessen his ability to engage in sexual activity. Somehow, as a result of these ambiguous circumstances, the term “onanism” came to be synonymous with masturbation in the Jewish faith.
“It’s true. Look it up on dictionary.com,” Alpert assured the crowd.
It appears Jewish men have Onan to thank for the subsequent condemnation of masturbation within the faith. It became sinful that a man should “waste his opportunities” for impregnating his wife (or his brother’s wife) on solitary activities. Furthermore, Alpert emphasized that because it is considered a husband’s duty to please his wife sexually in the Jewish faith, masturbation was seen as a distraction from this task.
Taking the pressure off the male audience members, Alpert explained why the same restrictions weren’t placed on women of the time. While a man could lose his hand for “checking himself” down below, women were thought to be incapable of all genital sensations and pleasure, so religious leaders were unconcerned with the practice of “female checking.”
“Boy, they were wrong, huh?” Alpert said amid raucous laughter.
In an attempt to extract a more modern interpretation of these ancient teachings, Alpert drew on three essential Jewish principles in an effort to make a case for the practice of solitary sex. She first emphasized the numerous health and sexual benefits of the practice, which keeps in accordance with the principle of respect and care for one’s self in the Jewish religion. Considering solitary sex is the safest form of sex, Alpert feels that it should become a part of health education, offering hormone-laden adolescents a healthy outlet for their overactive sex drives.
Considering Jews view sex as a pleasurable activity and not just a way to procreate, Alpert feels masturbation can help someone learn what pleases them and enhance the quality of their overall sex life. While the religion still looks down on sex outside of marriage, according to Alpert, “We (Jews) are big fans of sex within marriage: contraceptives, different positions, oral, anal, anything, you name it.” Keeping this belief in mind, masturbation can be integral in enhancing the sexual connection the religion advocates for married couples.
The third principle Alpert touched on was that of the Jewish principle of privacy. Solitary sex is something usually done in private, which should make it sacred, not shameful. She referenced a scene from the movie “Borat,” in which Borat walks in on his friend, Azamat, masturbating to an image of Pamela Anderson, to make her point.
“I think Borat definitely had a right to be angry. It should be a private thing and he liked Pam,” she said.
“She was hilarious, I couldn’t believe it,” Erik Miller, junior psychology major, said. “I had to go for a class, but I probably would have gone anyway because I’m a big fan of masturbation.”