Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Did Jesus Condemn Masturbation? It Appears So (Striking Talmudic Parallels to the Sermon on the Mount)

By Dave Armstrong (10-18-11)

I ran across this argument today in an article bristling with insight, by a Messianic Jew, Reb Yhoshua, entitled, The Oral Torah and the Messianic Jew. In my resulting paper, "Biblical Evidence for the Oral Torah (Hence, by Analogy, Oral Apostolic Tradition)", I noted (from the article) that his teaching on visual lust and on prayer (in the Sermon on the Mount) look to be almost direct citations, or at least strong reflections of the thought, of portions of the Talmud, which was an encapsulation of Jewish traditions: much of which were believed to have been passed down as oral Torah: initially received by Moses on Mt. Sinai, along with the written law.

In the same passage on lust, where a "hand" causing trouble is mentioned, Reb Yhoshua noted that this may very well hearken back to a talmudic injunction that was clearly about masturbation. First, let's look at the passage (RSV):

Matthew 5:28-30 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [29] If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. [30] And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. 

It had never occurred to me in 34 years of committed Christianity, and seeing this passage countless times, to see an indication of masturbation here, but now that someone suggests it, it makes perfect sense. Context is everything. Verse 30 (so I had thought) was moving onto another subject matter (hence I made no connection).


But now it seems more sensible that the topic remains within the general subject of sexuality and marriage, since Jesus continues after this, discussing divorce in the following two verses. A "flow" of 1) lust / adultery, 2) some kind of (unspecified) sin with the hand, and 3) marriage and divorce, doesn't make much sense. What sin with the hand? What would Jesus mean? But the second of three prohibitions referring to masturbation does seem a great deal more plausible in context. Jewish traditional background makes the merely plausible become quite likely. Reb Yhoshua comments (footnote incorporated):

Some, understanding that vv. 27-30 are all teachings on lust, have suggested Jesus condoned castration. Origen, for example, castrated himself to fulfill Jesus’ command.. . . Jesus certainly didn’t mean for his followers to emasculate themselves. G-d forbade the Israelites to subject even their animals to painful castration. (Lev. 22:24) Mention of cutting off one’s hand within the context of a teaching on lustful thoughts and improper glances was simply a quote from the oral Torah, “The hand that frequently touches [the genitals]…in the case of a man, should be cut off.” [Mishnah Nidah 2:1] Jesus was using the same hyperbole with his audience that G-d used with Moses to communicate the sinfulness of masturbation. It is extremely unlikely that he ever intended for any kind of amputation to take place.

An article on "Kosher Sex" at the Judaism 101 website confirms this:

Jewish law clearly prohibits male masturbation. . . . Jewish law . . . forbids any act of ha-sh'cha'tat zerah (destruction of the seed), that is, ejaculation outside of the vagina. In fact, the prohibition is so strict that one passage in the Talmud states, "in the case of a man, the hand that reaches below the navel should be chopped off." (Niddah 13a)
[see a translation of the entirety of Tractate Niddah, 13, from the Babylonian Talmud. It translates the same phrase: "Whosoever puts his hand below his belly that hand shall be cut off" (13b). The same section has the following statement: "It was taught at the school of R. Ishmael, Thou shalt not commit adultery [Ex. XX, 13] implies, Thou shalt not practise masturbation either with hand or with foot."]

With this previous Talmudic terminology and tradition brought to bear on the subject, not just of a hand  "cut off" but also a tie-in of masturbation as a species of adultery absolutely forbidden, it seems clear that Matthew 5:30 was referring to masturbation. Thus, Jesus condemned it in no uncertain terms (virtually making it a variant of the adultery prohibited in the Ten Commandments), while not suggesting a literal amputation (since it was understood in the culture as hyperbole). The strong hyperbolic visual was the ancient Jewish literary way of expressing the thought, "this is really really bad and immoral. Don't do it!"

Moreover, it is another instance of Jesus acknowledging the authority of the original oral Torah, that was later summarized in the Talmud. Jesus observed Pharisaic regulations and teaching (Matthew 23:2); hence He accepted the oral law as a matter of course, and consistently opposed the Sadducees, who denied that an oral law was passed down as a set of traditions: originally received by Moses from God on Mt. Sinai.



Restless Pilgrim said...

Wow...that's definitely food for thought! Once this interpretation has been suggested, it's hard to see any other meaning...

I have a question though...how exactly do we view the Talmud? As containing *some* divine revelation?

Anil Wang said...

I suppose we'd view it the same way we view Calvin and Luther's early writings that correspond to Catholic teaching, namely capturing some Oral Tradition that is now forgotten by modern Calvinist and Lutherans. See http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/06/how-john-calvin-made-me-a-catholic/ for one such example.

Mercury said...

I think it'd be dangerous viewing the Talmud as containing *some* divine revelation, wouldn't it? It's filled with all kinds of restrictions and stories that Christians either don't have to or must not follow (the intricate laws on sexuality and menstruation, for example - a man may not even touch his wife for several days). Rather, I think we would just have to look at the idea of oral tradition supplementing the Torah as similar to Apostolic Tradition supplementing Scripture ... am I right?

Also, Dave, sorry to be graphic, but do you think Orthodox Jews have severe restrictions on foreplay and the like? Moralists are unanimous in saying that spouses can stimulate themselves and each other in the build-up to the marriage act. Here's Fr. Hardon, for example:

"Husband and wife are allowed everything that is necessary or useful or pleasing regarding intercourse, even for experiencing fully the pleasure attached to it, and then neither party can sin in looking at, touching or acting in any other way towards his own or his spouse's body."


So clearly, for Christians (and for everyone), what is immoral is self-stimulation with the intention to ejaculate externally - in the same way, onanism in the Biblical sense is immoral. The obejctive question is not how it's done, so to speak, but how it ends (and moralists go into great detail about how old folks may need to do all kinds of stuff to "make it happen").

I just imagine that Jews have all kinds of burdensome restrictions placed on them w/r to marital intimacy - such as the laws I mentioned above.

Maroun said...

Hi Dave .
If the hand in Matthew 5:28-30,could be about masturbation , then could the eye also mean looking at things which are not decent?(pornography and the like?)
Thanks and GBU

infanttheology said...

What I had always thought!

Dave Armstrong said...

We view the Talmud as representative of authentic Jewish (originally oral) tradition, and traditional interpretation of the Torah. We can't classify it as revelation per se; yet it likely preserves portions of what was once revelation, if we believe that God gave Moses oral law as well as written.

Dave Armstrong said...

do you think Orthodox Jews have severe restrictions on foreplay and the like?

I have no idea.

Dave Armstrong said...

then could the eye also mean looking at things which are not decent?

I think it is a straightforward application: lust could be towards an actual woman or a picture of one. If it all starts in the thoughts and imagination, then it is almost irrelevant which one it is. It's an internal progression of thought and intent.

7kids6dice1gamerdad said...


Mercury said...

Yes, but if the Talmud represents the "oral Torah" as reveled to God by Moses, then shouldn't we think God was serious about all those dietary and ritual distinctions - i.e. the laws about menstruation, sabbath restrictions, etc.?

I'm not asking this facetiously, only asking how, if it is true that the Talmud represents any actual revelation, it is non-binding on non-Jews. And if not, then why does God have all kinds of laws the Jews are restricted to (and they think he cares VERY much about), and others aren't?

Mercury said...

I mean, why give all those intricate and detailed laws in the Torah and the Talmud if He didn't intend for them to be binding? Jews look at our "well, those were ritual, not moral laws" as dishonest.

Dave Armstrong said...

The question of how the law applies to Christians is far too involved to delve into. I'm too busy at the moment. Perhaps someone else will give it a stab.

In the present case, it is clear that Jesus accepted some measure of authority of the Talmud and the oral tradition it codified, by following its teaching so closely (almost directly quoting it).

Jim Paton said...

Great post Dave.

The argument for masturbation is a bit like the one made for contraception. I am sure you had one on here a while back were someone was arguing in favor of masturbation.

Let me know what you think of this: I think the whole thing stinks of Deism - aside from being relativist. Think about it, if there is no Scriptural evidence for or against both (or so Protestants argue) then what this amounts to is not knowing God's will in certain areas of one's life. God has left this area blank. It leaves one with a kind of do what you want mentality because God sits up on high ignoring masturbaters and contraceptors simply on the basis that there is no Scriptural evidence for or against them "What does God say about these things? Eh, don't know but he'll forgive you anyway" Sheer insanity!

Now, I can't bring myself to believe that there is one area in my life were God does not have a say. This for me is the biggest argument against Protestantism as a system because it cannot tell me if God has a say when it should.

Dave Armstrong said...

I think there is enough biblical indication, once all the relevant passages are considered together. The anti-masturbation argument is quite a bit stronger, if we have Jesus outright condemning it.

Mercury said...

Dave, do you have a good article on this site, or can you recommend one off site?

I'm nothing if not scrupulous a full of worry - I sometimes wonder about this, but all I need to is to be afraid I'll go to hell for stopping in the grocery store on Sunday, doing light work (and I do make it a point to not do my shopping on that day, or working unless I am forced to or really need to help someone else out), etc., or for touching my wife while she's on her period.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Mercury,

The following looks to be a good article on the topic, by Bryan Cross:


Chad Myers said...

Faithful Catholic here... honest question: How does one practice masturbation with the foot? Is this some sort of Jewish euphemism for something else? It sure seems like it.

Dave Armstrong said...

I have no idea. LOL

Patty Bonds said...

May I blog this, Dave? This is great. I wrote on this subject a couple years ago, but this is brilliant!

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Patty,

Of course. All my writings are intended to be spread as far and wide as possible!

Patty Bonds said...

Groovy, thanks.

Jordanes551 said...

How does one practice masturbation with the foot? Is this some sort of Jewish euphemism for something else? It sure seems like it.

I suspect that Rabbi Ishmael used the expression "either with hand or with foot" in order to convey that he was closing any possible loophole. In other words, masturbation is a grievous sin even if you don't use you hand -- whatever you use to do it, it's still very bad.

Maroun said...

Hi Dave : could this verse also from the book of wisdom 3:14 , against masturbation?
Wis.3:14 So also the eunuch whose hand wrought no misdeed, who held no wicked thoughts against the LORD - For he shall be given fidelity's choice reward and a more gratifying heritage in the LORD'S temple.

Dave Armstrong said...

I would guess, probably not, but maybe!