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Late Night With Onan

Or, check yourself before you wreck yourself

Liel Leibovitz
December 19, 2008

Portnoy did it with a milk bottle, a baseball mitt, and a piece of liver. Pee-wee Herman did it in public. Jerry Seinfeld did his best not to do it at all, but couldn’t hold on for very long. I do it frequently, and chances are, dear reader, so do you.

What a bummer, then, especially in these long, cold winter nights, to turn to this week’s parasha and learn that the man whose name is synonymous with self satisfaction, the first masturbating Jew in history, was summarily executed by an unamused God.

Oh, how we’ve wronged Onan. All these years, we’ve seen him as the father of wanton, wicked wanking, judging him sternly for a sin he didn’t commit. All Onan did was spill his seed on the ground, madly trying to shirk the awkward duty of levirate marriage that called upon him to impregnate his dead brother’s wife. Rashi, the original syndicated sex columnist, got it just right, then, when he claimed in his commentary that what Onan the Barbarian gave the world was not masturbation but coitus interruptus, and that his sin lay not in pleasuring himself but in refusing to fulfill his familial obligations.

As Thomas W. Laqueur notes in his brilliant “Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation,” this interpretation, faulting Onan for his social rather than sexual shortcomings, held strongly among rabbinic scholars for centuries, with few, if any, edicts emerging to portray the masturbatory act itself as inherently hurtful or immoral. A similar relaxed attitude was common the world over: As late as the 17th century, the illustrious Samuel Pepys could write about the subject freely and without shame, even noting in his diary one afternoon that while sailing down the Thames on a boat his imagination became so enflamed with the recollection of a young woman he had seen earlier that day that he had “it complete avec la fille . . . without my hand,” achieving the still impressive feat of masturbating while employing nothing but his mind (Saturday Night Live, incidentally, featured a digital short this week on much the same subject).

A century later, however, all that erotic euphoria was sunk in a sea of suspicion, and Onanism—the term was the title of a massively influential anti-masturbatory screed written by a French physician named Samuel Auguste David Tissot”was seen as the height of depravity.

Just how and why that dour shift occurred is the subject of Laqueur’s groundbreaking book. And as is so often the case in exquisitely crafted whodunits, the culprit is no one you might have suspected: Masturbation, Laqueur claims, was a victim of the Enlightenment.

Think about it: When we masturbate, we do so, with few exceptions, in private. We do so while fantasizing about elusive, erotic subjects. And we do so as often as we please, having unfettered access to the instrument of pleasure, our body. No wonder, then, that the logical, rational and social spirit of the Enlightenment reviled an act that is, at its core, solitary, emotional, and unproductive, designed to achieve nothing but fleeting joy. Enlightened luminaries like Adam Smith and David Hume looked at masturbation with abject horror, believing it to be one of the sole things that could craftily avoid the omnipotent regulatory power of the free market. After all, masturbation, in critic Stephen Greenblatt’s elegant pronouncement, is “unstoppable, unconstrained, unproductive, and absolutely free of charge.”

From that point of view, it was no great leap to gradually perceive masturbation not only as a moral failing but a medical one, as well, with earnest doctors now warning that Onanism could cause anything from blindness to death and devising a host of horrible contraption to keep both male and female genitals safely locked away from prying, idle hands.

So how can we save masturbation from its tense tormentors? How do we reverse the perception of masturbation as anathema to our progressive, productive and polite world? How do we redeem Onan? The answer may surprise you: we turn to books.

After all, as Laqueur notes, the furor concerning masturbation welled up just as a brand new literary form, the novel, was first appearing on the scene. And with the birth of the novel, self-satisfaction found its artistic counterpart: Like masturbation, one reads novels alone in one’s room and for no other purpose than to derive sheer pleasure and set one’s imagination free. It is no coincidence, the scholar notes, that Eighteenth Century erotic images of masturbating women often featured an open book nearby, as if the lady photographed was so firmly grasped by the seductive allure of her novel that she had no other choice but to toss the volume aside and immediately reach out for her nether regions.

Being the people of the book, we may discover creative ways to approach masturbation, relieving it from the stigma—naughty at best and sinful at worst—with which it has been afflicted for centuries. Consider the following example: Sitting in his room in Combray as a child, the narrator of Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way” recalls his voyage of self discovery. “With the heroic misgivings of a traveler setting out on a voyage of exploration or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction,” he writes, “faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which for all I knew was deadly—until the moment when a natural trail like that left by a snail smeared the leaves of the flowering currant that drooped around me.”

Here is masturbation in all its glory, natural and familiar and enchanting, private and personal and magical, exploratory and instructive. The next time, then, that we are stirred to satisfy ourselves, let us do so not in haste and not in shame, but as deliberately and slowly and joyously as if we’d just slipped into bed with a great novel. Reading, masturbating, they are ours by right, they are deeply Jewish acts, conduits of passion and imagination, unleashing the creative forces that have defined us as a people for so long. They are our means of discovering ourselves and the world around us. Let us not abandon them.

Still not convinced? Look at it this way, then: as another prominent Jew, Bernard L. Madoff, taught all of us this week, ‘tis far better to screw yourself than to screw the rest of the world.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.