Sacred Sperm: The Naked Truth About Judaism’s Prohibition of Masturbation

Documentary director Ori Gruder was inspired by the ‘Master of my domain’ episode of ‘Seinfeld’ to reveal how ultra-Orthodox society deals with the ‘wasting seed’ prohibition.

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Filmmaker Ori Gruder.
Filmmaker Ori Gruder.Credit: David Bacher
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Thirteen years ago, after film director Ori Gruder had adopted a religiously observant lifestyle, he encountered the fierce challenge that religion poses to adolescent boys, and men in general. Gruder, who was already familiar with the religious prohibition on “wasting seed,” was amazed to discover how gravely Judaism viewed the act of masturbation. He realized he had no alternative but to do all he could to atone for his many past sins in that area. In his new documentary film “Sacred Sperm,” he presents a variety of practices he engaged in as penance: “I immersed myself in a mikveh full of ice cubes, fasted a great deal, gave a lot of money to charity, and there is one thing I still make a point to do – every year I go to Mount Hermon and roll in the snow,” he says, as the camera shows him taking off his clothes and rolling naked in the snow as he prays, hoping he will manage to cleanse himself of the impurity.

In his film, which will be screened Tuesday evening at Tel Aviv Cinematheque and three times at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, starting Saturday, Gruder begins an investigation of Judaism’s prohibition on masturbation, and breaks the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the topic in ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) society. He speaks of the difficulty this prohibition poses to unmarried men, speaks with rabbis to clarify the reasons for the prohibition, and asks questions of Haredi men to understand how he ought to educate his son in that context.

For example, he asks a friend, Rabbi Yisrael Aharon Itzkovitch – a Hasid of the Vizhnitz sect and Haredi from birth – whether he has ever seen sperm. “Where am I going to see sperm? Where?” Itzkovitch says with laughter, causing Gruder to wonder, “How can you teach your child if you don’t know what comes out of your body?”

Itzkovitch tells him that the education of children is based, among other things, on the acquisition of habits – first among them the habit never to look at or touch one’s sexual organ. “Why is that? Because the eye sees, and the heart covets, and these are the means for committing the deed,” he says. “A Hasidic boy is taught from a young age to guard himself – in other words, to keep his hands to himself.”

Gruder is surprised to learn that Haredi boys are required to urinate without touching their sexual organs, and that, starting at age 13, every ultra-Orthodox male wears a kind of long, especially wide, underwear that allows him to urinate without touching the penis.

But Gruder also knows all of these things cannot completely prevent what they are supposed to prevent. So, he asks, what about adolescent boys who do everything they are supposed to, and still find themselves with an erection? “They dig their fingernails into their legs, stand on their toes, do relaxation exercises, let it go and move on,” Itzkovitch says, completely naturally. “Is that what they tell you when you’re a teenager?” Gruder asks, surprised. “Deep breathing can also help. Jumping, fast walking,” adds Itzkovitch.

“Sacred Sperm,” which was made with the support of the Channel 8 television channel, had its premiere last December at the Jewish Film Festival, Jerusalem, and has already landed a distribution deal for U.S. movie theaters – an extraordinary accomplishment for an Israeli documentary. Gruder’s identity as an ultra-Orthodox man allows him to look into places Haredi society is in no hurry to expose, his unusual personality pushing him to go out and aim his camera specifically at the most sensitive and vulnerable places that are kept the most quiet in his society. His cinematic talents and secular past, meanwhile, help him translate what he discovers into colloquial secular language and a fascinating cinematic document.

In his film, Gruder spends quite a few minutes in conversations with rabbis who tell him how grave the sin of masturbation is, and how ultra-Orthodox society deals with it in educating children and teenagers – who are required to go against their natural urges in the name of religion. “For me, that is the most important issue of the film and human beings: how we cope with something that does not go according to the laws we were taught,” Gruder tells Haaretz. “Approaching the issue with a whip doesn’t work, and now educators in the Haredi world realize that. Today, the approach is that if someone falls, they shouldn’t hide it but they should come and tell us, because we realize there’s a problem here.”

While Gruder seems completely ultra-Orthodox, and his speech is peppered with quotes from Jewish law and rabbis, his secular past peeps out again and again throughout our conversation, and he makes no attempt to deny it. For example, when he mentions his filmmaking inspirations, he says something surprising. “When I worked on ‘Sacred Sperm,’ I had the episode from ‘Seinfeld’ in my head all the time that I had watched while I was secular – ‘The Contest.’ That’s the episode where they decided that nobody would masturbate and held a competition to see who would win,” Gruder says, smiling.

Gruder, who was born in Herzliya in 1970, took the secular path of army service, followed by a long trip around the world and studying film at Tel Aviv University. He became religiously observant at the age of 30, just two years after he began working in television.

“I had a lack of inner peace,” he recalls. “I couldn’t find rest, I wasn’t calm; something was simmering inside me and I didn’t know how to quiet it down.” The turning point came when he was sent to film something in Uman, Ukraine. “My spirit was very impressed with what I saw there,” he says. “I didn’t know much about Rabbi Nachman, but when I arrived there, I received something very strong that I had been missing in the world I was in: a kind of general feeling of warmth and love of the Jewish people.” [The 18th-century tzaddik is buried in Uman, and his tomb has become the site for an annual pilgrimage by thousands of Hasidim on Rosh Hashanah.]

Scratching an itch

For Gruder, becoming observant put an end to his yearning. “I think that every artist is actually a person who is agitated, expressing outwardly the things that cause him to be agitated,” he says, recalling that after he became observant, he left his job in television, turned down one job offer after another, and devoted himself to religious study. But that tranquillity lasted only for about a year. “The rabbis who guided me realized that at, a certain point, I needed to go back to work because the agitation had come back,” he says. “I’m lucky I had a rabbi who understood me. He told me, ‘Listen, you have to start working again or you won’t be calm.’ I also felt that something was really burning inside me, that I needed something more. So the rabbi told me, ‘You need to go back to working in the field you worked in.’”

That was how Gruder received a heter (religious dispensation) to go back to making movies. Today, he is a Hasid of the Breslav sect, married, the father of six, and lives with his family in Elad, central Israel. All his films deal with subjects connected to religion, Judaism and faith, and are geared toward a secular audience.

He says that choosing to make films specifically for secular audiences is his way of staying in touch with the world he left. “I didn’t break off with any of my friends,” he says. He also kept in touch with producers Galit Benglas and Ido Zukerman, with whom he worked at Zoom Productions; they were the ones who suggested he use his access to the ultra-Orthodox world to propose topics to Channel 8. But when they told him they had received permission to begin filming “Sacred Sperm,” Gruder was scared, far from sure that the rabbis would let him make a film about such a topic. Apprehensive, he asked their opinions, and they warned him that the topic was a modest, complex and complicated one, and he might not find any Haredim who would be willing to talk about it. But they allowed him to make the film.

“In my humble opinion, they allowed it because of the situation today,” he says. “It was impossible to talk about such a topic in the past. But today, Haredi teenagers can find anything by pressing a few buttons, and that changes everything. Since the ultra-Orthodox world is as closed as a hothouse, the moment something gets in that isn’t good, it can spread rapidly and do a lot of damage. I believe the rabbis feel the time has come to put these subjects on the table and talk about them.”

Gruder notes that, over the past few weeks, many Haredim have downloaded the film online, watched it, and it is now going around yeshiva students’ WhatsApp groups like wildfire. “There isn’t a single person in ultra-Orthodox society who hasn’t heard about the film,” he says, adding this is how the film succeeded in bringing another problem to the surface and forcing rabbis to deal with it: The fact that many Haredim consume content from the Internet, despite the absolute prohibition in ultra-Orthodox society against doing so.

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