Is the Battle of Our Generation Over?
Yeshiva University has many mysterious clubs: the Rowing Club — where exactly do they row? — the Yiddish Club — have you ever heard anyone speaking Yiddish on campus? — and the Civil Air Patrol club — is that why there are so many helicopters around campus? However, perhaps no club has spawned more informal conversation than the Kedushas Yisroel chabura.
Formerly known as the Kedushas Habris chabura, the Kedushas Yisroel chabura has been active on the Wilf Campus for around two years, with its purpose being to discuss the Jewish prohibition of male masturbation. However, the chabura did not start at YU. Its origins can be traced back to Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion (Mevaseret). In the 2012-2013 yeshiva cycle, word spread that a student in Mevaseret had been abstinent from masturbation for a few years. Students became curious as to how he accomplished this, so he started a semi-formal chabura where he discussed his mindset and approach to the issue. The following year, a different shana bet student decided to take over, giving the chabura a more formal style with different speakers — usually rabbis from Mevaseret but some other yeshivot as well — every week, and it has continued this way ever since. Eventually, another Mevaseret alum, Eli Friedman, brought the chabura to the Wilf Campus.
The YU edition of the chabura for the Fall 2018 semester usually ran roughly once a week, for around 30 minutes per each chabura between 5:45 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., in the Rubin Shul or the Sephardic Beit Midrash in Morgenstern Hall. Of the seven sessions I attended this past fall, the chabura averaged around 22 people per week, with a maximum of 34 attendees and a minimum of 17. While no doubt some people attended the chabura for the free pizza — which was served every week and advertised on every flier and ystud (YU’s male undergraduate listserv) related to the club— most people stayed in the room for the entire session, with a maximum of four people leaving one particular chabura early. The meetings attracted students from all five corners of the Wilf Campus, with students from YP, BMP, IBC, JSS and Makor — a program for young men with intellectual disabilities — all represented among the attendees. Not everyone came to every meeting; new faces appeared every week, while others disappeared for a few meetings before coming back for another.
While many students have heard of the chabura and are aware that it deals with male masturbation, very few seem to know what actually happens when the group meets. Ask any student on the Wilf Campus about the chabura and they will most likely claim that it is either a masturbation support group modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous or an intense mussar session where a rabbi yells at you for 30 minutes about how you are murdering future members of am Yisroel. However, this is far from the truth.
Speakers at each meeting varied, from Eli Friedman to YU roshei yeshiva such as Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen and Rabbi Hershel Reichman. However, the topic was almost always the same. Rather than focusing on masturbation and pornography itself, the speakers gave light mussar about general spiritual improvement. Ideas and anecdotes regarding overcoming obstacles and setting realistic goals came up frequently, and the speakers encouraged students to get back up when they spiritually fell and to understand that they are not defined only by their actions. Students rarely spoke at these chaburot and, when they did, it was always a clarification for a source or statement. No personal stories, experiences or ideas were shared from students.
That is not to say that the topic of masturbation never came up. When he first introduced the purpose of the chabura, Eli Friedman explained that his goal was to bring the topic and struggle of masturbation “out into an open dialogue” and remove the sense of “taboo” from the topic.
Friedman stressed in the second session of semester that many people deal with this issue and that it is a "normal" struggle. He explained that every second is a “battlefield” and that even stopping for 30 seconds before committing the act to think about it is a victory.
During his session, one rabbi said that students should focus less on the Zohar that discusses the lack of repentance for male masturbation and turn their attention to the idea from the Gemara in Kiddushin that even a rasha (wicked person) can become a tzaddik (righteous person) with thoughts of repentance. He emphasized the importance of not punishing oneself excessively and to be at peace with the fact that no one is perfect.
Of all the speakers, only Rabbi Cohen focused on outside factors, asking multiple times, “where is the respect?” when addressing the issue of women’s dress and how it influences a man’s desires. This stood in contrast to the rest of speakers, who spoke mostly about the internal battle without placing blame on any one reason in particular. Another speaker that differed in his approach to the issue was Rabbi Reichman, who gave practical advice and solutions for how students can avoid the temptation for sin, including creating a “safe environment” by searching for a partner through Yachad and HASC rather than online, using online filters, using a buddy system — where two people check and help each other with the struggle — and using the internet only for essential items such as email and Torah learning.
The speakers did not offer any scientific perspective that claimed masturbation is natural and healthy, nor did they go into the history of the prohibition and how it came to be. However, the first session, led by Friedman, focused on statistics that showed that 40-50% of divorces come from pornography and presented other sociological studies.
While the chabura is often associated with the book “The Battle of Our Generation” and uses the same color scheme and photo for its fliers, it actually has nothing to do with the book. The book was never quoted, distributed or even mentioned in any of the sessions. The anonymous author of the book did come to speak at the final chabura of the 2017-2018 academic year, but The Commentator did not attend that session and cannot provide details on what was discussed there.
Despite the sense of urgency that went along with the marketing of the chabura, it is no longer functioning on campus. Friedman departed YU at the end of the Fall 2018 semester and no one has taken over since then. It remains unclear if the chabura will resume next year.
Despite the efforts of the chabura, it seems that the taboo of the topic has not yet disappeared, as dozens of students who were asked to comment on the article refused to do so. However, the chabura has spread to other yeshivot such as Yeshivat Har Etzion, and it has sparked a somewhat muted conversation on the Wilf Campus. So, while this semester’s battle may have been lost, the war rages on.
Photo Caption: Kedushas Yisroel chabura flier
Photo Credit: Kedushas Yisroel chabura