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How Orthodox Jewish Fathers Can Talk To Their Sons About Puberty

How Orthodox Jewish Fathers Can Talk To Their Sons About Puberty


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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article handles mature topics and is the first of a two part series. This installment broaches the topic from a philosophical standpoint, the second part will discuss the practical how-to’s of speaking to your son.

Sitting down with your son to discuss how to interact with the opposite sex as he reaches puberty, is a challenging conversation for most fathers. Tackling this topic as a Torah observant man, with the restrictions Jewish law puts on boys and men, including:

  1.  shomer negiah – avoiding physical contact with the opposite sex  (who are not nuclear family members) outside of marriage
  2. shmiras einayim – guarding one’s eyes from immodest content
  3. shichvas zera – the prohibition of wasting seed, i.e. masturbation

when we’ve had our own struggles with some or all of these issues, makes the topic even more complicated.

One has to countenance the fact that despite our efforts, we raise boys barely sheltered from an intoxicating hypersexualized culture. Once they physically mature, we expect them to curb their sexuality to a set of vague and sometimes contradictory standards. Judaism offers a solution to this problem, though we must be honest with our sons that until they are married, the Torah expects a lot from them and they may not always be perfect, and that’s OK.

Shomer negiah allows observant Jewish teens to have a religious reason to avoid entering sexually challenging situations, as the youth of America seem to do despite the dangers therein. That being said, observing shomer negiah introduces its own challenges. Boys often find themselves unprepared to respond to the sexual overtones that pervade modern media in an appropriate way. Unlike their secular peers, who engage in relationships with the opposite sex with some level of parental knowledge and oversight, Orthodox adolescents are left to operate in completely secretive, taboo acts of intimacy with each other. Those who don’t want to risk the spiritual descent of getting physically involved with someone before marriage may turn to masturbation and pornography, in a moment of weakness.

Regardless of whether boys choose white-knuckle abstention, secretive relationships, or masturbation and pornography, one issue lies at the core of all of these problems: taiva, sometimes translated as “desire.” As we will see in the sources, taiva is not automatically negative, it is only negative if it is incorrectly channeled. What can we do to educate Orthodox adolescents on this under-discussed feeling? How can we both shelter them from the more corrosive aspects of culture while still immunizing them to the feelings it may bring up within them when they are inevitably exposed to this feeling, whether through a scene in a movie or a Manhattan billboard?

Some Jewish educators have attempted to inculcate fear in order to discourage the inappropriate applications of taiva. While this approach may be effective in the short-term, it may not have the legs to carry a Jewish adolescent to a healthy adult method of interaction with his feelings of taiva. We must find another solution.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe addresses the topic in his book Alei Shur. In the “Second Letter,” he responds to a question that he received from a young man in yeshiva who inquired about what to do with his feelings of taiva. His response is timeless, and his advice boils down to the following points.

Taiva is not inherently bad, it is only bad in the wrong context. Although we often speak of the yetzer ha’ra and yetzer tov as separate things, they share an important element. They are both creative forces — yetzer comes from the word yotzer which means “to form.” Yetzer means “creative energy.” The yetzer tov refers to when someone uses their creative energy for its intended purpose — either for self-sustenance or for helping to sustain others. When one uses the part of his yetzer that is meant to serve others to serve his own selfish needs, that is called an expression of the yetzer ha’ra. Specifically, your desire for sexual contact is understandable and healthy. It only has one appropriate application, and that is with your wife. Any other desire for sexual contact is understandable, but should not be acted on or even mentally dwelled on.

The physical mirrors the spiritual. When you are born, your body is made up of somatic cells. They are created by Hashem for you, and they are relevant to you and only you. Around the time when you turn 13, your reproductive cells, called gametes, become active. The only thing that reproductive cells can do is help you reproduce, they cannot do anything else biologically for you. These two types of cells, somatic cells and gametes, mirror the type of responsibilities we have in different phases of our lives. Before the Bar Mitzvah, all the chesed and acts of kindness we do are merely practice. Once we become responsible for our actions, at age 13, we are responsible to maximize our giving to others as long as it is balanced with a sense of self-sustenance.

Teshuva is real. Rav Wolbe encouraged his talmidim to move on from their slip-ups in this area. The yetzer ha’ra’s undying tactic is to convince you that something that is bad for you will actually provide untold amounts of pleasure. It will ply you with reasons to push just a little past your normal comfort zone. Once you indulge, you feel empty and weak, disappointed in yourself for your lack of impulse control and commitment to the morals you profess. Too many moments doubting your own morals leads you to wonder whether or not you’re really cut out for this set of morals in the first place.

It is an article of faith that we are cut out to keep the Torah, no matter what our yetzer tells us. For this reason, Rav Wolbe recommends that boys and men who face challenges and give in ought to say some Tehillim, say they’re sorry to Hashem with real feeling, and then move on to the next mitzvos they have to accomplish. Teshuva is real, and one doesn’t need to dunk themselves in an ice bath to feel it.

A strong commitment to change, a plan to avoid the situation that brought on the challenge in the first place, and introspective contrition are the path towards reconciliation with Hashem. Hashem does not ask us to be perfect and our sons should not dwell on the guilt of lacking perfection. As Rav Aharon Soloveichik used to say, a Perfect G-d created an imperfect world and left us to rebuild ourselves and His world in His image. These actions, while they may seem small, make a world of difference in the way we interact with ourselves, with Hashem, and with our fellow man and woman.

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  1. I have a 13 year old son and this is one area where I am tongue tied. I am not trying to remake the Torah in my image. I just cannot relate to what the Torah is saying; especially when male masturbation is on the list of sins which are considered extremely severe. I can’t speak for anyone else, just for myself. During a boy’s teens he’s usually going through his sexual prime. What I understand to be a biological need, releasing seman, the Torah treats as just a “Taivah”. The closest I can come to understanding the Torah’s position is that for most of our history this wasn’t a real problem; as most boys were married off by their mid teens. However, that answer doesn’t help us today, unless we change how our society functions in a way which would allow for boys to marry earlier. So, I am at a loss of words for how to broach the topic with my son. It seems to me almost as if the Torah forbade eating, sleeping and breathing.

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Ben Madsen

Ben Madsen is the member intake coordinator for Project Makom. A second-year doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, he has a B.A. in Clinical Psychology from Tufts University. He also works in the Rutgers Clinic for Psychological Services and in two different school settings in New Jersey, while being an active member of the Edison Chabura. Visit www.projectmakom.org to learn more.