3. Jewish Wet Dreams:

Lilith’s revenge

Lilith, from True Blood

Popular religious texts are important to look at because, for a time, they were all everyone was looking at; they were they Netflix. These texts came from, and reinforced, certain bodies in the past, and they still help to construct bodies today.

There are two important passages in the Bible that address wet dreams directly: Leviticus 15 and Deuteronomy 23. In Leviticus 15, God tells Moses and Aaron that all their bodily discharges are unclean, and that a man who has had an “emission of semen” must wash everything that came into contact with it. The man himself is “unclean,” (which means he can’t eat holy foods, and he can’t read scripture or pray) until evening. Semen ‘out of place’ [SOOP], keeps you from being able to practice your own religion?

Deuteronomy 23 speaks specifically of a man “defiled by his nocturnal emission” and requires that he leave the war camp until evening. He can’t even fight for his people because of some semen? And I imagine a lot of solders would be spilling semen left and right, so far away from their wives. “He must bathe before returning.” Deuteronomy 23 also says that any uncleanliness, any semen out of place, will “cause God to turn away and not protect you or your people.” Your wet dream could destroy your entire nation! It’s therefore not surprising that Hebrew culture, like their Egyptian mythological overlords, were obsessed with cleanliness.

Sera lavetela. Semen in vain. Scripture was clear: wet dreams, masturbation, (Deut. 23:10-12; Lev. 15:16–17), and rape (Deut. 22:23–26) are all polluting (although battlefield sex, or ”marriage” is permitted). James Aho: “After all, ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, and each of these acts entails seminal discharge into something that might confuse or frustrate male lineage.” One ancient rabbi in the Gemara, Rabbi Johana, is quoted as saying, “whoever emits semen in vain deserves capital punishment.”

Uncontrollable emissions are compared to menstrual blood, which is so unclean that Leviticus 15 says women, after they are totally done discharging, have to wait another week and then take two young pigeons to the priest who offers one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering to make atonement for the “discharge of her uncleanness.”

Fluids matter in Hebrew cultures, and in all cultures that want so desperately to feel clean and pure. If you want to feel pure, and you want your group to feel pure, then you have to construct ideas of impurity (concepts of impurity strengthen and affirm what is “pure”).

And there appears nothing more impure and sinful, within Judaism, than failed sex. Remember Onan, in Gen 38, dies after spilling his semen, which really freaked people out. Anxieties around wet dreams were also linked to and energized by a belief that semen was sentient, and if spilled could give birth to demons.

This ‘sentient semen’ appears in other cultures, too. In Greek Mythology, Athena’s serpent-human child, Erichthonius, was born from spilled semen. There is a story about Athena wiping cum off of her thigh and then tossing the tissue to the ground. When the liquid soul made contact with the dirt, Erichthonius was born. Interestingly, Wonder Woman, in the 2017 film, describes her birth aswet dirt formed by her mother and touched by her father’s lightning rod.

One of the most interesting stories from the midrash is where Adam and Eve vow to never have children again after they see how failed their first children are. They spend 150 years in abstinence. During this time Adam inadvertently feeds semen to underground succubi who give birth to demons. Woops! And it’s usually Lilith, Adam’s legendary first wife, who is believed to be the cause of erotic dreams in general, and wet dreams in particular. She is the “night demon,” the one who enters you, possesses you, and makes you leak out your seed and your soul! She is the original vampire (in our mythic imagination, and in the HBO show True Blood). She is JP’s “Chaos.”

Lilith

Who knows about Lilith? She is a fascinating character, introduced in the Midrash and other Babylonian texts like the Talmud as Adam’s first wife, who was complementary but equal to Adam in every way, and didn’t like being mounted like an animal and raped. To be fair, Adam was just copying the way the other animals were doing it, bless his heart. But she protests and disappears. One story suggests Adam must have killed her and therefore all his kin are now haunted by her ghost. In another version, a more popular one, Lilith tells Adam to get off of her, he does, then she stands up, intones the secret name of God, floats up and disappears into the sky like Jesus Christ in the transfiguration. Now she lives in the underworld or in the ruins of cities; you can here her howling in the wind. In an Islamic version, she shacks up with Satan and gives birth to demons down in hell. In another version, Lilith is Satan (the rejected lover). Some believe she wanders the world killing babies, and there is an argument that the word “lullaby” comes from the phrase, “Lilith, be gone!” Jews would hang a charm by the baby’s crib to distract Lilith and keep her from entering the child and taking its semen. Native American dream catchers, and modern day baby mobiles are arguably the same type of ‘apotropaic object,’ placed there to distract demonic spirits. If by “demonic spirit” we mean “nightmare”, then maybe the reason these enchanting objects work is because they distract the baby and calm the mind before it falls asleep.

In any case, God needs Adam and Eve to have sex again so they can bring forth Seth, their third son (like Ender!) whose lineage will be able to survive the flood. So, “to lure Adam out of his abstinence God plants in him the lust for Eve and tells him to lie with her, undertaking that he would remove their temptation to wild and indecent lust. This promise He kept.”

Gnostic Semen

Not all Jews and early Christians believed spilling seed was bad. Borborite Christians followed the Gospel of Phillip, which says that ejaculating into a vagina is a sin, and can cause another soul to be pulled out of eternity and locked into a body to suffer and die. Therefore, all seed must be spilled, or eaten, or wasted. The religious idea of the body as a ‘prison for the soul,’ is a surviving remnant of this Gnostic belief. According to this doctrine, the worst sin, the one sin that will keep you out of heaven, is procreation. But remember, for these Gnostic Christians, the creator of this world, the deity who commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply,” was actually the demonic demiurge, Yaldabaoth, aka YHWH. And who in their right mind would want to bring a soul out of heaven and into enslavement to a devil?

But those groups were the exceptions. Most Jews and early Christians believed YHWH wasn’t a demiurge, but was the one true God, and semen not ejaculated into in a vagina was sera le-vatala, and wet dreams keep you from being able to enter the temple and get close to God.

Interestingly, spilled semen can sometimes create superior men because they are made from pure masculinity. A strange bit of logic escapes from one Rabbi: “These drops produce the highest souls because they are derived from pure masculinity. The problem is that they have no female vessel and are thus taken by demonic females (Lilith or Na’amah)…” (Magid: 61). The prophet Ezekiel is called “ben Adam,” or the true son of Adam precisely because he is the product of Adam’s spilled seed (Magid: 59). “The notion of spilled seed as creating superior souls is also discussed in the soul origin of the ten martyrs of rabbinic literature as rooted in the seed emitted from the fingertips of Joseph during Potifar’s seduction” (Magid: 252). The Alphabet of Ben Sira opens with the miraculous birth of Ben Sira, which, like that of two other saintly figures, Rav Zera and Rav Papa, is said to have occurred from spilled seed (Biale 1997: 56). The text condemns masturbation, and Jeremiah rebukes the wicked men of Ephraim, “but it is as a result of masturbation that Ben Sira is born. ‘Wasted seed,’ it turns out, may have a miraculously procreative fate” (ibid: 83). Wetness in this sense is also a positive attribute. Since only when a man can ejaculate semen is he fertile, the Bible proudly proclaims of Moses, who died at 120, that “his wetness had not abandoned him”(Deut. 34 :7; Biale 2007: 34).

These stories hopefully set the stage for the next phase of our wet dream history, a truly freaky phase: Christian wet dreams.

References

Abbot, Elizebeth 2001. A History of Celibacy. Da Capo Press.

Aho, James 2002. The Orifice as Sacrificial Site: Culture, Organization, and the Body. ALsine de Gruyter: New York.

Biale, David 1997. Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. University of California Press, Berkeley.

2007. Blood and Belief: The circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians. University of California Press; Berkeley.

Brakke, David. “The Problematization of Nocturnal Emissions in early Christian Syria, Egypt, and Gaul,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3.4 (1995): 419–60

Brown, Peter. 1988. The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press)

Elliott, D. 1999. Fallen bodies: pollution, sexuality, and demonology in the Middle Ages, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Feldman, Emanual; Wolowelsky, Joel (ed) 1997. Jewish Law and The New Reproductive Technologies. KTAV?

Graves, Robert; Patai, Raphael . 1966. Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis,McGraw-Hill: New York.

Magid, Shaul 2008. From Metaphysics to Midrash: Myth, History, and the interpretation of scripture in Lurianic Kabbala. Indiana University Press: Bloomington.

Mastrocinque, Attilio. 2005. From Jewish Magic to Gnosticism. Mohr. Siebeck, Germany.

Rosemberg, David 2000. Dreams of Being Eaten Alive: The Literary Core of the Kabbalah. Harmony Books.

Sha, Teresa 1998. The Burden of the Flesh: Fasting and Sexuality in Early Christianity. Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis.

Steinberg, Avraham 2003. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics. Feldheim Publishers: Jerusalem.

Solomon, Norman 2006. Historical Dictionary of Judaism Second Edition. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD.

Williams, Michael Allen. 1996. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An argument for dismantaling a dubious Category, Princeton University Press: New Jersey.

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