RABBI AVI FRIEDMAN, CONSERVATIVE
Go Ahead. Masturbate. It's Okay. "Don't do it or you'll go blind!!" "I tried it once, but didn't like it. So I never did it again." "If you do it, God will be angry at you." For a topic that we are uncomfortable discussing, there sure are a lot of little sayings about masturbation. Unfortunately, most of them are untrue. For some reason, this very common, very normal act has gotten a bad rap in our society. The truth is that for a long time, Jewish law DID ban masturbation -- as did Christian law for that matter. Judaism's prohibition was based largely on the following story that appears in our Torah: But Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the sight of Adonai; and Adonai slew him. Then Judah said to Onan, "Go to your brother's wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her and raise up offspring for your brother." But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife he spilt the seed on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. What he did was so displeasing in the eyes of Adonai, God slew him also (Genesis 38:7- 11)." In order to understand this story, we have to know some background information. In the ancient world, if a man died without any children, then his wife married his brother and they named their first child after the man who died. It sounds funny to us, but this was a way to keep the name of the man alive. Today, we would just name another child after him, perhaps. However, they did things differently way back then. So when Er died, Judah told Er's brother Onan to marry Er's widow in order to follow this tradition. We can understand that Onan may not have wanted to do this. He may not have liked his brother's wife. He may not have even liked his brother!! So, he came up with a way to make sure that Judah's plan didn't work.
Rabbi Avi Friedman graduated from the University of Michigan, the University of Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife in Pittsburgh, where he is the Assistant Rabbi at the Tree of Life Congregation.
So, what was Onan's sin? Some rabbis have said that his sin was "spilling his seed" on the ground. In other words, he did not ejaculate inside of Er's widow. Instead, he pulled out. If you believe that this was his sin, then it makes sense that you believe that masturbation is wrong. In fact, some people who are uncomfortable with the word 'masturbation' refer to it as 'Onanism.' However, I don't think that was Onan's sin at all. Rather, I think that Onan committed two different sins: (1) he blatantly disobeyed his father, and (2) he used another person sexually in order to make a point to his father. And THAT is why God got so angry. Unlike some other religions, Judaism thinks that sex is a good thing -- if (and that's a big IF) you are in a life-long committed relationship "for it is not good that a person be alone (Genesis 2:18)." Sex, though, is not something that we should take lightly. If you are not prepared to make a life-long commitment and you are not prepared to be a parent, then you are NOT prepared to have sex. The problem is, that our bodies are ready to have sex when we are teenagers even if our minds and emotions are not ready until we are in our twenties. What are we supposed to do for those ten years when our hormones are saying, "GO! GO! GO!" but logic says "WAIT A SECOND!" ? The answer is simple: masturbation. When you masturbate, you satisfy your sexual urges without anyone getting hurt, without anyone getting pregnant. In today's world, there's one more consideration -- AIDS. It is difficult for us to imagine it happening to anyone we know, but it is possible to die because of our decision to be sexually active. In Judaism, there is nothing more valuable than life. Sexual gratification is not a good enough reason to put yourself at risk for AIDS or any other sexually transmitted disease. So, maybe you still think it's strange or unnatural to masturbate. That's okay. It's hard to change our mindset about something that we've believed all our lives. But when it comes time to make a decision about getting sexually involved with another person, I hope that you'll remember that you once heard from a rabbi that it's really okay to masturbate. It's really okay to wait until you're sure that you can make the commitments that a sexual relationship require.
I promise you that you will not go blind and lightning will not strike you down. Honest.
There has long been a heavy sense of guilt and sin about masturbation, as though it were forbidden and condemned by the Torah. There is even a Biblical term for it: "onanism", based on the actions of the Biblical character "Onan" who "spilled his seed upon the ground". A closer look at the story (Genesis 38:6-11) shows that while Onan does die for his sin, the sin is not masturbation. (His sin is that he refuses to father offspring in his dead brother's name.) Traditional Jewish law has many sources that consider masturbation by men a wrongful act, evidently because of a primitive knowledge of biology. They express a sense that there is a limited amount of "seed" (semen), which all ought to be used for the sake of procreation, and that to "waste" it is the crime. Even for those who accept it as a sin, however, there is no punishment set down, and it is considered far less serious than any improper sexual acts involving another person. Masturbation by women seems to have mostly escaped rabbinic notice. The general opinion of Judaism about sex is that pleasure and sexual fulfillment are good (within the bounds of a proper relationship), and that the body and soul, with all their yearnings, are clean and pure, not at all dirty or shameful. It is well understood today that the vast majority of men and women masturbate throughout their lives, beginning in adolescence and continuing through marriage. This is harmless, natural and healthy. It may provide release and pleasure, as well as self-knowledge that is useful for pleasurable sex with a partner. It may make it easier for young people to have sexual release in the years when they are too young for a mature, committed, loving relationship.
There should be an appropriate level of privacy, modesty and discretion in this and all other sexual matters. A small number of people become obsessed to an unhealthy degree and can benefit from counseling. How much is too much? If you feel any pain (ie; raw from rubbing), if it becomes a way of avoiding "real life", or if you are worried it's too much, seek advice from a trusted doctor, counselor, rabbi, or parent. (For further reading: Does God Belong in the Bedroom?, by Rabbi Michael Gold, JPS 1992)
Rabbi Alexis Roberts is a Reconstructionist rabbi at Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego.
Question: What is the Jewish view of masturbation? Answer: In Jewish Law, masturbation is forbidden. There are couple of important elements here:
- In Judaism, our bodies (and everything else) do not belong to us. They belong to Hashem (G-d). Though Hashem has permitted many pleasures, all pleasures must be in the confines of His Will.
- As previously noted, sexuality is very important in Judaism. Indeed, it can be absolutely holy. However, this is within bounds. A Jewish man is permitted to have relations with his Jewish wife (except when she is menstrating and the seven "clean days" afterwards before she goes to the mikvah). No other sexual expression, including masturbation, is allowed.
- Male masturbation is a "wasting of seed." In other words, we have wasted the seed that is the source of future human life. It has not brought us either children or a closer bond between husband and wife. It has brought nothing.
- Yes, self restrain in this area, where nobody (other than Hashem) is watching, is difficult. However, part of being a Jew is to try to elevate ourselves towards Hashem. We are expected to be in control of our impulses and our desires. This is what separates humans from the animals.
- Men and women who are not closely related are not permitted to touch in any romantic way.
- We are not to look at pictures, listen to words or read things that will lead to sexual excitement.
Remember, as difficult as all of these things might seem, they make it possible for us to try to lead holier lives and elevate ourselves towards G-d...And the laws of sexual purity make it possible for the relationship between a Jewish husband and wife to be truly holy.
Rabbi Jablon is an Orthodox Rabbi, and the Associate Headmaster of South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, California.