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Ask a Jew: Is masturbation allowed in Judaism?

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By Neal Schnidler

 

Is masturbation allowed in Judaism?

Last year, one of the contenders for the Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival, which I organize in my role as director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services, was “Sacred Sperm.” This fascinating documentary examines the personal history of the filmmaker, Ori Gruder, alongside Haredi mores related to masturbation and sex. Gruder undertook this sensitive project, after consulting with his rabbi, as part of his effort to figure out how to educate his 10-year-old son about sex. In the course of his research, as the film’s Wikipedia synopsis notes, Gruder “discovers that Haredi men are taught not to touch their penises while urinating.” The solution to this tricky problem? Special underwear that facilitates hands-free urination.

“Sacred Sperm” provides more information on its subject than most non-Jews — and, for that matter, many Jews — would probably care to have. However, its primary message is hard to miss; it’s right in the title. In Orthodox Judaism, sperm is considered sacred, and “wasting” it through masturbation a sin. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism (I was raised in the latter tradition) have a very different take. If you’re looking for proof of masturbation’s wrongness in the Torah itself, you’ll likely end up at Genesis 38:8-10, in which Onan spills his seed on the ground, displeasing God, who “slew him.” Onan wasn’t masturbating but practicing birth control via withdrawal, but the end result — the “wasting” of sperm — was the same.

An article at Chabad.org articulates a traditional or Orthodox view of masturbation pretty well:

Although current psychological literature almost unanimously endorses this practice as natural, useful, and even desirable, Jewish law and tradition look upon it as wrong. The blessing of G-d is not to be wasted for any reason; it must retain its naturalness and its integrity. Thus the blessing may be spent only within the legitimate moral confines of marriage.

As with so many other aspects of Judaism, the answer to your question depends on whom you ask.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest for 14 years. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services and also works as a copy editor at the Spokesman-Review. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, baby son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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  • Neal Schindler

    Someone pointed out I gave the liberal Jewish view of masturbation short shrift above. So I’ll try to rectify that now:

    In an article titled “Masturbation: Is it kosher?” (previously posted at Beliefnet, but no longer available, sadly), Reconstructionist Rabbi Alexis Roberts calls masturbation “harmless, natural and healthy.” She adds: “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.”

    In Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, as far as I know, strict prohibition of masturbation is unheard of. I had a pretty complete Jewish education through my bar mitzvah, and was involved in synagogue life through age 18, and I never once heard a Jewish condemnation of masturbation. “Sacred Sperm” is really the first thing I’ve encountered in Jewish culture to explain to me in a thorough way the traditional Jewish point of view.