Masturbation: A Touchy Subject

Though traditional Judaism frowns upon male masturbation, today there may be reasons to be more permissive.

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In modern times, many Orthodox Jews retain these beliefs and prohibitions, but Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated Jews largely do not. The grounds for this change are largely medical: neither physicians nor laypeople believe that masturbation has the medical consequences described by Maimonides. Moreover, few believe the mystical tradition's depiction of the dire results of masturbation. To date, none of the three movements has taken an official position validating masturbation, but in practice the tradition's abhorrence of masturbation is largely ignored.

Contemporary Considerations

Part of that reaction, no doubt, stems from the realities of modern life. Large percentages of Jews today postpone marriage until after college or graduate school, long after they are physically mature.

Although the sexual hormones are plenty strong in teenage women too, males in particular feel this hormonal pressure during their teenage years, for the largest number of ejaculations a male will experience per year during his lifetime occurs between ages sixteen and eighteen, whereas the largest number of physical climaxes a female will experience per year will occur between ages twenty‑six and thirty. That means that realistically, the choices for teenagers and people in their twenties are either to masturbate or to engage in nonmarital sex.

Jewish concepts, values, and laws advance compelling reasons to oppose nonmarital sex. Because nonmarital sexual intercourse communicates commitments that the couple clearly are not ready to take on, it is effectively a lie. Even if the couple say explicitly to each other that their sexual act is only for pleasure and not part of any intended long‑term relationship, the sexual act itself belies what they say they intend…

Consequently, even if contemporary Jewish authorities are not prepared to revise Jewish law's prohibition of masturbation entirely, they must surely agree that on the basis of Jewish moral values, if the choice is between masturbation and nonmarital sex, masturbation is preferable…

If that conclusion is true for males, it is all the more true for females. Discussion of female masturbation does not appear in the sources, and it is therefore not explicitly prohibited in the first place. Moreover, the same considerations that would make us prefer that males masturbate rather than engage in nonmarital sexual intercourse would apply to females as well.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.