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Masturbation:

Views within Buddhism and Judaism.

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Buddhism: the fourth largest religion in the world:

Dr. Alexander Berzin wrote extensively on historical and cultural aspects of Buddhism, meditation and ethics. On the topic of sexual ethics, he wrote:

"The whole basis of ethics in Buddhism is structured according to discriminating awareness. In other words, the foundation for our ethical behavior is not obedience to laws but rather it’s discriminating between what is helpful and what’s harmful. So, no one is saying that we have to avoid certain type of behavior that will cause suffering and problems; it’s our choice. ..."

"All sexual behavior is destructive because ... it causes disturbing emotions to increase. And if we want to gain liberation from samsara [repeated rebirths into new lifetimes], we have to overcome disturbing emotions. So if we want to gain liberation, we are eventually going to have to give up all types of behavior that will cause the disturbing emotions to increase. ..."

"Remember, the whole issue here is how much suffering and problems does your sexual behavior produce? There’s nothing to do with being good or bad. ..."

"Monks and nuns ... vow to avoid all sexual behavior, both inappropriate and so-called 'appropriate.' Nevertheless within inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s less heavy for them to commit a celibate sexual act such as masturbation, than a noncelibate one by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex with someone."

"I think many of us do have certain boundaries or limits that we’ve set for ourselves; we’ll do certain things, but some things we won’t do. So this is very good. Have that be more decisive, and the sexual behavior that we do have, try to minimize the heaviness of it. Remember, the main thing is try to overcome being just compulsively under the influence of lust and desire. And if we follow that general guides, those general principles, then although we might not gain liberation just like that, at least we are going in the direction of minimizing our problems." 1

Bhante Shravasti Dhammika, author of the Guide to Buddhism web site, writes:

"Masturbation (sukkavissatthi) is the act of stimulating one’s own sexual organs (sambādha) to the stage of orgasm (adhikavega). In the Kāma Sūtra male masturbation is called 'seizing the lion' (simhākāranta). Some people during the Buddha’s time believed that masturbation could have a therapeutic effect on the mind and the body (Vin.III,109), although the Buddha disagreed with this.

According to the Vinaya, it is an offence of some seriousness for monks or nuns to masturbate (Vin.III,111) although the Buddha gave no guidance on this matter to lay people. However, Buddhism could agree with contemporary medical opinion that masturbation is a normal expression of the sexual drive and is physically and psychologically harmless, as long as it does not become a preoccupation or a substitute for ordinary sexual relations. Guilt and self-disgust about masturbating is certainly more harmful than masturbation itself." 2

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Orthodox and Conservative Judaism:

Judaism is the second largest organized religion in North America.

During the centuries when the Hebrew Scriptures were written, its authors were unaware of the nature of spermatozoa, ova, and the process of fertilization. They believed that the woman's role was purely passive, much like that of soil that nurtures a plant seed into growth. In essence, the man's semen contained full human beings who only needed the protection and nourishment of a womb to grow into newborns. Thus Zera Levatala (seed in vain) -- the wasting semen in any type of non-procreative act, whether it be masturbation, anal sex, or oral sex, -- is a very serious infraction of Halakha (Jewish law). According to the Babylon Talmud:

"But why all these precautions? — Because otherwise one might emit semen in vain, and R. Johanan stated: 'Whosoever emits semen in vain deserves death, for it is said in Scripture'." 3

According to Wikipedia:

"Homosexual intercourse is also considered an act of sperm in vain; as for masturbation, despite not having been explicitly prohibited in the Torah, the Halakha and the Oral Torah views masturbation as a Halakhaic prohibition and a great sin. The attitude towards male sperm is one of a potential future living human being, and thus masturbation, as an act of sperm in vain, is referred as a 'murder,' in which the masturbator is 'exterminating' his potential 'offsprings' not yet born." 4

As a logical outgrowth of this belief, there are few rabbinical criticisms of masturbation by women because the loss of human life in the form of persons is not involved.

Interpretations of Jewish law concerning masturbation by men in order to collect a sperm sample for fertility tests or for an artificial insemination procedure are divided. 5

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Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism:

These strands of Judaism, when dealing with the ethics of masturbation:

"... have come to more liberal conclusions.

Reconstructionist Rabbi Alexis Roberts maintains that masturbation 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.'

Reform Rabbi Jonathan Stein, in a proposed schema for normative Reform evaluation of different sexual activities, proposed that masturbation be considered 'mutar', a term generally translated as 'permissible', but which he renders as 'tolerable'.

Rabbi Walter Jacob, writing on behalf of the Reform responsa committee, asserts, 'Although the statements of tradition are very clear, we would take a different view of masturbation, in the light of current psychological thought. Masturbation should be discouraged, but we would not consider it harmful or sinful'." 6

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Related essays:

See also the masturbation menu for links to essays explaining the diverse teachings on masturbation found among Christianity denominations, religious liberals, and Wicca.

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Alexander Berzin, "Explanation of Buddhist Sexual Ethics: An Historical Perspective," The Berzin Archives, 2010-OCT-12, at: http://www.berzinarchives.com/
  2. Bhante Shravasti Dhammika, "Masturbation," Guide to Buddhism, http://buddhisma2z.com/
  3. Babylon Talmud, Tractate Niddah, P. 13a.
  4. "Spilling semen in vain," Wikipedia, as on: 2011-AUG-17, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  5. "Judaism and sexuality," Wikipedia, as on: 2011-MAY-07, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  6. "Other movements," Wikipedia, as on: 2011-AUG-17, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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Copyright © 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-AUG-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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