Judaic Perspectives on Pornography

Jonathan K Crane. Theology & Sexuality. Volume 16, Issue 2. 2010.

An Initial Glance

Contemporary Jewish scholarship and rabbinic positions regarding pornographic material articulate a strongly negative attitude. If one were to assume that these pieces conveyed the totality of Judaic opinion on this topic and applied them to a discussion about freedom of expression, it would be plausible to say that the Jewish tradition favors restricting pornography in all its forms, from its production to its distribution and especially to its consumption. As will be demonstrated here, however, this negative attitude is at odds with the Jewish textual tradition. For when the textual tradition is taken seriously, it reveals a wide array of legal and ethical attitudes regarding sexuality, sex, its accoutrements- and expressions thereof. This vast array of texts comprises legal and ethical sources. Whereas Jewish law (halakhah) delineates prohibited, permitted and required forms of sexual expression, ethical literature (aggadah) details those that are preferred, denigrated and or morally punishable. This paper offers a preliminary exploration of these diverse materials so as to produce a more nuanced perspective on pornography that takes the Judaic textual tradition honestly.

This task is best achieved by avoiding a methodology common among contemporary Jewish ethicists and rabbis. These authors assume that sexually explicit material-which for shorthand I will call pornography here-is necessarily obscene. There are primarily two ways to define the obscene. Either the obscene is subjectively considered disgusting or perverse, or the obscene is that which the law prohibits. These definitions of the obscene moralize and politicize pornography, respectively. Moreover, they preclude an honest evaluation of how pornography is obscene and whether it deserves regulation. And such definitions would hamper an honest examination of these questions from a Judaic perspective. Furthermore, if pornography is defined from the outset as obscene and thus a form of speech that does not deserve protection, it raises the question of where the line is (to be) drawn between it and other forms of expression that also have varying degrees of sexual content, like advertisements, films and novels. So as to avoid clumping ads, fiction, television shows, erotica and other expressions of sexual content into the category of the obscene, this article interrogates the link between pornography and obscenity from within the Judaic textual tradition.

Before turning to my task, here are three examples illustrating this contemporary Jewish approach that assumes pornography to be obscene. The earliest mention of pornography is by the great mid-century American Reform rabbinic ethicist Solomon Freehof. “The question of pornography in speech and writing,” he begins, “would concern the ethical rather than the legal literature, but the following is what there is in the ancient literature and the tradition based on it.” Freehof then surveys some nonlegal sources discussing the notion of ervat davar, which is commonly translated as “unseemly thing,” and ends with a Talmudic opinion that people who tell sexy jokes about a wedding couple will be punished by God (more on these below). He then cites one legal text that proscribes a husband speaking to his wife even when they are alone. With that, he concludes: “Actually the whole matter of the avoidance of pornography, although it is more ethical than strictly legal, is organized as a series of legal regulations for self-control in speech. This about covers the strictly legal material.” In Freehof’s view, pornography is inherently unseemly and using it risks spiritual dangers. Jewish law, he claims, corroborates this perspective because it reinforces the virtue of self-restraint in matters of (sexual) speech. Freehof adamantly asserts this simply is the Judaic textual tradition about pornography.

A more recent demonstration of this assumption is found at an online website for Jewish teenagers. In response to a question whether Talmudic “rabbis condemn pornography,” modern Israeli Rabbi Villa curtly responds that pornography is “the kind of thing which appeals to man’s [sic] lowest instincts and can be a bad influence. Besides, it demeans sex, which…is meant to be sanctified in the context of marriage. I hope the issue is clear to you now.” For Rabbi Villa, pornography is tantamount to the obscene because it offers nothing but moral harms: moral corruption (it is a bad influence) and moral degradation (it demeans sex). Yet she neither adduces traditional texts demonstrating that Talmudic rabbis actually condemn pornography, nor does she offer an extended ethical argument explaining why pornography should be considered obscene and hence avoided. Hers is more an argument from conviction than from tradition.

A more nuanced approach is found in Lawrence Grossman’s scholarly piece in which he distinguishes two definitions of pornography. Pornography can be viewed as a “sexual stimulant” or as an “agent of dehumanization.” Regardless of one’s preferred definition, Grossman claims that, “from a Judaic perspective, pornography…raises serious moral problems for the individual and for society. Indeed, honest confrontation with the Jewish sources reveals the basic incompatibility between contemporary sexual mores and the Judaic tradition.” His analysis of classic texts leads him to conclude that “since sexual stimulation outside of marriage is forbidden, so is pornography,” and “Jewish sexual ethics clearly condemn the casual, dehumanizing portrayal of sex acts that characterize pornography.” In contrast to liberal American Jews, whose “commitment to freedom of expression and fear of government intervention in personal decisions is rooted in a profoundly secularist outlook,” the traditional form of Judaism that Grossman endorses “stands unequivocally against the debasement of human dignity inherent in pornography.” Judaism’s fundamental rejection of pornography should spur Jews to “look beyond the legal considerations of free speech to the effect that dehumanizing and vulgarizing public expression has on popular values.” His academic treatment of different definitions of pornography notwithstanding, Grossman’s insistence that pornography is inherently demeaning echoes the convictions found in Freehof and Villa. For him as for the others, pornography is obscene and Judaism abhors it.

Such approaches to sexually explicit expressions preclude an honest assessment of the Judaic textual tradition because they offer conclusions before analyzing available data. A more sophisticated treatment of the topic first scours the textual tradition for sexually explicit expressions, analyzes these classic sources for their features and values, and then offers a provisional Judaic perspective. I want to stress that this kind of approach does not a priori define pornography as obscene, as either morally repugnant or halakhically proscribed. Nor does this method have pretensions of reaching a definitive conclusion, for one of the hallmarks of Judaism is that at every historical moment and textual layer consensus and unanimity are rare. This more honest appreciation of the Judaic textual tradition’s actual attitudes toward sexually explicit expressions empowers modern Jews to assess whether Judaism considers these expressions morally repugnant or illegal or both, and that Jews ought to press regulating its production, dissemination and consumption. Rather, this approach might actually endorse Judaic rationales for protecting certain forms of sexually explicit communications insofar as they do not contravene Judaic values but, perhaps, even promote Judaic living.

Visual Forms of Expression

The Bible teaches that human nakedness is a wondrous if not dangerous thing to witness. Naked Adam and Eve, for example, saw each other and felt no shame (Genesis 2.25).15 Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Esther are shapely and beautiful (Genesis 12.11ff, 24.16, 29.17; Esther 2.7). No one could compare with the stunning beauty of Job’s daughters: Jemimah, Ketzia, and Keren-Hapuch (Job 42.13ff.). Ruddy and handsome King David watches beautiful Bath-Sheba bathe naked on a nearby rooftop (1 Samuel 16.12; 2 Samuel 11.2). Such biblical texts suggest that, ab initio, acknowledging and viewing human beauty, clothed or not, is neither a crime nor a morally degrading experience. On the other hand, the Bible also claims that viewing another’s nakedness is a morally fraught experience (Genesis 3.7, 9.21ff.). Legally, it is prohibited to uncover the genitalia of certain relatives (Exodus 18). And Aaron’s sons were instructed to wear linen breeches when approaching the altar lest they unwittingly expose themselves and suffer death because of it (Exodus 28.42ff.). In short, viewing human bodies is an activity that warrants biblical ambivalence, insofar as ambivalence means strongly held apparently mutually exclusive convictions.

The rabbis take seeing human nakedness seriously and express ambivalence about it, too. Certainly beauty is to be praised, especially human beauty. For men, observing one’s scantily clad wife is considered an appropriate sexual stimulant, as wives are instructed to dress seductively so as to arouse their husbands’ desires and produce arrow-accurate seminal ejaculations. It is permissible to look upon one’s naked wife, though not during her menses, as long as it is done in the privacy of one’s home, not out on the way or in the wild. Viewing images of naked women who are not one’s wife is also a potential legitimate sexual stimulant for men. As for women, R. Yohanan justifies sitting prominently outside the women’s mikveh with this claim: “When the daughters of Israel come up from bathing and look at me, they will have children as handsome as I am.” The medieval mystical tract Iggeret Ha- Kodesh claims that seeing a person’s beautiful form contributes to better sexual union. Perhaps responding to the biblical injunction against sculpting anything in the heavens or on earth (Exodus 20.4ff.; Deuteronomy 5.8f.), the rabbis also express anxiety about viewing human nakedness. They assert that it is far better to look at an attractive woman than to engage with her bodily. In a lengthy Talmudic discussion a rabbi claims that merely looking at a woman leads to sin, and looking at a woman’s heel will produce degenerate children. A colleague says this applies even when looking at one’s wife during her menses. Another rabbi chimes in to clarify that “heel” refers to that “soiled place opposite the heel”-that is, the vagina. A fourth rabbi invokes ministering angels to say that parents who look at “that place” (the genitalia) produce blind children.

Seeing naked bodies is one thing; viewing sexual acts is another. For those immediately involved in the sex act, rabbinic lore and law favors doing so in darkness so as not to view each other’s nakedness. Other rabbis allow a light, although there must be a screen between it and the coupling individuals. Yet what about watching others engaging in sex? The Talmud twice records a story of R. Kahana who hid underneath the bed of his teacher, Rav, so as to observe how he interacted with his wife. He justified witnessing Rav’s casual and intimate engagement with her as necessary for his Torah learning. That is, proper moral instruction of a pupil includes witnessing, firsthand or otherwise, (good) sex; conversely, a teacher could very well expect that even his intimate behavior is rightfully subject to student observation. R. Simeon bar Yohai offers a dissenting opinion. In his view, both he and God despise people who have sex in front of their slaves. He does not claim, however, that any tangible punishment from God or from humans ensues for those who do.

This ambivalence about seeing real and manufactured naked bodies and sex acts correlates with biblical and rabbinic treatment of fantasy- of imagining other naked bodies and sex acts. The last of the aseret hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, forbids lusting after a neighbor’s wife (Exodus 20.14; Deuteronomy 5.18). Coveting is dangerous and can lead to illicit sexual unions with dramatic real-world punishments, such as bastard children, disease and disgrace. It can also preclude spiritual rewards, the rabbis say. Therefore several Talmudic rabbis teach that a husband should think only of the wife he is having sex with lest their children be bastards. The Iggeret HaKodesh takes this social ramification further when it claims that “if a man thinks of sinful and ugly manners [while having sex with his wife], then the embryo is fashioned in an unholy matrix, and is destined to be wicked and unclean.” If fantasizing about another woman constitutes “sinful and ugly manners,” it follows that a man’s imagination in a sex act could effect the moral development of his offspring. Moreover, if in the midst of sex a man thinks “improper thoughts,” he engages in apostasy. That is, male fantasy has potential real-world negative outcomes and is spiritually dangerous. On the other hand, a Hasidic text claims that being sexually tempted in either reality or in one’s mind can lead to spiritual benefits. Should a naked woman, someone not even one’s wife, ask for sex and is obviously aroused, it is better for the man to desire her, “but nevertheless not to have intercourse with her, but rather contemplate her and look at her intensely and he will pass the test and rise to great [spiritual] heights.” This text also teaches that it is appropriate for a man during prayer to visualize a woman, presumably naked, standing in front of him so as to reach greater spiritual heights, and he is permitted to ejaculate during prayer as a result of such arousal.

While fantasy may be dangerous or orgasmic for men, the rabbis encourage women to fantasize-and to fantasize about rabbis, at that! Recall that R. Yohanan displayed his handsomeness to women’s eyes so that later they could fantasize about him and thereby generate children as beautiful as he. Indeed, the Iggeret HaKodesh throughout instructs men to stimulate their wives’ imaginations before engaging in sexual intercourse, so as to elevate both of their spiritualities during their encounter. A Hasidic text observes that, “when a woman fantasizes about a man, a fantasy about the woman arises in the man.” In short, it is sexy for a man to think his wife is enjoying sexual fantasies.

Verbal Forms of Expression

Ambivalence about hearing or speaking or reading sexually explicit words also abounds in the Judaic textual tradition. The locus classicus for this discussion is an ambiguous phrase in the command to keep a military camp scrupulously clean because God moves around therein (Deuteronomy 23.10-15). Certain ervat davar-indecent things-are not allowed in the camp. Targum Onkelos translates this phrase as ervat pitgom-indecent words. A rabbinic midrash understands ervat pitgom to be nibbul peh-lascivious talk. The Talmud illustrates this kind of speech with this moral story. Since everyone knows for what purpose a bride enters a wedding canopy, someone who speaks lasciviously thereof deserves to be stripped of whatever happiness may be due to him. Moreover, the jaw of Gehinnom gapes wide and deep not only for the speaker of nibbul peh but also for the one who listens and remains silent. This line of classical reinterpretation of an ambiguous biblical phrase leads Freehof to conclude that the Judaic tradition clearly condemns pornographic speech.

Such a negative position has a precedent with Moses Maimonides, the great medieval legalist and scholar, who observed that the majority of men’s conversations revolve around sex and for this reason extended conversation with women should be avoided whenever possible. A few centuries later, Joseph Karo ruled that though it is better for a man not to converse with his wife at all during intercourse, this antipathy about speaking is not absolute. If a man must speak at the time of sexual engagement, let him talk about sexual issues so as to arouse her and inspire her willingness to engage sexually. The importance of speaking to one’s sexual partner to elicit consent and inspire arousal is not insignificant. For Maimonides similarly rules that a man may not sexually engage his wife against her will (that is, marital rape is prohibited); rather he must secure her consent (da’atah), and engage with her through conversation (sichah) and joy (simchah). And Jacob ben Asher, the author of the medieval legal code Arbaim Turim, points to the story that R. Kahana overheard his teacher, Rav, verbally seduce his wife before engaging her, to support his own opinion that it is permissible for a husband to speak with his wife to increase her desire for him. This practice of speaking seductively to one’s wife has another Talmudic foundation. The sagacious Imma Shalom, the wife of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, informs that the secret to her children’s beauty stems from Eliezer’s practice of speaking with her just before sexually engaging with her. In short, both halakhah and aggadah condone sexually explicit verbal communication between sexual partners as legitimate foreplay.

Even though it is both lawful and ethically desirable for a husband to speak to his wife before intercourse because it will increase her desire for him and they could generate beautiful offspring, what precisely should he say? As early as the Bible, the textual tradition demonstrates sexually-arousing speech. The Song of Songs expresses lush if not lusty phrases that extol and (probably) excite a partner. The medieval Iggeret HaKodesh offers these possibilities. A husband should arouse his wife with words of “erotic passion” to “provoke desire, love, will, and passion, as well as words leading to reverence for God, piety, and modesty.” Even early enlightenment Jewish poetry invokes strong sexual imagery: “She closed her hand around me and squeezed/So that my beloved could not spring free/She thrust her thighs, down and up/ Racing, racing the horse of her war/For her heart was stormy with the flame of her love.” Though no specific phrases are mandated, sexy words are an important-if not legally necessary-component of appropriate sexual engagement according to both legal and ethical sources.

Reflecting on Erotica in Judaism

The Judaic textual tradition, from as early as the Bible and amplified throughout the rabbinic, medieval and early modern periods, expresses ambivalence toward sexually explicit expressions. On the one hand, the tradition encourages modesty and restraint in dress and in word, in public and in private. And on the other hand, the tradition permits and promotes seduction and fantasy in both visual and verbal forms. It is therefore inaccurate and misleading to claim categorically that Judaism abhors pornography. At the other extreme, arguing that the tradition condones the production, dissemination and consumption of sexually explicit materials without qualification is equally troubling. Rather, a mediating position best reflects the divergent opinions and rules found in the tradition.

A more moderate approach to sexually explicit expressions takes into consideration both the harms and benefits that the textual tradition applies to such expressions. The harms associated with these kinds of expression revolve around producing socially if not congenitally abnormal offspring, and exacerbating personal moral depravity and spiritual damnation. The first kind of harm, however, is unsubstantiated: history and science have not demonstrated much less proven that pornography produces anti-social or disabled children. As for the second kind of harm, it also cannot be verified.

On the other hand, sexually explicit expressions also entail certain benefits. From having cause to praise God for witnessing beauty, to securing a spouse’s consent, from enriching one’s proper moral instruction, to stimulating a partner’s fantasies, from experiencing prayerful orgasm and to producing beautiful children-the textual tradition countenances many positive reasons for producing and consuming sexually explicit material. Though certainly some of these benefits cannot be substantiated, it cannot be denied that they are included in the tradition’s deliberations about sexually explicit communication. An honest assessment of the textual tradition therefore must admit that pornography may be beneficial in theory and in fact.

Nor would an honest reading of the textual tradition subsequently claim that Judaism considers all sexually explicit material obscene. The tradition does not outlaw these expressions altogether; indeed, the legal codes permit them in certain circumstances. Nor does the tradition construe pornography as absolutely and always morally degrading. Quite the opposite. Given the bounty of positive reasons for and benefits of producing and consuming these expressions, it would be internally inconsistent to claim that the tradition defines pornography wholly negatively, as completely perverse and morally degrading. There are, indeed, some opinions in the Judaic textual tradition that do consider sexually explicit expressions morally damaging, but privileging these opinions at the expense of giving due attention to countervailing positions is a question-begging enterprise. The tradition’s treatment of this issue is more complex than the absolutists mentioned at this article’s start would like to admit.

If, however, one were say that all sexually explicit expressions constitute the obscene, it would be possible then to say that the Judaic textual tradition views sexually explicit expressions as obscene. Such an argument is tautological and it would vitiate the meaning of obscenity as it is generally understood. Moreover, it would make it all but impossible to differentiate between materials that are sexually implicit from those that are sexually explicit. For example, would an advertisement for jeans that portrays the back of a topless woman wearing those jeans be considered obscene? What about speaking of a man wearing a swimsuit? A photograph of people kissing? A story of children holding hands? Where would obscenity start and where would it end?

The Judaic textual tradition reflects the difficulty of defining by fiat any line between acceptable and unacceptable communication, especially in regard to sex and sexual fantasies. This may be in part because of the individual and cultural nature of eroticism. Medieval rabbis were empowered to determine the dimensions of permissive interaction and exposure between sexes depending on local social mores. While modesty customs reflect and reinforce local standards of shame, individual preference is respected in regard to being nude and to observing nudity. Basing himself on such Judaic positions, Grossman rightly argues that sexual subjectivity suggests “that the individual himself [sic] is the best judge of whether he can keep his impulses in check.” Each individual, and not a legislating rabbi, is to be the arbiter of what is, and is not, sexually explicit.

Insofar as this responsibility devolves to individuals, can sexually explicit expressions be used for just any purpose? The textual tradition discourages sexual stimulation for the sake of autoarousal and male masturbation, especially outside the confines of a marriage. And supplying sexually explicit materials for medicinal purposes is deemed dangerous. Such positions could serve as rationales to restrict distributing pornography. Grossman offers another reason to limit distribution when he claims that “the industry exploits its actors and models.” While perhaps true for some forms of modern pornography, this argument does not find much purchase in the Judaic textual tradition. On the other hand, the principle halbanat panim, the prohibition on embarrassing someone in public, could serve as a Judaic foundation to restrict distributing sexually explicit materials. If the actors are indeed not willing participants, are shamed within the production of the material, and are ashamed through its distribution, then their shame would be sufficient cause for restricting such expressions. Though this harm may be relevant to some forms of pornography and Jews would be rightfully dissuaded from producing, distributing and consuming these materials, it would be difficult to make this case for all sexually explicit materials insofar as the vast majority of participants in contemporary pornography includes consenting adults, paid and unpaid alike.

A Jewish argument against distributing (producing and consuming) pornography could also claim that certain humans are reduced to sexual stimulants, which would be an affront to God. This is because each and every human is created betzelem elohim, in the image of God, and insofar as some humans are reduced to being tools for sexual stimulation, so too is God reduced to being merely a tool for sexual arousal. This argument is specious, however. It ignores the fact that sexuality is inherent in being human, a fact the Judaic textual tradition acknowledges and relishes. And it also ignores the fact that the textual tradition countenances the possibility and desirability of sexually explicit expressions in certain circumstances. A different criterion would be needed to justify restricting the distribution of pornography. For example, physical and psychical violence imposed upon the actors would probably secure a stronger Jewish argument to restrict distributing sexually explicit materials insofar as causing such injuries in the first place is proscribed within Judaism. Nevertheless, insofar as the bulk of modern sexually explicit expressions do not impose such violence upon its actors, it is difficult to extend this argument to the whole genre of pornography (if it can be identifiably circumscribed in the first place).

On the whole, the Jewish textual tradition identifies the appropriate location for the production and consumption of sexually explicit expressions to be within the confines of religiously-sanctioned relationships. So Grossman is not altogether wrong when he says, “Jewish legal literature manifests disapproval of erotic stimulation outside marriage.” He does err, however, in assuming that the Judaic textual tradition, inclusive of both legal and non-legal materials, forbids all erotic stimulation inside marriage. The tonal thrust of the textual tradition favors permitting if not encouraging Jews to produce and consume erotic expressions for the purpose of invigorating marital relations. To be sure, this is not to say that producing or consuming pornography is a necessary requirement for creating holier sexual relations. Because the bedroom is generally protected from rabbinic legal interference, as long as the people involved therein are mutually consenting adults in a sanctioned relationship, sexual expression, arousal and fantasy are theirs to create, explore and enjoy.