Pornography in Jewish Law: Subjective Application

By: Yosef Rosenfield  |  February 14, 2021

By Yosef Rosenfield

During the Spring 2020 semester, I took an excellent course with Rabbi Beny Rofeh titled “Psychology, Relationships, and Halakhah.” The class required that each student choose a number of personal challenges to complete over a few-week period, with the hope that we would grow spiritually, emotionally and/or physically from these experiences. The list of challenges included options such as asking two girls out on a date, eliminating two foods from your diet and writing your own eulogy. When I decided to complete the “no porn for 10 days” challenge, I felt guilty about the task being too easy for me. To remedy the situation, I modified the challenge to prohibit viewing anything with the intention of deriving sexual pleasure.

I thought of this as a halachic (Jewish legal) interpretation of the challenge, as the Bible states (Numbers 15:39): “And do not stray after your heart and after your eyes…” Now, Rashi (an early commentary) is not necessarily a reliable commentator when it comes to the simple reading of a text, as he was unaware that Hebrew words have three-letter roots. (Judah ben David Hayyuj’s 10th century breakthrough theories on Hebrew grammar, in Morocco, did not reach Rashi in 11th century France.) However, what he writes about this verse is fairly intuitive: a person sees with his eyes, then desires with his heart, ultimately leading him to sin [with his body]. Thus, according to Rashi’s explanation of this phrase, the verse is telling us to not stray after our eyes, because doing so will lead us to then stray after our hearts — which now desire what we have seen — causing us to, in turn, act on those desires in a sinful manner.

Using this interpretation to inform our understanding of the text, it appears that the law regarding viewing sexual content is more complex than many might think. Perhaps most, if not all, Orthodox Jewish schools teach — or at least endorse — very specific guidelines for what is “appropriate” to watch and, conversely, what is deemed immodest and therefore forbidden to look at. In light of our textual analysis, however, a more accurate application of the law would seemingly be personalized to the individual. If someone has the ability to view hard core pornography and consciously decide to not get aroused, perhaps that is fine according to halacha. But at the same time, if another person views erotic images with the intention of feeding his sexual desires, maybe that is problematic.

Furthermore, if we are to accept this halachic distinction between objective law and subjective application, it would certainly support the hashkafic (theological) belief that every leniency creates a stringency, and vice versa. For if we grant the mainstream opinion that certain visual content is universally forbidden, then explicit material in the movie “A Clockwork Orange”, for example, would indeed fall under the Biblical prohibition, presumably leaving less sexual content as entirely permissible. If we adopt the more literal interpretation, however, someone could be allowed to view the full nudity in this film — assuming the violent rape is not a sexual stimulus for him — and yet be prohibited from gazing sensually at images of his celebrity crush in a crop top. The latter approach would suggest a fairly subjective set of laws for viewing sexual material, an idea which is honestly somewhat disturbing when seeking immutable God-given truths in Jewish law.

Is there an objectively correct interpretation of Numbers 15:39? Does a fine line exist that separates personal sexual taste and universally provocative material? For any religious Jew who is dedicated to following halachah, these are extremely important questions. Regretfully, I don’t have any definitive answers.