This post continues the weekly series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. This week's presentation is to one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded.
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Question: My wife wants to watch porn from time to time to help with arousal, where would that fall with regard to the law?
The dominant opinion within Torah thought considers a proper manifestation of human sexuality to be an important ideal. The Iggeret HaKodesh, a medieval work that tradition ascribes to the Ramban (Nachmanides), presents this idea clearly. He begins with an open challenge of the view of Rambam (Maimonides) who maintained a more negative perception of the physical and sexuality in particular. (Maimonides represents a minority view that was rejected by the vast majority of Torah thinkers). The Iggeret HaKodesh states that as human sexuality was a creation of God and was part of His intention for human beings, it must be inherently good. In support of this idea, we may refer to Rashi, Genesis 4:1 who clearly states that, while the verse informing us of the births of Cain and Abel does follow the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the text, they were actually conceived and born prior to this event. A mating relationship with a positive expression of sexuality was God’s intent for humanity.
Genesis 2:18-24 further expresses this idea. In reading these verses what immediately comes to mind is that human sexual experience is not simply a method of reproduction. If the only purpose of sex for human beings was reproduction, God could have created male and female directly as He did with all the animals. God’s unique method of creating Eve was to declare the relationship essence of human mating. Sex is not just a physical act. See Rashi, Genesis 2:23. with Gur Aryeh. It is not even a general form of relating; it is a specific method of personal relating between a man and a woman who are joining together to form a unity greater than themselves individually.
This idea is at the root of the Torah understanding of human sexuality. Permitted sexuality is not just simply a tolerated way for a male and female to satisfy a generic, physical drive. Human sexuality is deemed to be a private concern because the human sexual drive, at its roots, is a specific drive for a specific individual of the opposite sex. Any discussion of sexual behaviour is, thus, not seen as generic. It is not like teaching someone to dance whereby you can just switch partners. Any discussion must, by definition, be private for it is a discussion only about these two individuals and how they specifically relate.
Of course, as with any behaviour that is individualistic, there may be some general directions and parameters to assist the couple to reach their goal of including sexuality as an important, even necessary, part of their relationship. One of these guidelines from a Torah perspective is the mitzvah of onah, marital conjugality. See Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, chap. 76. A husband is commanded, within parameters, to satisfy the sexual needs of his wife and, while this is generally framed in a quantitative manner, it also has a qualitative factor. Pleasure is part of the reality of sexual contact and a concern for his wife’s pleasure is part of his obligation, notwithstanding that this concern should also flow from the love that should be inherent in this union. In support of this positive view of sexual pleasure between husband and wife, see Micah 2:9 and T.B. Eruvin 63b amongst many other sources.
With this preamble, we can now understand the nature of this question before us. A wife’s pleasure in sexuality is clearly important and thus taking appropriate steps to help with her arousal is an important undertaking. The question is whether watching porn is an appropriate step. Pornography is clearly a presentation of the human sexual act as generic and solely physical without any recognition of its significance in the uniqueness of a relationship between individuals. This principle is found in many laws directed to ensure that the arousal between husband and wife is specific to their relationship and emerges and flows from their individualistic relationship. Without entering into a technical discussion of these laws and legal principles, allow me to just cite the following:
a) Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 387 – the prohibition to stray with one’s eyes;
b) T.B. Baba Batra 57b – the prohibition of watching women washing clothes by the river as their movement and dress could arouse;
c) Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 23:3 – the prohibition of watching animals and birds mating.
The result is a conflict of values: while we wish for a wife to have a satisfying, physical relationship with her husband, we also have difficulties with even the observing of a generic act of sex. Encountering and responding to a conflict between values, however, are the norm within a life of Torah. For example, the vast majority of Biblical laws may be violated in a life-threatening situation; what the Torah is really stating is that when there is a conflict between the value of life and most other Torah values, the value of life takes precedence. Such rules abound. In most cases, somewhat serious illness will override most Rabbinic prohibitions; medical treatment such as surgery is not deemed to be a violation of the law against striking another. (See Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 595). Certain individual circumstances may call upon us to follow a more lenient opinion even though the normative practice is stricter. The essential role of the rabbi is, in fact, to adjudicate in all such situations and to determine, given the numerous principles that are to serve as a guide, how one is to behave when there is a conflict of values.
In response to the question, we, thus, would have to conclude that this couple should actually speak to their rabbi about this. This is doubly so because of the private and individualistic nature of a relationship; the answer that may apply to one couple may not apply to another. We do not know the specific circumstances and the underlying reasons for why the wife needs this stimulus. We are not talking about the generic application of sexuality but the specific nature of this relationship. Clearly, our goal would be to assist in the creation of a situation whereby the wife would not need this stimulus. We wish the relationship to be private, individualistic and specific. In the short run, though, this couple should speak to their halahic authority who will direct them how to proceed.