Q. What is the Jewish view of pornography?
A. Judaism isn’t prudish, nor does it think that sex is wicked or shameful. “The Lord created all things according to His wisdom,” wrote Nachmanides in his Iggeret HaKodesh (“Epistle of Holiness”), “and whatever He created cannot possibly be shameful or ugly.”
Sex was always treated frankly though not crudely in Judaism. The Tanach abounds with references to the marital life of the Biblical characters. In days when Jewish children studied the Tanach chapter by chapter, leaving nothing out, they picked up a good knowledge of the facts of life. The Talmud – at least one-sixth of which deals with sex and marriage – gave them some plain detail about sex, human anatomy, married life and childbirth. It was all part and parcel of their religious education, gained against a home background of marital love, happiness and harmony.
The Jewish principle is that, approached in the right way, sex can be the most enriching expression of human love and the most creative act open to humankind. Sex outside marriage is considered wrong. Sex within marriage expresses loyalty, trust and understanding, and fulfils one as a person.
“The act of sexual union is holy and pure,” says Nachmanides. “When a man is in union with his wife in a spirit of holiness and purity, the Divine presence is with them.” In order to promote “a spirit of holiness and purity,” the codes of Jewish law provide detailed guidance on married life. Because it is an intimate, private expression of love, intercourse is not permitted in any public place. This prohibition applies to real or simulated intercourse on stage or screen. Despite the story of Adam and Eve, one should not publicly expose one’s body.
The use of aids to the establishment of a satisfactory sex relationship is not banned. The Bible refers to mandrakes as love potions, and the Talmud says that certain foods, if eaten on the eve of Shabbat, help to arouse desire.
In the words of David Mace: “The entirely positive attitude to sex which the Hebrews adopted was to me an unexpected discovery… I had not fully realised that it had its roots in an essentially ‘clean’ conception of the essential goodness of the sexual function… That sex can be a gift of God to be received with gratitude and enjoyed freely, is a truth too long forgotten, and sorely in need of revival.”
It follows that Judaism does not refuse to countenance works of literary art simply because they deal with sex. But it insists that the theme be handled with modesty and dignity.
It says to the purveyors of pornographic material, “What are your motives? Are you promoting a responsible, mature attempt at working with a serious art form? Are you hankering after the bizarre, as with so much of contemporary art, theatre, literature and media? Are you among those who find sadistic pleasure in seeking to destroy our society? Are you in search of whimsical fun and frivolity? Or are your motives not simply those of cynical, commercial gimmickry?”
It says to the individual member of the public, “Whether society sets limits on freedom of publication or not, should you not exercise your own personal censorship and cultivate your own sense of discrimination?”