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Jewish teaching is clear that sexual and erotic activity is permissible only within heterosexual marriage. Any other sexual pleasure is prohibited. Of course, it is difficult for human beings to live up to this principle in real life. The Hebrew Bible and Talmud therefore offer rules and teachings to help individuals live virtuously.

For instance, Jewish law prohibits non-marital erotic touch. It also forbids men from ogling women. The Code of Jewish Law declares that “a person must be exceedingly careful” regarding matters of sexuality, to the extent that one should avoid walking past a brothel.

It is therefore puzzling that conservative commentator Dennis Prager recently asserted in a discussion with Jordan Peterson that “looking with lust is not a sin in Judaism.” Then, though he explained that he was not giving a “religious answer,” he stated that “men want variety,” and that pornography “in lieu of” one's wife is “awful,” while pornography “in addition to” marital intimacy, as a substitute for adultery, is “not awful.” Importantly, Prager later clarified that the discussion did not fully express his nuanced view. His main point is that Judaism is a “behaviorist, law-based religion” in which “sins of behavior are far worse than sins of thought.” It should be emphasized that Prager is one of the great champions of the biblical worldview for general society and I am deeply indebted to him for his insights and accomplishments. 

But the fact is that thought and intent do play important roles in Judaism, especially within the realm of sexuality. The Talmud teaches that “one may not have relations with one’s wife while thinking about another woman.”

In the conversation with Peterson, Prager contrasts Jewish law and ethics with the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27–28). Prager is certainly correct that capital punishment only applies to physical adultery in the Hebrew Bible (Lev. 20:10). But this does not mean that there is “no equivalent” to Jesus's teaching on lust in Judaism, as Prager says. Other teachings in the Sermon on the Mount contradict the Jewish tradition, but Jesus’s teaching on lust is not that different from what the Hebrew Bible and Talmud say.

Lust is not a momentary, passing, unwilled and unwanted illicit thought. It is a sustained ideation that is prohibited. The Ten Commandments forbid lusting for a married woman (Exod. 20:14, Deut. 5:18). The Book of Job declares that having one’s “heart ravished by the wife of my neighbor” is “debauchery, a criminal offense,” for indeed, pious Job “made a covenant with [his] eyes not to gaze on a maiden” (31:1). The Talmud goes a step further and describes masturbation as metaphorical “adultery with the hand” (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 13b).

Lust and pornography are prohibited regardless of whether they are “in lieu of” or “in addition to” marital intimacy. The Hebrew Bible and Talmud do not agree with Jesus in equating lust with adultery, but they indicate that the gap between these two sins is quite small. One could say that in Judaism, adultery is a capital offense and watching pornography is a felony.

Prager’s erroneous conclusion stems from a too simplistic understanding of “thought sin vs. action sin” in Judaism. Human beings are not mere robots. We are sentient. Actions can influence thoughts and thoughts can spur us toward actions. The Hebrew Bible therefore demands that we exert discipline over both. We must not commit adultery and we must not lust. We must not murder and we must not “hate our brother in our heart” (Lev. 19:17). Thoughts and actions are central to the human condition and are subject to Jewish law. The main distinction between them is that only actions are punishable in a human court of justice.

Furthermore, intentionally viewing pornography is not a thought crime, it is an action. Jewish courts in antiquity did adjudicate cases of putting oneself in a position to view lewd activity.

What about Prager’s assertion that “men want variety”? Here Jewish law straightforwardly states that the man should focus on his wife’s pleasure, not his own. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes marriage as the “single most humanizing institution in history.” It is the place where spouses channel their brute sexual desire into love, dedication, and procreation. This can only be done by focusing on the needs of one’s spouse. Giving supersedes receiving.

Marriage is therefore a covenant, which emphasizes how the new unit grows together, not what each individual gets out of it. Spouses may have different sexual expectations, and sometimes circumstances interfere with intimacy, but the covenant of marriage requires loyalty and commitment regardless. Pornography destroys that covenantal commitment and feeds existing dissatisfaction with fantasies about what could or should have been. Ultimately, it ruins marriage. Purity of mind, in contrast, increases dedication and builds marriage.

The Talmud recounts an incident where a man lusted for a specific woman to the point where doctors recommended satisfying his desire as a cure, lest he die. But the sages refused to allow any activity between them that could give him erotic pleasure.

Reality does not need to conform to men’s desires. Rather, men need to control themselves according to God’s will and refine themselves into dedicated husbands and fathers. That is the Jewish teaching for a successful marriage, society, and civilization. 

Rabbi Rafi Eis is the Executive Director at The Herzl Institute.

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Image by cottonbro studio licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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