Reclaiming Our Holiness In The Internet Age
“YOU SHALL NOT GO ASTRAY AFTER YOUR HEART AND AFTER YOUR EYES”
Mori Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron, Tishre 5771 (September 2010)
Note to non-Jews: The following article applies to Jews according to the high standard demanded of us by God, as his appointed nation of priests. (Ex. 19:6) None of the Torah or rabbinical commandments discussed here are obligatory for non-Jews. Nevertheless, the world at large is encouraged to walk in Israel’s footsteps and aspire to a higher level of holiness, for the sake of a better, saner world.
Note to less-observant Jews: Please do not be intimidated by this strong article. While the moral standard presented here – the standard of the Jewish sages – may seem difficult and extreme, I extend a friendly challenge to you to expand your horizons.
I dare you to break out of the mindset in which you’ve been programmed by the media, the secular academia and your peers. Remember: No matter how you grew up and how you practice, this is the voice of your people’s tradition; that of your ancestors. It is a wisdom thousands of years old, by which Jews have been preserved as a people while every other great empire has crumbled and fallen. Moreover, it is wisdom by which Jews have reached the heights of joy, built the most satisfying, long-lasting, loving relationships, achieved the heights of prophecy, and even super-human military feats against overwhelming odds.
The moral standard of the Torah has been the litmus test of every generation of Jews: When we accept it faithfully as a nation, we see blessing and Redemption. When we reject it for the corrupt values of other peoples, we see failure and destruction. On an individual level, whoever embraces it sees his grandchildren living as Jews. Whoever rejects it invariably sees his grandchildren cut off from our awesome faith – more victory for those who seek to wipe us out, culturally if not physically.
Are you up to the Torah’s challenge? Will you dare to open your mind and heart?
In the Mishneh Torah, the ultimate code of Jewish Law, the “Laws of Forbidden Sexual Relations” (hilkhoth Issure Bi’ah) are found in the Book of Holiness (Sefer Qedushah) – along with the Laws of Forbidden Foods and Laws of Slaughter. According to our tradition, our behavior in the very areas in which we can be the most animal-like – the way we procreate, what we eat, and how we kill our food – can distinguish us as holy. Holiness, a gift from the Creator, is the chance to rise above our cruel, base animal inclinations, and build a society based on goodness and higher ideals.
Sadly, our holiness, guarded by our modesty, is under assault everywhere we go: not only by the immodesty outside in the streets, but the very media images we’ve come to depend on; the TV and computer images that we bring into our own private living space. It is critical that we reconnect with the teachings of the Torah, our eternal Guide, to strengthen our resolve to reclaim what we have lost, and push back against the forces that threaten to extinguish the light of holiness from the world.
A SWEEPING, SEVERE PROHIBITION
Twice daily, every Jew – from the wisest and most religious, down to the simplest among us – is commanded to remind himself “you shall not go astray after your heart and after your eyes.” According to sacred tradition, our classical Sages of blessed memory taught, “after your heart” refers to apostasy; after your eyes, refers to sexual licentiousness. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 2:6) For thousands of years, the believing Jew has known this to be no artful human addition; no fanatic religious innovation: the Creator of all flesh warned us from Sinai to guard our eyes.
The ancient Sages, bearers of the Oral Tradition from Sinai, regarded lustful gazing at women as a sin in and of itself. This should be appreciated more than ever today. In our modern times, the status of women has risen tremendously both in the West and East. While a woman serves as the Prime Minister of Germany, another woman serves as ambassador of Bahrain to Washington DC. Yet, in this seemingly-maturing world, weary and fed up with the objectification of women, it is vexing to see how little these ancient laws from Sinai are valued. In light of the evils suffered by women the world over at the hands of men who do not control their lust, these laws should be judged as the most advanced ethical system of all time.
However harmless it may seem, the Sages regarded lustful gazing as one of the most dangerous sins there are (by which a person can lose the eternal life of his soul) specifically because it is taken so lightly. (Mishneh Torah, hil. Teshuvah 4:4)
Among [the sins that complicate proper repentance] are five things that the perpetrator is not likely to turn back from because they are light in eyes of the majority of humanity, and when one sins he imagines it is no sin. They are as follows: … (3) One who gazes [lustfully] at the objects of forbidden sexual relations: He reasons to himself that there is nothing wrong in this. For he says, “have I had sex, or [even] drawn near?!” – and he doesn’t realize that the sight of the eyes is a great sin that causes the major sexual sins, as it is written, “you shall not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes.” [Num. 15:39]
This is why it is so shocking to hear that a few isolated yet vocal Jewish “scholars” in their own eyes (I call them hair-splitting “wise guys” to keep things civil) who are teaching in cyberspace that gazing at pornographic images is “technically” permissible according to halakhah (Jewish law). Even worse, these individuals claim to represent a more authentic path in Torah – namely the path of Rav Moshe Ben Maimon, RaMBaM (Maimonides), albeit a minimalist approach.
Bringing the law straight from its source in the Talmud (the written repository of the rulings and teachings of the Great Sanhedrin), RaMBaM teaches that it is forbidden even to watch women doing laundry, and even to gaze at the colorful clothing of a woman with whom one is acquainted. (hil. Issure Bi’ah 21:20)
Therefore it is forbidden for a man to gaze (lustfully) at women when they are standing laundering clothes; and even to gaze at the colored clothing of a woman with whom one is acquainted is forbidden, so he will not come to fantasize.
Even gazing (lustfully) at the small finger of a forbidden woman is prohibited! (Ibid. 21:20)
And it is forbidden for a man to signal with his hands, feet, or eyes [in a way that communicates sexual attraction] to any woman who is forbidden to him [anyone but his wife], and likewise to play [immodestly] or act in a silly/lightheaded manner with her. Even to sniff the perfume on her or to gaze at her beauty is forbidden, and one who does so intentionally is liable for stripes for defiance [of rabbinical law]. For one who gazes [lustfully] even at a woman’s small finger, intending to derive sexual pleasure, is just like one who gazes at her most intimate place. Even to listen (lustfully) at the voice of an object of forbidden sexual relations, or to gaze at her hair, is forbidden.
As it is made clear in the chapter cited above, these and other preventative measures were enacted lest one come to masturbate. Considering it as careless abuse of the sacred act of procreation, the Sages likened it to murder. They clearly took their cue from the sin of Onan, son of Judah (who shamelessly spilled his own God-given seed) and his ensuing death by the hand of Heaven. (Gen. 38:6-10)
As a further safeguard, they ruled one must sleep one one’s side: a position that will prevent him from spilling seed in his sleep (Ibid. 21:19[19-20]). They went as far as to decree that an unmarried man not even touch his groin area – even to touch beneath the belly button – lest he come to fantasize and act out his fantasy in a forbidden way. (Ibid. 21:22)
In short, the Sages understood that we are part animal and part angelic soul. What side of us will rule over the other: the soul over the animal or the animal over the soul? The Sages – the shepherds of our nation – wanted to ensure that our soul, refined by Torah wisdom, rule over the animal within us; to sow the seeds of hope for a holier, saner world.
As we will see below (see below: “How to Break These Habits, point #4), the Sages were fully in touch with our innate need for intimate relations. Not only does the Torah not preach celibacy; it is regarded as unnatural and generally forbidden! Rather, as those charged with the task of helping us live in accordance with HaShem’s Will, they wanted to help Jewish men to focus this God-given energy in the holy context of marriage.
The Torah was not merely taking poetic license, relating HaShem’s Words: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a helper equivalent to him.” (Gen. 2:18) Dennis Prager once noted that over 80% of the violent crime in the world is committed by unmarried men. (1) Besides providing true satisfaction – emotional and spiritual besides the physical – marriage (when it is cultivated and worked on) refines our character, and brings forth children, building the Hebrew nation. In this day and age, it is difficult enough to bring many young men to commit to marriage. Were it not for these and other laws, Jewish marriage – the foundation of our future — would be greatly weakened.
ANSWERING THE MINIMALIST ‘WISE GUYS’
Whoever justifies to himself – just because the halakhah does not specifically refer to imagery – that looking at porn is technically permissible, is deluding himself greatly. Knowing what the Sages said about gazing at a woman’s small finger, how can they rationalize gazing at the rest of her unclothed figure?! What does that say about their intellectual honesty? Even if one does not look at porn in order to actively spill seed, such gazing by a normal, healthy man is likely to cause him to spill seed in his sleep…. and that only in the case of a person with greater self control.
About such people whose understanding of Torah brings them to transgress the Torah, it is written in the Prophets sarcastically: “I have also given them laws that are not good; ordinances they cannot live by.” (Mishneh Torah, hil. Shabboth 2:3, cf. Ezekiel 20:25)
Indeed, by imagining that gazing at such imagery is permitted, they disable themselves from upholding the Torah’s strict standard of holiness. This warped, minimalist approach is a hhilul HaShem, as it strengthens the Christian belief that the Torah was only given to prove that it cannot be kept. It also strengthens the secular claim that these are primitive laws that have no place in the modern world. It is only by relating to the entire Torah honestly that we can ultimately be recognized as “a wise and understanding people in the sight of the nations”. (Deut. 4:6)
Observe therefore and do [the Commandments]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ (Deut. 4:6)
Whoever imagines that the Sages merely spoke about one type of lustful eyeing of women – leaving enticing imagery permissible – or rationalizes that they cannot be blamed for “inadvertent” spilling of seed caused by such porn-watching, may be in for a further surprise:
Their eye-feasting constitutes another Torah prohibition: active training from the wicked. A Jew is obligated to distance oneself from the company of the wicked, even to the point of living society altogether – to dwell alone in the wilderness if need be – anything in order not to learn from their wicked ways. (hil. De`oth 6:1-2)
It is clear from RaMBaM’s words that this refers to learning from the wicked by any means. It cannot exclude bringing the wicked into one’s living room through his computer, one’s private window to the world. In fact, observing how others conduct intimate relations as a form of learning, is specifically mentioned in Talmud: One errant student went to a gross extreme, hiding underneath his rabbi’s bed in order to learn how a Torah scholar should approach his wife!
The very notion that only sinful actions – no more – are forbidden, is a serious error: Actions are not the only matters for which Jews are obligated to repent: Being a negative character trait, un-channeled lust (outside the permitted arena of marriage) is a matter for which one must repent. (hil. Teshuvah 7:3) See below for notes on how to begin.
LESBIANISM AND FEMALE ADDICTS TO IMMORALITY
Make no mistake: These warnings and rules apply to women as well. Whoever rationalizes that they are for only for men, should consider the rabbinical prohibition of lesbianism. While it does not constitute one of the the 613 Torah commandments, lesbianism is linked to “the practice of the Land of Egypt”, which was prohibited by HaShem Himself. (hil. Issure Bi’ah 21:8)
For women who sexually stimulate one another, this is forbidden, and it is the “doings of the land of Egypt” of which we were warned, as it is written, “According to the doings of Egypt… you shall not do.” [Lev. 18:3]. The Sages said, “What would they do? A man would marry a man, and a woman would marry a woman, and a woman would marry two men.”
The Sages were referring to the Torah verse:
According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelled, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, to where I am bringing you, you shall not do; neither shall you walk in their statutes. (Lev. 18:3)
While men and women are different, both are vulnerable to the trappings of today’s global border-less society. While the danger to family life and society posed by porn-watching by women may not seem as great as that by men, the damage cannot be measured. While the percentage is less than men, statistics show that the great majority of women in secular society today (66% of women polled in the U.K.) are addicted to such evils. (2) It cannot be a coincidence that adultery – women cheating on their husbands or their boyfriends – has become a societal norm. Divorce is so common today; it is the destiny of most marriages in the West.
Whoever argues that this is all within our “rights” as “liberated” people, should see firsthand the children of a home breaking apart: the devastation on their little faces, their little hearts broken as they see their parents – their towering role models and caregivers – tearing each other apart, forming relationships with strangers. Such liberals should work with children, and compare the confidence, emotional integrity, flexibility and academic success of a child raised by both natural parents in a solid, loving home, to that of a child raised by a single parent. What future relationships are children raised by porn-watchers expected to make? What kind of future homes are children who were raised in broken homes, expected to build?
Can anyone argue that a parent has the right to do that to a child? Do we not – as men and women – all bear the responsibility to form healthy habits, to strengthen our moral character, to prevent such tragedy? It begins with whom we will allow to rule over own selves: the animal within us, or our angelic soul, refined by Torah wisdom.
REJECTING THE SAGES MEANS REJECTING HASHEM’S WORD
Whoever imagines to himself that a knowing transgressor is “merely” breaking rabbinical prohibitions, should realize the following: Once a person knowingly, intentionally transgresses the rulings of the Sages, at that point he has begun to transgress the Word of HaShem Himself: We are commanded even in the simple verses of the Torah itself to hearken to the Great Court of ordained judges, and warned not to turn right or left from their decrees.
And you shall come to the priests the Levites and to the judge that will be in those days; And you shall inquire; and they will declare to you the sentence of judgment. And you shall observe to do according to all that they will teach you from that place which HaShem shall choose, and you shall observe to do according to all that they shall teach you. According to the law that they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the sentence that they will declare unto you, to the right, nor to the left. (Deut. 17:9-11)
RaMBaM discusses the full meaning of these Torah commandments in Sefer Melakhem, hil. Mamrim ch.1.
In summary, by the above words, HaShem Himself established our nation’s judiciary: the “Great Court” or “Sanhedrin” of 70 elders, 71 including Moses. (71 is the official number of seats on the Great Court for all generations.) Their original ordination by Moses is described in Numbers 11:24-25. Thus began the chain of semikhah – Mosaic ordination of Torah judges – and a flow of Divinely-ordained teaching from generation to generation. And it continued uninterrupted for over 1700 years, only to be continued by the non-ordained courts in Babylonia. The classical Sages preserved this great body of wisdom in the Talmudic literature. The most complete and accurate summary of its laws is the RaMBaM’s great code of Jewish Law: the Mishneh Torah.
According to Oral tradition from Moses, the commandment, “and you shall observe to do according to all that they shall teach you” refers even to future ordinances and decrees the Sanhedrin would make in every generation. According to tradition, Leviticus 18:30 is an explicit commandment to the Sages to enact the very rabbinical fence-laws such as discussed in this article: laws to distance the public from breaking HaShem’s Laws. The verse comes after a list of severe Torah crimes on account of which the nation could be destroyed; perverse sexual crimes that cut a person’s soul from eternal bliss. HaShem then gives the following command to the nation’s judiciary:
So you shall safeguard My Charge, so that you will not [come to] do any of these abominable practices which were done before you, and so that you will become defiled through them: I am HaShem your God. (Lev. 18:30)
Even from a common-sense perspective – according to the simple understanding of the verse – this Commandment seems to be aimed at the nation’s judiciary: It is the nation’s judges and lawmakers who are directly responsible for how the law is defined and enforced.
Beyond judicial safeguards (fence-laws), the Bible itself refers to entirely new laws enacted by their predecessors in the days of Ezra – such as the reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim and the four rabbinical fasts. Moreover, we find that the novel legal additions to Torah practice were enacted by a court of sages staffed by prophets such as Haggai and Zechariah. If such rabbinical additions contradict Torah law, would the prophets of the Bible have remained silent?
With the above examples in mind, God’s Command not to “add” to the Law (Deut 4:2, 13:1) clearly means something else. It means not adding laws in God’s Name – as if HaShem Himself had commanded thus – or to add content to HaShem’s Torah Commandments, such as adding more words to the priestly blessing as it was commanded in the Torah. (Book of Love, Laws of Prayer 14:12 cf. Num. 6:22-27)
There can be no doubt: just as rejecting Moses was tantamount to rejecting God Himself for the Jews coming out of Egypt, so is rejecting rabbinical law to this day. RaMBaM explicitly refers to rabbinical law as an extension of Torah law in hil. Shabboth 26:23.
HOW TO BREAK THESE HABITS
1) Getting Married
How can one break the cycle of sin? How can one break these powerfully addictive, evil habits? By realizing the Torah is a complete system, which works as a whole. A man should not live alone without a wife. For one who has a healthy sexual urge, it is forbidden for him to remain single, even if he already has children! (hil. Ishuth 15:3)
A man is a man under the Torah commandment to “to be fruitful and multiply” from a young age. (hil. Issure Bi’ah 21:24) It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the exact age, how the system was meant to work, why it is ideal, and how it worked beautifully in reality for thousands of years until the last century. In our society there many stumbling blocks in the way of this ideal. Nevertheless, except for a few extreme cases; if a man is not married by the age of 20, it is considered a sin. (Ibid. 15:1-2)
Another key is realizing God’s patience and underlying care for every human being. If you are 20 or above and unmarried, the point is not for you to feel guilty, but that you realize the importance of what you are missing out on, from the point of view of your Creator.
2) Living in a Torah Community in the Land of Israel
Environment is a major factor. Living in the Diaspora, or even a secular community in Israel, one is flooded with base, licentious, secular media, and immodestly-dressed people who deem themselves to be very “advanced”. One feels like a tzaddiq (a righteous man) just by praying and keeping Shabboth! Living in an observant Jewish community in the Land of Israel makes it easier to live a holy life. Moreover, to live in the Land is no less than an obligation. (hil. Melakhim u-milhhamoth 5:15)
A person must always live in the land of Israel, even in a city with a
majority of gentiles; and not live outside the Land, even in a city with a
majority of Jews: For whoever leaves for outside the Land, is like one who serves idolatry, as it is written, “for they have driven me out from being attached to the heritage of HaShem, [as if] to say, ‘Go worship the gods of others!’” [I Samuel 26:19]
This is not merely theory: As a person who lived as a single man both in Israel and abroad, I personally know this to be a fact.
3) Throwing Out the TV
Practically speaking, wherever one lives; if he watches TV or uses a computer without a filter, he is inviting problems. Lest someone imagine that this is only the attitude of the Haredim (the ultra-Orthodox); he should be aware even the key rabbis of the national religious community (such as Rav Mordekhai Eliyahu of blessed memory) have consistently regarded TV and computers without filters to be forbidden. Besides exposing a person to licentiousness, TV watching has been proven in scientific research to lower intelligence in children, (3) and both TV and recreational computer surfing are a pernicious form of wasting valuable Torah learning time. Notably, Torah learning is the classical remedy from ancient times for a person overtaken by the evil inclination. (Ibid. 21:19[19-20])
When today’s rabbis regularly refer to TV and un-filtered internet like idolatry that is forbidden to even keep in our homes (Deut. 7:26), this allegory may be stronger than even they might realize: Idolatrous imagery – from the ancient world down to present-day India (in example) – has always been characteristically pornographic. When a person rids his home of such images, he fulfills one of the basic reasons for which HaShem forbade keeping idolatrous images in the home.
4) Patience, Positive Thinking, and Prayer
In any case, masturbation and porn-watching can be terribly difficult habits to break. The weaning process can take time. If, in the meantime – despite one’s best efforts – he still stumbles, he must not look at himself as a hopelessly-wicked or disgusting creature. (hil. Teshuvah 3:8) Rather, he should consider the incredible reward he will merit once he, after having tasted sin, turns away from it in full repentance, causing all his previous sins to be erased. (Ibid. 7:4)
He should also remind himself how ultimately rewarding his restraint will prove to be in this world: By channeling his sexual activity exclusively into a present marriage, or saving it for his future marriage (if he is unmarried), he will intensify and lengthen his marital bliss into old age. If Jewish couples were only to observe HaShem’s Laws – saving their sexual activity exclusively for one another with no other outlet, and having eyes for none but one another – there is no doubt the divorce rate would drop significantly, and our birthrate (critical to maintaining our hold of the Land of Israel) would increase.
We see here that one need not be a mystic to perceive a connection noted by kabbalistic-minded scholars between the brazen spilling of seed, and the dangers to our existence in the Land of Israel. Our nation is ultimately as strong as its family life. For example, our army is made up of its individual soldiers, whose strength is determined, in part, by their faith and their clean self-image. This is, in turn, a reflection of their morality. It is not for nothing that in Biblical times, righteous warriors such as David’s men were careful to remain clean in the field from the ritual impurity caused by seminal emission. (I Samuel 21:5-6)
Finally, one should pray mightily and sincerely for HaShem’s help in his battle to reclaim his God-given right to holiness. With HaShem’s help, no adversary – neither from within nor from without – can stand in our way.
1) Item found at: The Dennis Prager Store: GENESIS I Chapters 1-6, found at: http://stores.dennisprager.com/
2) Based on a survey of over 1000 readers, published in the April 2, 2009 edition of the U.K. newspaper “The Sun”.
3) “TV ‘stunts kid’s brain growth'” in Health section of the Manchester Evening News, October 03, 2005. http://menmedia.co.uk/manchestereveningnews/news/health/s/176/176353_tv_stunts_kids_brain_growth.htm