My first response when I saw this question was a reluctance to answer it. This is because these types of questions are regarded, by Jewish thought, to be of a private nature and, as such, public discussions of such issues are deemed to be inappropriate. Yet, perhaps, this very concept of private and public, itself, needed to be imparted – and, in many ways, this idea is, also, the very basis of an answer.
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.
Judaism encourages sex within marriage and that includes sex for the sake of pleasure and intimacy. Jewish law, however, prohibits viewing pornography, even for the sake of facilitating sexual arousal with a spouse.
Judaism holds that the body and sexual pleasure are gifts. Viewing pornography desensitizes us to the actual beauty and blessing of sexual intimacy, which is far beyond and much deeper than the skin. Sex is an expression of love, trust, respect, and, in fact, a way to share a unique and precious part of the self. The gratuitous, explicit, and aggressive nature of pornography directly violates the Jewish notion of a healthy sexual relationship, of modesty, and the innate holiness of the self.
Moreover, it is well documented that pornography contributes to the denigration and oppression of women in society. It objectifies women rather than valuing them as human beings created in the divine image of God.
I pray that your wife finds other paths to arousal. Stimulating arousal is often associated with underlying emotional or psychological issues of which we may not be immediately aware. Seeing a therapist may prove helpful.
The question of using erotica to “help with arousal” – or for any other purpose – cuts across many lines. Since my field of study is Jewish law, I will try to address your question where Jewish law might play a part. But the other areas for consideration should be noted as well:
First, what kind of “porn” do you refer to? Is it material that degrades men and/or women? Was it produced with people who are legally permitted to be involved in its production? Is it produced, indeed, to help with arousal, or might it have other purposes that you don’t know about? Was it manufactured legally, and is it legally available in your jurisdiction? Could her or your desire to use erotica to stimulate one another turn into an obsession or addiction, or can you use it appropriately for your private use, and then put it away from you, and from the eyes of underage people?
Given the nature of our society and the availability of both erotica and pornography, these are important considerations over and above what personal value this material has to you or to your wife. So please consider my response to you only the beginning of an answer that would provide the guidance you need to address your needs.
The Sages of our tradition would not have known, of course, about pictures, films, VHS’s and DVD’s, Internet videos, and other modern manifestations of material that can help with arousal. But from some of their writings about the purpose of human sexuality, we can discern some attitudes about the need for sexually satisfying a partner.
The major aspect of your question deals with using the images of another man or woman engaged in some sexual act to arouse her (or you). One small place in Tradition may lend a view, but it is not conclusive by any means: In Nedarim 20b, we find this brief reference in a discussion of intimacy and sexuality: “Rabbi taught: One may not drink out of one goblet and think of another. Rabina said: This is necessary only when both are his wives.” So one should not think of one wife while engaging in sexual intercourse with another. On its face this applies to a very different time and society. However, one might draw connections between this text and the erotic renderings of film or print – i.e., thinking of another – when being involved sexually with your usual partner. However, I say this passage is inconclusive, because the text here names singular authorities, whose named responses to these questions are usually not ‘the law.’ (The ‘law’ is usually an anonymous citation.)
Just above this passage, in Talmud Nedarim 20a-b, there is a small midrash that might advise you further in your question. “Rabbi Johanan ben Dahabai said: ‘The Ministering Angels told me four things: People are born lame because they [their parents] overturned their table [i.e., practiced unnatural intercourse, whatever that might mean]; dumb, because they kiss “that place” [prohibition of oral sex]; deaf, because they converse during cohabitation; and blind, because they look at “that place.”’ But this contradicts the following: Imma Shalom [wife of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos and a sister of Gamaliel II] was asked: ‘Why are your children so exceedingly beautiful?’ She replied: ‘[Because] he [my husband] “converses” [euphemism for intercourse] with me neither at the beginning nor at the end of the night, but [only] at midnight; and when he “converses,” he uncovers a handbreadth and covers a hand breadth, and is as though he were compelled by a demon. And when I asked him, “What is the reason for this [for choosing midnight]?,” he replied, “So that I may not think of another woman, lest my children be as bastards.”’ There is no difficulty: this refers to conjugal matters; the other refers to other matters.”
This paragraph contains many hints and allusions to the question you raise. First is the question of modesty: This passage implies that where one might think that seeing one’s naked body or sexual organs might be thought of as wrong, it is not. Secondly, that various sexual positions are possible. Third, that using various means of stimulating someone is possible and permissible. And fourth, that as one engages in sexuality, one should ultimately be focused on one’s partner and not another, though here again the Talmud refers to thinking of one wife while pleasing another, a situation that we do not encounter much in our world, and certainly not in mainline Jewish practice.
I would like to refer you to an online resource that may address some questions that you have. Try http://www.jewfaq.org/sex.htm, and you will have many more ideas and thoughts about what traditional Judaism says about sexuality.
At this site, they say this, to start: “In Jewish law, sex is not considered shameful, sinful or obscene. Sex is not thought of as a necessary evil for the sole purpose of procreation [as it is in other religions]. Although sexual desire comes from the yetzer ra (the evil impulse), it is no more evil than hunger or thirst, which also come from the yetzer ra. Like hunger, thirst or other basic instincts, sexual desire must be controlled and channeled, satisfied at the proper time, place and manner. But when sexual desire is satisfied between a husband and wife at the proper time, out of mutual love and desire, sex is a mitzvah.
“Sex is permissible only within the context of a marriage. In Judaism, sex is not merely a way of experiencing physical pleasure. It is an act of immense significance, which requires commitment and responsibility. The requirement of marriage before sex ensures that sense of commitment and responsibility. Jewish law also forbids sexual contact short of intercourse outside of the context of marriage, recognizing that such contact will inevitably lead to intercourse.
“The primary purpose of sex is to reinforce the loving marital bond between husband and wife. The first and foremost purpose of marriage is companionship, and sexual relations play an important role. Procreation is also a reason for sex, but it is not the only reason. Sex between husband and wife is permitted (even recommended) at times when conception is impossible, such as when the woman is pregnant, after menopause, or when the woman is using a permissible form of contraception.”
I think that the most important issue for you to address – for yourselves – is the mutual comfort level you have about the use of erotica for sexual stimulation. If you are both interested in this, and find that you can use it truly with no ill effects, then there should be no problem. But if one partner finds the material objectionable for some reason it may not be appropriate for you.
I wish you success in your marriage and sexual explorations with one another.
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