Q. I don't need anybody to convince me that I should avoid looking at immodest websites or e-mails, but I feel I need help overcoming occasional lapses, especially when smut is so pervasive on the net.
A. Certainly we need to make every effort to avoid viewing smut, whether it is on the Internet, on billboards, or any other medium. The Torah tells us, "Don't turn after your heart or after your eyes, which cause you to stray after them" (Numbers 15:39). Rashi's commentary explains that seeing immodesty may create a temptation to sin, but from other sources we learn that these impressions are damaging in themselves. Among other things they encourage a relation to the opposite sex based solely on superficial physical attributes, ignoring the inner radiance which should be primary.
Much academic research also supports the view that viewing smut has a negative impact on marital stability, and disapproval of these sites is hardly limited to religious people. A previous column discussed a high-profile case of a senior manager in a major company who was forced out of his job because he was caught viewing improper web-sites.
But even after a person is convinced that viewing these sites is wrong, he still needs help in resisting the powerful and ever-present temptation to peek, as well as in overcoming the momentary lapses and doubts that can creep into the mind of even the staunchest believer. There is no reason to feel guilt at having these temptations or occasional doubts; indeed, the Talmud tells us that "the greater a person is, the greater are his urges". But we do need to use wisdom and foresight to outsmart our "evil urge" and avert our eyes from any sights which can damage our character.
Some Torah students in Israel recently publicized a fascinating solution to this problem. Their idea is that a person should always use the Internet in a place where he could be observed. This doesn't mean that you need to actually be observed by someone; the objective is not to shame a person into "best behavior" by imposing other people's standards on him. Rather, the objective is to help a person enforce his own inner standards, on the assumption that he would be embarrassed to be seen doing something that falls short of his ideals. Even if the observer would see nothing wrong with our activity, knowing we may be observed has the psychological effect of strengthening our own inner supervision, our own conscience.
The basis for this idea is the prohibition of yichud, or seclusion. Recognizing the natural attraction that men and women experience, Jewish law forbids a man and a woman who are not married (or members of the same immediate family) to be secluded together. The concern is that despite the best intentions and their better judgment they may be drawn into temptation.
But the solution of our law is not to require them to have an actual chaperone. Rather, it is usually enough if the place they meet is one where other people easily could pop in. The psychological insight behind this law is that the very knowledge that others could observe us strengthens our inner discipline. As a result, this kind of exposure is sufficient even if the kind of neighbors who might pop in would not necessarily disapprove of the couple's activities (as would unfortunately be the case today, when standards of modesty are so low).
I think that this is an excellent suggestion. Whenever possible, we should try to use the Internet when there is a chance we could be interrupted by someone who would see our activities. Since we are not actually being watched there is no actual invasion of privacy, but since we are aware someone could see us this will strengthen our natural sense of shame and help us overcome unfortunate lapses.
Post script: I realize this may not be up many readers' alley, but in my office I have long adopted a solution in a similar spirit: I have pictures of some admired rabbis on the wall. Sometimes when I have hesitations about a particular site, I say to myself: "My saintly teachers are watching me, would they approve of this activity?"
SOURCE: See Shulchan Arukh Even Haezer chapter 22.
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