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The Jewish Ethicist: Keeping Your Computer Holy

The Jewish Ethicist: Keeping Your Computer Holy

How can I overcome the temptation to view improper sites?


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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May 21, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) Mordechai Bulua, June 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Putting "Shivisi" on Computer Screen

I thought of what I believe is a better idea than putting up pictures of admired rabbis next to the screen, to prevent one from going to "forbidden" sites. In many shuls, there is a "Shivisi" plaque on the front wall, which is the verse "Shivisi Hashem l'negdi tamid." - "I set Hashem (G-d) always before me!" (Psalms 16:8) One could print out the verse and put it on the border around the screen. Hopefully, the fear we have of Hashem will be a better deterrent than any fear of a saintly rabbi's picture. Actually, doing both would be even a better idea!

(8) Neil, May 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Dear Rabbi Dr. Meir,

I have been reading your column for a while and always enjoy it.

Your most recently emailed column offering advice with regard to resisting inappropriate websites is welcomed. While smokers have the patch, the addiction to smut has a stigma more akin to alcoholism, and I speculate that it is likely more difficult for an Orthodox Jew to attend a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting than it is to attend AA.

There is a computer program that is available for a monthy fee (a program with which I have no affiliation) called Covenant Eyes. Dubbed an 'Internet Accountability Program,' it logs a user's Internet activity and allows a designated "Accountability Partner" (as well as the user) to view the log at any time. While it is more invasive of privacy than your suggested solution (keeping the computer in a public place), it might prove a more effective solution for those who need one.

Thanks for your articles.


(7) Anonymous, May 26, 2005 12:00 AM

thank you so much!

i know that usally it is men that have the temptation to look at immodest sites. however i too (i am a happily married woman and preg with my second child) am often tempted to ....
the advice you gave sounds very very good.
may G-d help me and the many others struggling with this issue.

(6) Yehudah Silver, May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Picture yourself at your best

Get a picture of yourself taken with your tefilin on, or whatever. Hang that up as a reminder of who you really are. For example, I frequent a ba'al teshuvah yeshiva/shul, where folks freuqently adress one another simillarly as to how people sometimes adress their children: as "Hey, tzadik, how are you today?" Addressing folks in such a manner has a benificial effect on their spiritual growth, one that isn't limitted to only children. As it turns out, the yeshiva recently sent out a brochure about its many programs, along with many pictures. As "luck" would have it my picture is smack-dab in the center of the front page. It's a picture of the new me with a kippah, learning Torah with my chavrusah/study partner. I put that up on the wall by the computer -- with such an ever-present reminder of my awakening of my inner tzadik, my yetzer tov/good inclination is able to shout down anly little caterwauling that the yetzer hara/evil inclination feebly tries to muster.

(5) Anonymous, May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Thank you so much!!!

Dr. Asher Meir, thank you so much for this article and for touching this subject which not many people talk about. I think this is an issue that most people go through but they are embarassed to talk about.This kind of problem can break a marriage, because it can take away the sanctity of the marriage and the spouse of the viewer can feel some level of betrayal.

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