In a recent online video discussion, a prominent conservative commentator asserted that Judaism, while strictly forbidding adultery, takes a lenient position on lust more generally; he then went on to assert that pornography can serve a benign purpose. Rafi Eis suggests such a misunderstanding of traditional views on sexuality rests on a “simplistic” view of the distinction between thought and action:
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” (Leviticus 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.
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. . . . 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.