The Jewish Press (February 16, 2018) asked a number of rabbis to address this interesting but rarely-discussed question: “Some of the most famous and important works of literature contain passages and themes that are immodest in nature. May a G-d-fearing Jew read these works for the good they contain, or must he forego reading them entirely?”

This is the link to the entire feature:

These were my thoughts on the matter:

     I don’t believe there is a definitive answer to this question, although it is certainly easier just to say “no.” Much depends on motivation, purpose, context, source, and especially the precise nature of the immorality, of which, of course, there are gradations. Perhaps the most important determinant is the message that is being delivered. Ancient and medieval works generally frowned on immorality and as such reinforce a Torah message while more modern and contemporary works often celebrate immorality. Usually, no good comes from the latter and prolonged exposure to values that are antithetical to Torah will eventually dilute the reader’s moral perspective and later his or her practice and commitment as well.
It’s important to note that Chazal (recorded in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 307:16) banned the reading of “divrei cheshek” – loosely, books of romance – as a waste of time that could be spent on more godly pursuits and as a tool that could only increase illicit temptation. Books that might fall under that genre must therefore have some redeeming value. Its prurient aspects must be incidental to its primary message for it to be considered appropriate and worthwhile. Fiction generally, Rav Kook wrote, affords us the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another person’s experiences and thus can broaden our horizons. But not every lifestyle or experience deserves to be investigated, studied or fantasized about and certainly not emulated. So caution must be applied.
That being said, there is one Book that exposes the vices and venality that can permeate human nature and is unsparing in its accounts of our failings.  It is superior to any work of fiction. That Book is the Tanach. And we can rest assured that its moral guidance is always spot on. Anyone who wants to learn about our potential for degradation as well great virtue is urged to study the relevant passages and not just skip over them. They provide a solid grounding in moral instruction and, nevertheless, occasionally put human dysfunction on display. One who is drawn to indulge in problematic works of literature would be well advised to study the works of Tanach instead, especially the chronicles of the early prophets. “Turn in it and turn in it, for everything is in it”( Avot 5:22).

7 responses to “Literature

  1. Dear Rav Pruzansky,
    Don’t you sometimes find the Tanach to be a difficult moral guide? Especially when compounded with Midrash? Should Avraham have gone to Mitzrayim?
    Okay to lie about Sarah? Okay for Yaakov to deceive Yitzchak? Whose side was right in the story of Shchem? Did Yosef perhaps deserve to be sold? What kind of moral guidance can one take from all the justified killings in Tanach? Doesn’t it seem like different Chazal derive conflicting messages from Tanach? What’s the correct moral guidance then? That nothing is black and white? Finally, how would one answer the question: What makes Tanach superior to any work of fiction, especially if it’s so “problematic”? I am asking the above out of sincerity, not out of cynicism.

    • I think what the Tanach recognizes, as should we, is that life sometimes consists of choosing between two poor (or at least undesirable) options. In such cases, the morally preferable option is to be selected, even if it is not perfect because a distinct value is seemingly being compromised. That is the world we live in. Those are all the cases you mention. Each had two competing values; in each one, the superior value was chosen but it did mean temporarily suppressing or minimizing the other value. That’s what makes the Tanach such a wonderful guide. This scenario of competing values happens all the time and many people flounder in indecision as a result. It need not be like that. Remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good.
      Of course, there are occasions when things are black and white and man still chooses the wrong option.
      – RSP

  2. No argument, but for the Jewish press to ask this question in 2018 makes about as much sense as it does to fight against the radio (or even the TV.) The fights of 25 years ago, let alone the fights of 100 years ago, are not the fights of today. We are not living in the Victorian Age nor even the Eisenhower age. Things that excited the passions long ago would not even raise an eyebrow today. והראיה – the cuted passage in SA refers to Immanuel of Rome as an example of such immoral work. Anyone who reads Immanuel today (and I have, selections, in T. Carmi’s excellent Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse) finds them more funny than anything else. At most, they could be viewed as somewhat ribald – a far cry from immoral.

    Besides, the question refers to “famous and important works.” Perforce he must be then referring to Shakespeare, not DH Lawrence. Mature adults do not find Shakespeare immoral.

  3. The worst secular literature, that all Jews should stop reading immediately, is the anti-Israel and anti-Judaism New York Times.

    If you doubt that the New York Times HATES the Jewish state and HATES the Jewish faith, then please read these articles:

    New York Times Erases Israel from Map:
    How to Convict the New York Times
    of Unfair Bias Against Israel:
    Evidence that the New York Times Hates Judaism:

  4. Your comment about the early prophets really hit home. I recently started learning Nach Yomi with the OU. I know I learned Yehoshua and Shoftim in elementary school, but it must have been an “anesthetized” version. Yes, I learned “pilegesh b’Giv’ah, but that’s a fraction of the immorality rampant then. I wish I could speak to my old teachers (from the 1960s) to find out what the syllabus was. Even my kids in the 1990s…what did they learn? When you read a perek a day, and sometimes, I confess, I go ahead and do several p’rakim, the accounts of the Israelites and the leaders/Shoftim of the time are astounding. Nach Yomi has become an eye-opening experience for someone who thought she really knew Tanach. איש הישר בעיניו יעשה indeed!

    • May I humbly suggest you buy my books on Yehoshua and Shoftim? Humbly? They underscore all these points. Check the right side on Thank you!