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Reading secular books, like mistery, and romantic novels


Rabbi David Sperling

Adar I 19, 5776
What is the Halacha on for a woman reading secular novels like mystery and suspense novels in which sexual content, acts and genitalia are described by four letter words, in a graphic manner as part of a larger plot. Containing sparingly throughout the story four letter words for example. Is there any leniency within Halacha to read such material?
Shalom, Thank you for your question. There are two major issues that come up with such types of books - The first is "nivul peh" or dirtying one's mouth. Reading books that have rude words, or inappropriate content, is in violation of this law. The second prohibition is that one is not allowed to excite their sexual urges (outside of the framework of one's relations with their wife or husband). The definition of what is "nivul peh", whilst open to some degree of change from place to place and generation to generation, can basically be defined as any speech that would not be used in polite society. The Talmud goes so far as to say that one should even go out of one's way to use a more cumbersome sentence, rather than use negative language - for example, in parshat Noach it talks about the "animals that are not pure" rather than just saying "the impure animals" because it is nicer not to mention "impurity". Even though one is not technically obligated to go to such lengths - it is certainly forbidden to use vulgar language. On the other hand, the definition of what "excites the sexual urge" differs from person to person. We find in Tanach and Talmud references to many and varied things that could, potentially, lead one astray in this area - and nonetheless they are mentioned. This is because we assume that a regular person learning Torah will turn their mind to holy thoughts, and not be enticed to lewdness. This being so, every case must be examined by itself, and in relation to each person. For example, when I was younger there was a famous song with the words "I wanna hold your hand". Obviously this was referring to a man who wanted to hold his aging mother's hand to give her comfort in her old age. As such, this song never led me astray to licentious thoughts. But I could imagine that there were those who misunderstood the meaning of the song and started thinking forbidden thoughts. Those people should have refrained from listening to this song. And so too with the written word in books – the Tanach contains many episodes that could lead a person to sexual excitement, but a person is expected to be able to focus on the non-sexual holy message. So, in answer to your question – though it is difficult to give clear definitions of exactly what is allowed and what is forbidden (and being that this could well change from person to person, and change based on place and time) in general it would seem that the books you write about are inappropriate (or at least those sections you quote). (Perhaps a good yardstick is to try and imagine if you would lend them to your Rebbetzin (the Rabbi's wife) or other female Torah teacher.) Even within appropriate books there are levels of holiness. As one ascends towards a more holy life, one will find oneself wanting to immerse their whole being in G-dly pursuits. This will certainly influence what books they read, music they listen to, and places they frequent. I doubt that the music of the Beatles, even the ones with totally "kosher" content, such as "Yellow Submarine", would be considered good spiritual food for a tzaddik. On the other hand, one must remember that spiritual growth must be undertaken step by step, and for many people listening to "Yellow Submarine", or reading Agatha Christie, is a step in the right direction - especially if it is in place of reading vulgar books, or even if it just lets them relax and "be normal". Blessings.
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