Richard G. Epstein
QUANDARY IN ISRAEL:
RABBINICAL COURT DEBATES
STATUS OF "VIRTUAL SIN"
IN JEWISH LAW
Divorce Case May Force
Rabbis to Reconsider Earlier
Ruling on "Virtual Pork"
Special to the Sentinel-Observer
A rabbinical court in Jerusalem is being forced to resolve an issue of growing importance in religious circles: "Is virtual sin the same as actual sin?" At issue is whether a woman can divorce her husband because he committed virtual adultery using a virtual reality entertainment that is readily available over the Global Landscape.
"It's not only adultery that is at issue here," Rabbi Aaron Levinsky, Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, told reporters during a NewsNet teleconference from his office in Jerusalem. "At issue is whether virtual murder, virtual theft, virtual sins of every kind are of the same nature as actual murder, theft and sin. I know that Christians, Moslems and others are wrestling with these same issues."
The status of virtual sin is greatly complicated by the ruling that the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem handed down two years ago that made it perfectly legal from the point of view of Jewish law (or halakah) to eat virtual pork. Negev Virtual Entertainments (NVE) of Beer Sheba produced a virtual entertainment, Trayfe, which would allow an observant Jew to eat forbidden foods such as pork, lobster and shrimp in virtual reality. This entertainment artificially stimulated parts of the brain to simulate the taste, texture, and smell of these foods that are forbidden by Jewish law. The Trayfe computer program requires that the user eat some bland food, usually baked tofu, and the virtual reality gear then stimulates the brain so that it thinks that the tofu is really moo shoo pork or whatever.
The Rabbinical Court ruled that virtual pork is not the same as real pork, and was not forbidden by the Torah or Five Books of Moses. Rabbi Levinksy defended the court's decision when the decision was initially handed down: "In our view virtual pork is totally permissible, has nothing to do with real pigs, and thus can be enjoyed by Jews just as Jews have enjoyed mock pork made of wheat gluten for many years."
Unfortunately, the Court's ruling left unresolved the issue of virtual sin. If virtual pork is kosher, is virtual murder permissible as well? What about virtual adultery or virtual theft? Is it okay for a Jew to steal in a virtual reality entertainment? The Court had nothing to say about these issues until Rachel Cohen of Jerusalem forced them to confront the issue last January.
Rachel Cohen requested a divorce from her husband on the grounds that he repeatedly committed adultery using virtual reality entertainments that are available over the Global Landscape. "Insofar as the psychological damage that has been done to me," Mrs. Cohen told a news conference last January, "there is no difference between virtual adultery and the real thing."
Gordon Weiss, a theologian at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, believes that the Jerusalem Court will have to overturn its ruling on virtual pork because they did not fully comprehend that virtual sin has a sinful component. "Clearly, Mrs. Cohen should be granted a divorce at least on the grounds that her husband is involved in pornography, which is immoral. Pornography is not consistent with Jewish values and ethics. The situation with virtual reality becomes more interesting if we consider other virtual sins, like virtual murder, that may not involve pornography. Is it a sin to partake in a virtual reality entertainment in which you kill someone? Yes, I think it may be a sin."
Reverend Sam Humble of the Princeton Theological Seminary agreed with Rabbi Weiss. "Christ established a new standard, to the effect that hatred in the heart was akin to actual murder. Lust in the heart was akin to actual adultery. On that basis, I believe that these new entertainments are sinful because they promote the inclination of the heart to sin. They promote lust and violence. Thus, I believe that virtual sin is sin."
Rhoda Baker of the ACLU disagrees with Reverent Humble and Rabbi Weiss. "There is no hard evidence that participating in virtual adultery leads one to commit actual adultery or that committing a virtual murder leads one to commit an actual murder. In fact, a recent study out of Stanford University indicates just the opposite, that committing a virtual murder makes a person less prone to violence. Virtual murder provides a healthy outlet for violent urges."
Chief Rabbi Levinsky hinted that he would like to move the Rabbinical Court in the direction of evaluating virtual reality as a form of entertainment pure and simple. "If the entertainment degrades human dignity, such as pornography does, then it should be ruled unlawful. Virtual adultery is not adultery, but it is pornography. On the other hand, it is not unlawful to read a novel in which a murder occurs. Thus, can we make it unlawful to participate in a virtual reality drama in which you commit a murder much as an actor might in a movie? This is a hazy area insofar as I am concerned. My inclination is to rule that this is like pornography in that it demeans human dignity and promotes violence. I need to hear what my rabbinical colleagues have to say on this matter."
Ari Cohen, Rachel's husband, is now separated from his wife. He has repeatedly expressed his anger towards her for making public his liking for virtual sex, a disclosure that has nearly ruined his business as the owner of a religious bookstore.
Mr. Cohen defended his actions in this way. "One of the virtual reality entertainments that I love is 'King of Israel', which portrays the life of King David. The user of the system actually relives some of the adventures in the life of King David, including his slaying of Goliath, David's escape from Saul, and, yes, his sins, which included adultery and instigating the murder of his mistress' husband. Now, in reliving the life of King David, I am not actually committing adultery, nor am I actually plotting anyone's murder. So, I do not see how my virtual sins, can be compared in nature even to the actual sins of the historic King David, who is considered one of the great Jewish heroes of all time."
Rabbi Levinsky found Ari Cohen's remarks offensive. "King David was a righteous man who repented of his sins. If Mr. Cohen wants to relive the experience of King David he should repent of his sins, abandon these silly entertainments, and devote more time to the study of Torah and religion. I would find Mr. Cohen's argument more convincing if he could compose a virtual Book of Psalms."
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