Judaism Does Not Excuse the Sin of Adultery
The 1999 memo of Susannah Heschel that ended up with President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy advisor, Ruby Shamir, excusing the President’s affair with Monica Lewinsky as not being adulterous by virtue of “classical Jewish law” is bizarre.
What was Heschel – who is the daughter of the magnificent and eloquent Abraham Joshua Heschel – thinking? That President Clinton is Jewish? That he could use the Torah to excuse unfaithfulness? That the American people would somehow buy her argument about Biblical versus classical adultery? And that having an affair in the Oval Office as President of the United States was not so bad given the precedent of “King David,” who “had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, murdered… was condemned and punished” but “was never thrown off the throne of Israel?”
Personally, I have no interest in rehashing the Monica Lewinsky episode, which should be laid to rest. Through his foundation, President Clinton is engaged in saving lives across the world and deserves to have the conversation turned away from the affair. But with the Clinton presidential library releasing 10,000 new documents, including the memo from Heschel that argued that “President Clinton is guilty” not of adultery but “of the common sin of onanism [masturbation], a sin that probably afflicts the consciences of most Jewish men at one time or another,” a response is essential lest anyone conclude that Judaism is lax on husbands who cheat with single women.
Heschel – if the memo is accurate – is not the first to use Judaism to minimize the sin of faithlessness in marriage with a single partner. Many husbands over the years have tried to make the same argument and there was even some perverse book written in the name of Jewish law a few years back that falsely argued that Judaism allows concubinage.
I still remember the time when a husband called my office and asked for counseling. It turned out that he lived with his thirty-something wife in a sexless marriage and because the couple had three kids, they were loathe to divorce. He came to see me to receive a second opinion about advice given to him by, he said, a scholar who told him he was allowed to have sex with women so long as they were not married.
This advice is an abomination to Jewish faith and values. The Biblical definition of adultery as pertaining to a married woman relates solely to punishment the act incurs. It does not in any way allow for a husband to cheat on his wife with any other person. To the contrary. Judaism views the sin of marital unfaithfulness as the most serious breach of marriage, involving – as it does – unsanctioned sexuality, deceit, injury to an innocent party, violation of the exclusivity of the marital bond, and an often mortal blow to its intimacy. Worse, unfaithfulness is even more harmful as a marital sin of omission than commission, depriving a marriage of the necessary investment of love and erotic attraction and channeling it to another.
The man who is not pursuing his wife is neglecting his wife. No marriage can long survive the distraction of a stranger. Many mistakenly believe that ancient Judaism endorses polygamy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible says clearly that God created Adam and Eve. Not Adam and Eve, and Clara, and Bridgette.
From the very beginning, the monogamous foundation is set. Abraham was not, as is often misunderstood, polygamous. For most of his life he lived monogamously with Sara. He had no desire to live differently. It was his wife who pressured him to take her maidservant as a concubine because she was barren. Isaac was always monogamous with Rebecca. Much is made of Jacob’s four wives but the Bible is clear that he was romantically in love with and wished to marry only Rachel. He was swindled by his father-in-law Laban into a union with Leah and later his two wives gave him concubines to father more offspring. But Jacob’s clear desire was to be monogamous.
The only real example of polygamy in the Bible is the kings of Israel, especially David and Solomon. Both are criticized for the monumental errors they made with women. David is the most famous example. His kingdom never fully recovered for his sin with Bathsheba.
Concerning Solomon the Bible says, “But king Solomon loved many strange women… And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods.”
As for the Lewinsky scandal, I do not much care for the private lives of public officials and there is little evidence for the belief that private morality is a bellwether for public accountability. There is no record of Adolph Hitler ever cheating on Eva Braun. Conversely, Franklin Roosevelt broke his wife Eleanor’s heart with an affair with Lucy Rutherford Mercer, who was the woman with him when he died in Warm Springs, Georgia. Yet Hitler destroyed the world while Roosevelt saved it.
To the extent that President Clinton had moral failures as President, his inaction in the Rwandan genocide is infinitely more relevant than anything that happened between him and an intern. But that does not mean that we can ever use Judaism to minimize private moral failings. Each and every one of us wrestles to do the right thing in marriage. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. We are all human and we are all going to make mistakes. The Creator expects us to direct our erotic attraction toward our spouse. But it comes with effort, and sometimes we fall short. But whatever failings we are guilty of, surely we dare never add insult to injury by using the Bible to justify our faults.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Values Network, the foremost organization influencing politics, media, and the culture with Jewish values. The international best-selling author of 30 books, he has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.