There’s been quite the fuss over a halakhic ruling which supposedly permits men to have “kosher adultery.” While this is pure nonsense, it does provide an opportunity to refocus on Orthodoxy’s real relationship issues.
The truth is, all the brouhaha over “kosher concubines” is much ado about nothing. Haviv Gur provides a thoughtful and nuanced treatment of Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel’s “concubine ruling.” He points out that sensationalized reporting has obscured the fact that Abergel hasn’t created a prescription for kosher adultery. Instead, he simply utilized an archaic Halakhic mechanism to allow a childless man to take another partner if his wife refuses to consent to a divorce.
Of course, there are fringe groups who have re-interpreted the Biblical concubine to provide a framework for virtually unlimited sexual liaisons between men and unmarried women. Fortunately, mainstream Orthodoxy has been quick to denounce these perversion of Jewish tradition and values, since the idea of a “kosher mistress” is not only oxymoronic, but harmful.
A relationship between a man and a women must be based on a premise of equality, reciprocity, and a life-long bond. In its own special way, Halakhic marriage creates a relationship rooted in the ideals of equality, mutual respect, and a life-long attachment. By dispensing with the rites and commandments involved in a Halakhic marriage, concubinage trades these ideals for a transactional exchange of sexual pleasure. Those who advocate concubinage put forward the absurd, and emotionally twisted, notion that a transactional sexual arrangement can replace the marital relationship.
Shira Zwebner’s anecdote about her encounter with a fringe organization promoting concubinage is a case in point. While experiencing the emotional aftershocks of her grandfather’s death, and feeling the pressure that often accompanies dating in the Orthodox world, Shira saw an advertisement for a group soliciting concubines. This prompted her to doubt whether she could ever be someone’s wife. Happily, her moment of self-doubt ended when she threw the advertisement in the trash. If not, I might never have known the reading pleasure of hipstermomblog.com.
Yes, Orthodox Judaism has relationship issues. We have yet to put an end to the injustice facing Agunot, although the Rabbinical Council of America’s Halakhic prenuptial agreement is a promising first step. Hopefully, these agreements will become as standard as Ketubot. Similarly, we have yet to seriously re-examine how we educate young men and women so that they are socialized to understand how to interact with, and relate to, the other gender. While I benefited from a co-ed, Orthodox-Jewish education, my future children may not have that opportunity.
Similarly, we have yet to effectively address what’s been dubbed the “shidduch crisis” or the “singles problem”. As a single, Modern Orthodox Jew, this question isn’t theoretical for me. Although I don’t have to contend with a ticking biological clock, I do have a Jewish mother. (Hi Mom!) We Orthodox singles often feel an enormous amount of communal pressure to get married. Sometimes, this pressure becomes counterproductive and impacts our ability to date and form healthy relationships. (For the record, a healthy relationship generally does not begin with the exchange of resumes.) We can start by continuing to challenge communal taboos against “boy meets girl” and dispensing with mandatory go-betweens. While some may find matchmakers useful, religious singles can also benefit from good-old-fashioned, anxiety-inducing mingling.
While “the concubine comeback” and “kosher adultery” make for sexy headlines, they don’t reflect a normative halakhic alternative to the ideal of Jewish marriage. Rabbi Abergel is to be applauded for seeking a creative solution for childless men who cannot divorce. Hopefully, his ruling will spark sensitive and serious discussions about Orthodoxy’s other relationship issues. (If anyone has any suggestions, do feel free to post in the comments thread below) In the meantime, let’s hold off on the concubines.