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Contemporary adultery and the roots of Tisha B’Av

The popularity of a website that helps couples cheat is a social tragedy, not just a personal one

Talmudic Lessons from Past Destructions

Destruction is in many ways the theme of the day. Most of our public discourse is implicitly related to the theme of destruction — preventing Israel’s destruction, given Iranian rhetoric and the recent Vienna accords. Our sensitivity to destruction stems from a history dotted with one traumatic destruction after another. Our history of destructions is captured in the calendar on Tisha B’Av. And so, we repeatedly reflect on the lessons of the day in a way that has a different charge than our reflections on any other important day in the calendar. Somehow the lessons we apply for Tisha B’Av have special existential urgency. They are the secret of our survival.

The most common lesson for Tisha B’Av relates to hatred and internal intolerance. If the Temple was destroyed on account of unjustified hatred, it will be rebuilt through unjustified, literally, free, love. This teaching, originating with Rav Kook, provides a glue for a diverse and often divided people, seeking to move forward as a collective, and to avoid future destruction, understood as internal division and falling apart.

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Worshippers at the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av (Photo: Flash 90)

The Rabbis offer this teaching as the reason for why the Second Temple was destroyed. The same source (Bavli Yoma 9b) also teaches why the First Temple was destroyed. On account of three things: Idolatry, adultery and murder. These are not simply rabbinic ideas. They echo contemporary voices, such as Jeremiah, the prophet who witnessed the Destruction. “When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery, and assembled themselves in troops at the harlots’ houses. They are become as well-fed horses, lusty stallions. Every one neigheth after his neighbor’s wife” (Jer. 5,7-8).

The Rabbis considered society to have advanced beyond these three cardinal sins, which they considered to no longer be applicable in their time, and therefore suggested unjustified hatred as the reason for the second destruction. As we ponder the state of our own society, in light of concerns of destruction — past and future, we must open for discussion the question of whether we should consider ourselves in light of First or Second Temple Judaisms and their respective sins.

Adultery in Contemporary Society

Had it not been for several recent news items, I would have continued to preach the gospel of free love on Tisha B’Av. But this year, “free” love seems to have taken on very bad connotations, leading me to consider whether we need not shift the focus of our teaching.

The news item that started this train of thinking had to do with the cyber-attack on the Ashley-Madison site. According to news reports, the site caters to adulterers, that is, individuals seeking extramarital affairs. An Israeli version of the site was launched last year, and a record 1 million entries was recorded. The hackers that attacked the site this week reveal close to 200,000 Israeli members on the site. In other words, at least 200,000 Israeli men and women are willing to actively seek out extramarital relations.

This number does not include individuals who had an affair because they fell in love with someone at work or who abused circumstances in their workplace for sexual gain. These individuals, together with individuals who would seek out other cyber or other options for extramarital relations make up a staggering statistic. Research suggests that up to 85% of Israeli adults (excluding the ultra-orthodox) did, or would consider, having extramarital affairs. And research similarly suggests that at least 40% of married couples have been unfaithful. In other words, almost every other person I meet on the street is in some way implicated.

The problems associated with adulterous behavior are in no way limited to secular society. The religious sector is reeling from one scandal after another, all involving adulterous behavior of individuals in positions of religious authority, making their transgressions all the more egregious. The actions of “the Rabbi from the North” are coming to light as serial adultery, committed under mystical coercion. Now we hear of the head of a “midrasha”, a religiously oriented teaching institution, who has been publicly exposed as a serial adulterer. And only this week a rabbi from Hadera was found guilty of serial violation of youth under his care (admittedly, not adultery in the English sense, but certainly a form of “gilui arayot” in the original Hebrew sense).

The news from different quarters suggest that a deep ill is plaguing our society, cutting across social divides and sectors.

Adultery and Destruction

How are adultery and destruction related? Is it simply the case that God is angered by certain behaviors and punishes them severely? If so, the connection between adultery and destruction is extraneous. If we consider the matter further, we can suggest a direct causal relationship between the attitudes and practices expressed through adultery and the consequences of destruction, past and future.

Israel seeks to build up its strength and resilience in face of the prospects of attack and destruction. Resilience is more than military might. Resilience and internal strength go to the core of the social fabric and the human person. Social resilience depends on the strength of the fundamental social unit — the family cell. Undermining the basic unit of society, by lack of faithfulness, ultimately undermines the strength of the entire society. Even as our enemies seek to weaken us from the outside, adulterous behavior weakens us from within.

The weakening of our social fabric points to a more fundamental weakness. Hungry sexual stallions follow a leading principle, giving it power over their lives — pleasure and the fulfillment of desire. Fulfillment of desire as the highest personal ideal has led, globally, to an unprecedented situation in which sexuality is ubiquitous in our lives, through every possible channel, media, advertising, entertainment, news and more. When a critical mass of individuals consider the satisfaction of their desires, primarily their sexual desire, to be the driving force of their lives, overriding family, values and commitment, they are weakened as individuals, and the entire society is thereby weakened. This weakening may lead to the inability to fight (make love, not war), in the eventuality of an attack, if personal pleasure is considered the highest personal ideal. It also undermines any moral grounds we require in the complex reality of the return to Israel, and the implications — suffering, dispossession, and more — it has for Arabs. A morally flawed society cannot make claims on a territory that was given based on a certain moral high-ground and that was lost when that moral high-ground itself was lost.

We typically think of adultery as coming within the realm of personal-moral behavior and therefore leave it out of public discourse. The Rabbis’ teaching on Tisha B’Av suggests adultery is a collective security-survival concern.

Globalizing Sexuality and Jewish Particularity

Let us return to the Ashley-Madison site. This is not a specifically Israeli site. It is one more expression of globalization, aided by technology. Israelis signing up to the site are simply acting in accord with broader globalizing tendencies. Why is it more problematic for Israelis to do so than for the rest of the world? To begin, I would argue that the problem at hand is indeed broader than a problem concerning the Jewish people and Israel and that its consequences are just as damaging for today’s society. The difference is that the rest of the world does not seem to be constantly engaged with issues of survival and the threat of destruction. It is only in light of the absolutely unique Jewish story — throughout history as well as in terms of present day threats, that the issue comes into clearer focus. We alone return time and again to the question of our threatened survival and to identifying root problems that undermine our collective existence.

Noel Biderman, CEO of AshleyMadison.com, an online dating site that promotes infidelity among married people.
Noel Biderman, CEO of AshleyMadison.com, an online dating site that promotes infidelity among married people.

Juxtaposing Israel with the rest of the world finds a powerful illustration when we note the name of the founder of Ashley-Madison. He is called Noel Biderman. Jewish for sure. But the name Biderman reveals much more. For anyone familiar with Jewish spirituality and hassidic tradition the name Biderman is a hallowed name, designating the Hasidic dynasty of Lelov. This dynasty is home to some of the most powerful spiritual personalities over the past century, since it was founded exactly 100 years ago, as well as today. One of Israel’s most potent spiritual luminaries, who draws thousands in his spiritual sweep, is R. Mailech Biderman. “Biderman” stands for mystical aspiration, dedication, service, refinement and selflessness. So, the question is how will the Jewish genius — symbolized in the name “Biderman” — be expressed. Will it be put in the service of base human desires, providing outlets for all of humanity through Jewish craft, or will it continue to serve as inspiration for realizing the highest spiritual ideals of humanity and of Judaism?

R. Meilech Biderman
R. Mailech Biderman, a potent spiritual luminary

This Tisha B’Av, we may do well to revisit some of the deepest issues that go to the core of our survival and the potential for destruction. What is the source of our strength and resilience? What justifies our continuing existence here? And what lessons from the past will we highlight as we continue to struggle for our existence and its meaning.

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About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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