All in the family: The Seventh Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, September 2010

Candace R. Kwiatek

In 1631, a typesetting error by London’s royal printers resulted in a King James edition infamously known as the “Wicked Bible.”

The omission of the word “not” left the Seventh Commandment reading, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

This inadvertent mistake — vilified in its time — appears to have been a harbinger of popular modern sentiments.

The dichotomy between God’s and humans’ views about adultery is a rich source of humor. One of the most familiar jokes describes Moses’ presentation of the commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai: “The good news is: I brought Him down from 15 to 10. The bad news is: Adultery is still in.”

The growing disengagement from one of the foundational principles of Judeo-Christian civilization isn’t humorous, however.

From tabloids to the movies, adultery is rich fodder for award-winning stories. Television is rife with it. Politicians and athletes are caught up in it. Bloggers trivialize it: “Who cares about adultery?”

High school students dismiss it, as Suzanne Fields recounts in Amoral America: “An editor…spoke to a suburban high-school class…and was surprised at how the young men and women were so nonchalant in dismissing the adulterous behavior of the president (Clinton). ‘What’s the big deal?’ one young man asked. ‘Everybody does it.’”

And authors profit from it, such as Joseph Lewis, with the unique view that the ancient taboo against adultery was founded on magical beliefs, a taboo that is useless in the modern age.

In the increasingly secularized world, the first three commandments are viewed as guidelines for those seeking a personal relationship with God while six of the remaining seven provide the ethical foundations for a healthy society: regular rest, parental honor, protection of life and property, truth and justice.

Adultery is the odd-man out, seemingly a command about personal relationships smack-dab in the middle of commands about social ethics.

For an explanation, we must look to the intersection among sociology, anthropology, contract law, and the Bible.

Adultery — the consensual sex of a married woman with someone other than her husband — was viewed not only as a private wrong against the husband, but also as breaking a social contract.

Because a man contracted for his wife, she was viewed as exclusively his (not ownership or possession, exactly; more like a no-compete clause).

From a practical standpoint, the law ensured that the woman’s children were those of her husband and thereby rightful inheritors of his possessions.

While the legal definition still stands, the modern Jewish view of adultery is reflected in the Shulchan Aruch (authoritative compilation of Jewish law): “Neither a man nor a woman should have any promiscuous relations outside of marriage.”

Just as in the ancient world, adultery is still a social concern because of its impact on the family, the foundation of society.

Today’s view, however, is that any consensual sex — even outside of marriage — is a personal and private decision with no societal ramifications. Judaism begs to differ.

In the Jewish view, sexual intimacy between a man and woman is both ordinary and holy — ordinary when fulfilling animal urges and holy when connecting with the divine through marriage.

Unlike a courthouse wedding, which only establishes a societal legal relationship, a Jewish wedding (like that of many other religious traditions) is a covenant between the couple and God.

Marriage, kiddushin, is really sanctification, the holy act of setting apart the husband and wife only for one another, a commitment documented in the ketubah.

“In this setting,” Peter Knobel elaborates (in his essay, Sacred Boundaries in the anthology Broken Tablets), “sexual intercourse is a religious act equivalent to prayer or Torah study, and the home becomes a holy place.”

By elevating animal lust over commitment, reason, or holiness, adultery undermines the sanctity of the home, the bedrock of society.

Holiness isn’t the only casualty of adultery. Secular society’s legal and ethical foundations are also undermined by adultery.

“’You shall not commit adultery’ is parallel to the commandment not to commit idolatry,” Rachel Mikva (editor of Broken Tablets) points out, along with the prophets and numerous rabbinic commentators; “each is in the second position on its tablet. Someone who betrays the marital relationship can be expected to betray God.”

By engaging in adultery or dismissing it as irrelevant, an individual has already committed idolatry by turning to other sources of authority, namely “reason” or “personal feelings.”  But how can a stable society be built on the quicksand of “multiple sources of authority?”

The fact that the commandment not to undermine the family is sandwiched between the secularly acceptable commandments about life (murder) and property (theft) illustrates the relative value of stable families to the preservation of a healthy and moral society.

Families provide identity and establish relationships. Families nurture, educate, and support their members. Families contribute to the common good.

“Identities, rights of inheritance, emotional and economic security are all bound in the bond of matrimony, and violating this sanctified promise results not only in emotional chaos, but also in legal, financial, and communal instability.  What happens in families has a profound effect upon society as a whole (Knobel).”

So what does all this have to do with you? Resh Lakish, a renowned third-century scholar, warns: “Don’t suppose that only the ones who commit the act with their bodies are called adulterers…any violation of the sanctity of the relationship, whether it be by dishonesty, abuse, or disinterest can be considered adultery.”

Even the non-participant who aids and abets someone else — by looking the other way, providing alibis, arranging trysts — can be considered guilty of adultery.

“Friends who do know have a right and a responsibility to remind their wayward acquaintance of the vow they took,” Mikva admonishes.

But that’s not all. “Fidelity is a spiritual commitment as well as a physical one,” Knobel cautions. “Often our occupations or our leisure activities become all-consuming passions that distance us from our spouses…(a kind of) ‘spiritual infidelity.’”

And today’s world has added new opportunities for undermining relationships in the form of pornography and cyber-sex.

Clearly, any behavior that “adulterates” or corrupts the connection between husband and wife is a breach of this commandment.

A contractor doesn’t arbitrarily eliminate a key component from the architect’s blueprint, because he knows each element contributes to the skyscraper’s stability. A chef doesn’t arbitrarily decide to eliminate a key ingredient from the recipe, because she knows each one contributes to the cake’s flavor.

And we cannot arbitrarily decide to eliminate the prohibition against adultery — in all its forms — from God’s plan if we hope to build a healthy, ethical, and long-lived society.

Family Discussion: One of the more famous “God speaks” billboards reads as follows: “Loved the wedding. Invite Me to the marriage —  God.” What do you think this means?


Literature to share

Genesis – the Book with Seventy Faces: A guide for the family by Esther Takac. This brilliantly conceived volume makes studying Torah with the family joyful and accessible. Each of the 12 weekly readings of Genesis is first presented through an accurate but child-friendly retelling. Surrounding the story are some of its “70 faces,” or commentaries, from midrash and legend, sages and scholars, and Kabalah.

And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning by Dr. Joel Hoffman. This fascinating study points out just why it’s true that the best way to read the Bible is in the original Hebrew. Where are the most significant mistranslations? What impact do they have on our understanding of God’s message? What hope is there for those not fluent in Hebrew? Interesting, fun, often surprising, and well worth reading.

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