The Mitzvah of Marital Fidelity

Sermon given May 5, 2000, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

The congregation gathers to observe the holiest night of the year. The Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark, and we all stand in their commanding presence. A solemn hush falls upon the Sanctuary, as the cantorial soloist intones the solemn words of Kol Nidrei. This moment in our liturgical calendar fills us with unparalleled awe. This one prayer affects even those who are usually unmoved by religious ritual. It leads us to contemplate our deeds of the past year, to consider our lives, to commit ourselves to becoming better persons.

The powerful feeling can be broken, though, if one glances at the prayer book. There, we read that Kol Nidrei does not call upon us to consider our actions. In fact, it isn’t even technically a prayer. Instead, Kol Nidrei is a legal formula, asking God to absolve us of vows we have failed to fulfill, after honest effort. Surprisingly, those last three words, “after honest effort,” are only found in the English version of the prayer. In the original Aramaic, Kol Nidrei relieves us of the requirement to fulfill our vows, period.

Kol Nidrei originated at a time in Jewish history when our people took too many vows upon themselves. In God’s name, men and women would promise to sacrifice excessively of their livelihood or of their time for the service of the Lord. Once taken, these vows were viewed as permanent and absolute, and individuals feared the wrath of God if they failed to fulfill them. Our rabbis became concerned that people were suffering, and they devised Kol Nidrei as a means of providing relief.

In our modern world, few among us take too many vows. If we do make excessive promises, we are often quick to absolve ourselves. Even if we have used God’s name in making a commitment, most do not fear God’s wrath if we fail to fulfill it. We utter Kol Nidrei, not for legal purposes, but for spiritual inspiration. Too often, we break our vows with abandon.

Judaism’s most sacred vow is the commitment of marriage. As we place the ring to our spouse’s finger, we utter ancient words that sanctify marriage partners, one to the other, according to the laws of Moses and our Jewish people. God’s name is invoked throughout the ceremony. And yet, marriage vows are broken with abandon.

Some have extra-marital affairs, satisfying sexual urges uncomplicated by the complexities of sharing the full range of life’s joys and struggles with another person. Others rush to the divorce lawyer at the first sign of difficulty, without any sincere effort to make the marriage work. Still others are unfaithful in more subtle ways, abandoning a spouse by seeking refuge in work, hobbies, or the internet.

Marital infidelity is nothing new. If adultery were not a problem in biblical days, there would have been no reason to outlaw it in the Torah. While some among us may wish for “the good old days,” when marriage vows were supposedly taken more seriously, I am not persuaded that the problem is greater today than it was in the past. Moreover, Judaism has always understood that not every marriage is meant to be, however sincerely both parties were on their wedding day. Therefore, divorce is provided as a remedy, even in the Torah itself. An entire tractate of the Talmud addresses the matter. Ending a marriage, when absolutely necessary, is sad, even tragic, but not sinful. With divorce, as with Kol Nidrei, we can be absolved of marriage vows that are unhealthy.

Though some in our society take divorce lightly, and use it as a simple remedy to a complex problem, Judaism did not design divorce to be easy. The procedure for obtaining a get, a ritual divorce, is complicated and consuming. Because that process is entirely one-sided and sexist, we Reform Jews do not utilize it. And yet, we can learn from our ancient tradition: Divorce is not intended to be “the easy way out.”

Unfortunately, difficulties in marriage are rarely met with labor-intensive attempts to improve the marital bond through counseling. Sometimes, even when the work has been done and divorce is the only reasonable choice, it is avoided. Some are not willing to admit their failure so publicly. Others simply want to get around tackling all the sticky issues that must be addressed in counseling or resolved in a divorce. Too many, then, seek refuge in marital infidelities of one kind or another, in a misguided attempt to escape the pain. Instead, they end up inflicting much greater suffering on their spouses, on their families, on the objects of their illicit affections, and even on themselves.

Recognizing the sinfulness and the pain involved with marital infidelity, the Reform rabbinate has begun to address this issue openly and seriously. In late March, I observed a heated panel discussion on adultery at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

A paper was presented by Rabbi Jack Stern, a distinguished rabbi and past President of our Central Conference of American Rabbis, who was our congregation’s Wulfe Lecturer in 1997. Rabbi Stern noted that the matter of adultery had received little attention in Reform Jewish discussions throughout many decades.

Rabbi Stern was too polite to mention the reason, but I am not. Over the years, from time to time, a small but well-publicized number of rabbis have been caught in extramarital affairs. Too often, our rabbinic colleagues have treated these adulterous rabbis with kid gloves. The problem is not unique to rabbis. Clergy of other faiths have had similar issues. However, as long as rabbis were soft on their adulterous colleagues, we were reluctant to speak out on the matter to our congregations. Today, our Rabbinic Ethics Committee acts with a stronger hand, and rabbis are severely punished for such errant behavior. Therefore, we are ready to consider our role as rabbis when congregants are unfaithful to their spouses.

In his paper, Rabbi Stern noted the traditional Jewish law that, after an act of adultery, divorce is required. Moreover, the couple who have carried on the illicit affair are not permitted to marry one another. Rabbi Stern, like all of the rabbis present for the discussion, departed from the tradition on the requirement that a couple divorce after one of them has committed adultery. Many marriages may indeed be repaired, even after such a terrible breach, with much hard work, the religious labor of repentance, acts of loving kindness and tzedakah, counseling and healing.

And yet, Rabbi Stern wondered whether we ought to take more seriously the prohibition against the marriage of a couple whose relationship began as adultery. He told us that Conservative and Orthodox rabbis will not officiate at such weddings, but that Reform Judaism has never forbidden such a marriage. Rabbi Stern did distinguish between various cases of adultery, classifying some as more forgivable than others. And yet, he urged his colleagues to consider that some proposed marriages, resulting from an affair, may not be worthy of Jewish religious sanctification by a rabbi.

In addition to Rabbi Stern, the panel included Judy Zimmerman, a counselor who is the wife of Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman and a dear friend of Rabbi and Lynn Stahl. She agreed with Rabbi Stern, and added her voice to those calling for serious confrontation of marital infidelity in the Jewish community. The third panelist, however, Rabbi Sanford Seltzer, decried this harsh approach. He said that a rabbi’s only response to a congregant’s adultery should be to bring healing through acts of repentance. Rabbi Seltzer argued that, when people are under duress, enforcement of Jewish law will not bring relief; only the sympathetic ear of a counselor can help. From the audience, Rabbi Douglas Sagal urged us to consider the pain of the spouse, children and community who have been bruised by the narcissistic act of marital infidelity, and to be less concerned for the problems of the adulterer. The debate was fierce, about half of the rabbis present agreeing with Rabbis Stern and Sagal, with others strongly siding with Rabbi Seltzer.

In Judaism, our mitzvot, or commandments, are divided into two categories, positive and negative. A positive precept is a “thou shalt;” a negative mitzvah is a “thou shalt not.” The prohibition of adultery is a “thou shalt not.” Therefore, those who are unfaithful in marriage are breaking the laws of Judaism. No congregation, community or rabbi should be expected to treat adulterers as though they have done nothing wrong. Moreover, the sin of marital infidelity is not a victimless crime. We must indeed concern ourselves with the aggrieved parties: abandoned spouses, children whose lives have been shattered, communities that have been divided.

In conclusion, though, I would propose that we also regard marital fidelity as a positive commandment, a “thou shalt.” Other affirmative mitzvot, such as “Thou shalt observe Shabbat,” require significant effort on our part. Let us acknowledge that marital fidelity, too, is labor intensive.

At a Jewish wedding, we conclude the ceremony with the breaking of the glass. There are many explanations for that practice, but one that I favor. During the wedding, the couple may be so carried away with unbridled joy, that they are unrealistic about the nature of marriage. The breaking of the glass reminds them that less joyous times are part of every marriage. Even the happiest of wedded lives include days of breakage, just as the happpiness of the wedding is momentarily shattered with the smashing of the glass. And yet, as soon as the glass is broken, the congregation shouts, mazal tov!” We express the hope that, even after difficult hours, we will have the opportunity to rejoice with the couple once again.

The average days of marriage may not be easy. Work is involved in making decisions together, facing difficulty, and resisting temptation. We must engage in the effort of fulfilling a positive commandment. The result, though, is an inestimable blessing. May each of the married couples among us perform the mitzvah of marital fidelity, and may we find its rewards: a life of partnership, years of fulfillment, and a successful quest to build a beautiful family and a better world. May God grant us the strength to perform this mitzvah with determination and with joy.