Marital Fidelity: What a concept!

Monday, March 24, 2008
Special to the Jewish Week

I’ve waited a week or so to write this, mostly because of my disinclination to write things that people will read and respond to by saying “Oh, well, he’s a rabbi, what do you expect?” I don’t at all like when people say things like that. It makes it sound like I- and all rabbis- are somehow less than human, that we don’t know or understand what it means to live in the real world.

But now, having waited, I have to let it out. Does anyone out there in public service still view fidelity within marriage as an active concept?

It wasn’t five minutes after the Sptizer resignation that the newly minted Governor Paterson- in a daring preemptive maneuver- stood with his wife and admitted that he, and she, had had numerous extramarital affairs. Believing obviously that it was better to get the news out there than be hounded by rumors, the governor came clean. But he’s hardly the only one. Even the most cursory read of today’s newspapers will reveal a staggering number of public officials who are under unwanted scrutiny for illicit sexual relationships outside of their marriages.

When actor Richard Widmark died just a few days ago, the obituary in the New York Times pointed out that he had been faithful to his wife of fifty-five years because- paraphrasing here- he liked her. As my wife said to me, “Actor faithful to wife; film at 11!”

What we are experiencing today is of course not a new phenomenon.

We wanted to believe that John Kennedy and his beautiful wife really had the idyllic marriage, but of course that was hardly the case. The only difference then was that the press didn’t talk about those things, by tacit agreement.

Gary Hart changed all that when he virtually invited the press to follow him, and they did- with predictable results. Former Mayor Giuliani has an interesting marital (and extra-marital) history. Bill Clinton… oh, let’s not even go there. And now it’s just so common, and so public, that we have no choice but to take note, and wonder at what it says about our culture, and our country, when marital fidelity among our leadership is so devalued.

Oh rabbi, I can hear people saying- you are just so naïve. But I don’t think so. People have been cheating on their spouses for as long as there has been marriage. Of course I know that. Were it not the case, the prohibition against adultery would not have been one of the ten commandments. You don’t need to forbid what people aren’t doing. The temptation to stray is built into human nature.

But working consciously to combat the less healthy temptations of human nature is, from my perspective, a pretty good working definition of the religious life.

There are lots of choices that we might make as human beings with free will. We can be or do whatever we want. But that doesn’t make every choice a good one, and we have certainly been confronted with a flood of egregiously bad choices, made by those whom, under optimum circumstances, we might fairly expect to admire.

I guess those people just didn’t get the memo….

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