Adding to the commandment: Doorway to adultery

Marriage is not the “in thing” nowadays. Having no interest in my job makes training more interesting since I get to find out about the lifestyles and moral worldviews of the people I train. The amount of times I find myself talking to someone who is living with their “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” in a condition where there is a commitment to only have that one sexual mate is astounding. They cohabit; they share the bills; they share the same bed. And sometimes there is even a child involved. Yet when I ask these individuals who I happen to be training if they are going to get married to that sexual mate, many times the answer is “no!” I’ll hear reasons like “I’m not ready” or “I can’t afford it,” different excuses for why they take all the features of being married, yet do not consider themselves married. Even single people I sometimes speak to state that they are happy enough to live with someone, to cohabit with the shared commitment of only having sex with that one mate. Yet those same people eschew the notion of getting married.

Throughout these exchanges, I end up asking these people what exactly they think marriage is. And all too often what is stated refers to an extravagant ceremony (that they normally can’t afford) and/or getting a piece of paper from the state, the government, giving some sense of legitimacy to the union which has connotations of those two people having to spend the rest of their lives together. I get the feeling each time as if these people are describing a prison sentence. Their concept of marriage sounds so negative whilst having all the trappings of marriage without having the paperwork seems somehow qualitatively different and is somehow easier and acceptable.

Such notions about marriage are not rare. It is so popular in this culture. And think about it! Such ideas don’t just come out of nowhere. It may have to do with the dregs and remnants of a traditional or christian heritage, where people taught that in order to be truly married, you had to have the ceremony. People nearest and dearest to me hold this concept: if you haven’t had the ceremony, stated your promises and vows in front of some official and witnesses or had recognition of your marriage by some ruling power or government, then you aren’t really married; you are simply “living in sin.” And even people who reject God accept a similar standard.

What does God’s basic standards about human conduct say about the matter of marriage? And does that knowledge reveal any consequences for this societal view of marriage?

According to the Mishneh Torah, the section on Judges, Laws of Kings and their Wars, chapter 9, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon taught that a man is only guilty of adultery – sex with another man’s wife – once that woman has had normal sexual relations with her man. If that woman was only consecrated to a man, or had even gone through the wedding ceremony but had not yet consummated the union through normal sexual relations with her man, and then she had sex with another man, no adultery has taken place.

The picture of marriage is further clarified in the same book, in the section regarding marriage (or Ishut), in the first halacha of chapter 1, which states the following:

Before the Torah was given, when a man would meet a woman in the marketplace and he and she decided to marry, he would bring her home, conduct relations in private and thus make her his wife.”

The “marketplace” just refers to a public place. But the main point here is that marriage outside of the Jewish law – and that means this is applicable to non-Jews or Gentiles – only consists of a man and woman living together and having sexual relations with one another. The ceremony is irrelevant to the “legal” or “halakhic” status of the union. Recognition by the government as evidenced by some paperwork is irrelevant to the “Torah-law legal” or “halakhic” status of the union. The core elements involve living together and the sexual relationship where the woman is committed to the one man.

Now although rabbis advise and encourage the use of ceremonies and government documents, these things are still optional aids for one purpose or another, but the core of a Gentile marriage has nothing to do with either; a Gentile can be seen as “married” without such things.

But then, if you apply these conclusions to the way modern society operates, with many couples simply “living together,” then the implications can be quite significant.

Think about it! Because of the way our culture has been “shaped” or twisted, it has the idea that adultery can only happen if two people happen to get a government document like a “marriage license” or have had the ceremony called a wedding. Many people think that only people that have had these things are “married.” And such is not the case.

What makes things confusing for people who know of the seven laws, yet read English and not primarily Hebrew, is that something is definitely lost in translation. For example, when reading an English book or website on marriage with regards to the Seven Laws, you’ll something like this.

Halacha 7
A gentile is not executed for adultery with his colleague’s wife unless they engage in relations in the normal manner after she had engaged in relations with her husband at least once.

That’s take from the Mishneh Torah, the English translation from, in the section Kings and their Wars, chapter 9. The words in question are “husband” and “wife.” Even look at the previous quote and the part that says “… and he and she decided to marry.” The questionable word is “marry”. Why am I saying these are questionable words?

When many people in our culture sees the words “wife” or “husband” or “marry,” because of the societal norms, all they tend to see is two people who have got that magical piece of paper or who have gone through a ritual, and by those means have a binding agreement. “wife” in this culture would mean a woman who has got the magical piece of paper or who has gone through the ritual and now is bound to a “husband” who is also related to those rituals and artifacts. Even the word “marriage,” if you do a search on its meaning is said to mean a legally or formally recognized union of a man and a woman, and these words help conjure in the mind either the state (the government) or some ritual to make it formal or legal.

Yet the way it is spoken in the Hebrew has nothing to do with ritual or the state. It uses general words to refer to the man and the woman he gets. That’s almost all there is to a marriage in fact: a man gets a woman and she’s gotten. That’s it. There are no ritualistic titles like “husband” or “wife” or even a loaded term like “marriage.” There’s just man, woman, get and gotten.

So the gentile union that is protected by the seven laws is not exactly two people who get together and choose to live together as husband and wife, but rather, it’s a man and woman cohabiting in a way where the woman is committed to sexual union only with that man.

[ASIDE: Now I can hear the concern in the minds of some. “David, it seems a bit one sided, right? The woman is committed sexually to the man with nothing said of the man’s commitment. Doesn’t he just own her like chattel?” Actually no it’s not. According to the quotes from Rambam previously referred to, it’s an agreement that they both get into. And also, the core of Gentile divorce is where either the man or the woman chooses to end the relationship and live separately. The woman has just as much power as the man to do this. So if he isn’t committed to her and she doesn’t like it, she has the choice to walk out of it (or to kick him out!). So enough with the chattel talk!]

But what does this mean for what can actually in a committed cohabiting relationship in this society which has added artificial restrictions to who is and isn’t married? Think about it! A man sees a woman who attracts him. He looks at her ring finger. It’s bare. “So she’s not married,” he says to himself. He talks to her and finds out that she’s performed no ritual of marriage; she’s not got the legal documents. “So she’s fair game,” he says to himself. So if he pursues and she consents, or she pursues and gets some sexual gratification under the belief that as she has had no state or customary ritual, then according to the core definition of a “marriage” according to the worldview of the Seven Commandments, wouldn’t it be that adultery has just taken place, a grave crime against man and God? Do people literally open the doors to adultery because they’ve adopted a faulty principle regarding marriage and commitment and have said “by not partaking of the state and customary rituals, I’m not truly committed and sexual indiscretions are not as serious?”

I believe the core definition of non-Jewish marriage as defined by halakhah has serious repercussions for our society. By adding to the base concept of cohabitation, the sexual union between a man and a woman living together, by stating that marriage is not this cohabitation but rather an agreement between a man and woman ratified by the state or by custom, it causes people, even the people cohabiting, to conclude that when the woman cheats sexually with another man, this is not as serious as when people are “properly married.” Such a conclusion is, according to the Torah worldview for Gentiles, totally incorrect. But such a conclusion makes what is adultery according to the Seven Laws permissible. For a person serious about the Seven Commandments, this should be serious situation. It’s a bit like making euthanasia and abortion permitted. It brings the society down and pulls us below the divine standard for humanity.

These are my conclusions. Maybe it can be at least did for thought. But it is interesting to think about these concepts and apply the Torah for non-Jews to everyday life.


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