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A Friend’s Divorce

A Friend’s Divorce

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The Torah views the attraction between man and woman as natural, the sexual urge strong, powerful and urgent. It not only approves of this attraction, but exalts the resulting union in the most healthy and hearty of terms. However, it limits this instinctual urge within the confines of sanctified life, within the sacred boundary of marriage. The Torah well understands that this urge stems from the animal/instinctual part of us; reason and higher spiritual concerns are not its natural habitat. It has a life of its own. A strong life. And therefore, in order to constrain and harness its expression in appropriate ways, the Torah provides fences to protect the power of sexual attraction from itself.

Some of these “fences” have to do with discouraging men and women from pursuing situations of potential intimacy. For example, men and women not married to each other are prohibited from being alone together in the same room (and other places, like cars or elevators, as well). If they must be together, as in a work situation, then the door is kept open to a public space. There are numerous contingencies and leniencies that allow for everyday interactions, but in a way that discourages, and hopefully prevents, misplaced intimacy.

The Torah also understands that these physical urges come in different strengths and in different forms, and that some folks might need an extra fence or two to keep them out of trouble.

The Torah, however, does not make a separate list of regulations for every individual. When creating a fence to protect against some specific sexual tendency or potentially compromising situation, the Torah applies this fence equally to all of us. This “shotgun” approach can sometimes feel like “collective punishment” in which we all endure cumbersome restrictions whether or not we feel they apply to us.

But recently my perspective has changed.

An old college friend is getting divorced. Adultery the culprit. An affair between two married coworkers. I don’t want to go into more detail, only to say that he is an old acquaintance from long before I became religious, someone with whom I’ve kept in contact and whose children have been of interest as the decades have passed.

Since our college days, he is a guy who continually spurns old-fashioned mores, for whom the right of individual expression and self-actualization are the idols of modern life. Master of his fate, he believes he is in control of his emotions, in command of his urges and instincts. Rules never applied to him. Morals were an individual acquisition. As the years passed, he found my religious life quaint, charming and curious. He was so liberal as to accept my observance without challenge, an expression of my right to live the life of my choice.

As I learned the story of his pending divorce, I couldn’t help but assume that his thinking must have affected his choices. As this married man spent more and more time with his married coworker working together late at night or taking business trips or celebrating business victories, I could hear his persuasive voice assuring himself that his motives were pure, his passions under control, their separate marriages inviolable to temptation or destruction.

According to him, only when the situation had impulsively crossed all red lines did he and his coworker awaken to their predicament. Adultery and betrayal struck with devastating consequences. Children and spouses forever wounded. The couple fatefully enmeshed without possibility of retreat.

I was upset by the news; concerned for his wife and children; frightened by the fragility of human relationships, by the susceptibility of human feeling and emotion. Despite his quirks and idiosyncrasies, my old college buddy is a good guy. A thoughtful person. With a nice family. His views and philosophies are as much a product of the times and received opinion as of his own independent thought. He was both perpetrator and victim.

The combination of lust and loneliness (there were problems within the marriage that contributed to the situation, he said) had cast these people upon a path with no return. It was a path that anyone left to live without fences could have trod. Unhindered by these fences, lust and loneliness, passion and adventure found breeding ground in the unconstrained privacy of closed-door business meetings, afternoon lunches, out-of-town business trips and all the countless moments of potential intimacy that make up relationships unrestricted by Torah. If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone, G‑d forbid.

My thoughts and reactions ricocheted between sorrow for the two families, anger at my friend, compassion for his plight, and an overall sense of dread at the growing rate of divorce and the destruction that it brings. I thought mightily about how much I valued family, how protective I felt towards his children. I cringed at the pain caused by the breakup of his, and every, family. And it was then that I gained new insight into the Torah’s approach.

Jewish law is not prescribing collective punishment for the misbehavior of a minority; it is not forcing us to observe certain cumbersome restrictions to atone for the aberrant tendencies of a few.

Rather, my willingness to live within fences, to restrain my behavior—whether or not I believe they apply to my personal version of temptation—is part of a communal response and responsibility to protect the viability of every Jewish family anywhere in the world.

So great is the tragedy of a family destroyed that the Torah asks each of us to contribute our part towards protecting this most sacred Jewish institution. So devastating is the dissolution of even one family that we are asked to eagerly participate in upholding community norms of behavior that will defend against the pain and damage created by such dissolution.

As members of one large Jewish family, we all share equally in the welfare of our brothers and sisters and of their unions and offspring. Observing these fences is not an act of submission, it is an act of cooperation and communal participation.

In this spirit, we observe laws and fences of behavior both for the welfare of our own family and for the sake of some child, somewhere, whose father, alone in an elevator or behind a closed office door with an attractive woman, may be led to one day submit his child to the caustic chaos of divorce.

No matter how unlikely the scenarios may be, no matter how rare their illicit possibilities, we willingly adhere to these often cumbersome, bothersome, tedious fences for the sake of saving one family, of preventing even one damaged child.

Rather than be seen as collective punishment, these fences are the guardians of my people, the protectors of my family—both the little family I call my own and the larger one called the Jewish people.

In the swirling, convoluted, confused and compromised vortex of modern life, thank G‑d we have an island of truth, wisdom and practicality upon which my family—and countless others—can find sanity and protection within a sea of worldly folly.

An island known as Torah, with fences to surround and safeguard us wherever we may tread.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website Chabad.org.
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Geoffrey Jacks Lakewood, CA September 18, 2014

Great Article...Great Wisdom. L'Chaim! Reply

sheila ginsberg los angeles September 14, 2014

The problems in his marriage were the sole cause of the divorce.He should have worked on them ..As an assimilated but somewhat religious Jew, I grew up around Jews who interacted ,both men and women.There were extremely few divorces. In terms of working late at night with a colleague of the opposite sex, it is common sense that this is not wise. It is unhealthy to completely isolate in the manner of some observant Jews. Anyone with common sense knows not to spend an inordinate amount of time in close contact with someone not his mate. Both are unnatural and predictable. This friend of yours was dealing with fire and he knew it. He was obviously unhappy and may have not been a very responsive or giving. Reply

Janice September 13, 2014

Divorce with children? You are way to nice. He ought to be hanged for the pain especially to the children; is life long; not just a brief moment of saying, daddy doen't live here anymore. And this is major reason for breakdown of nation the breakdown of families. HaShem sees and knows this guys every move, may the curses come upon him as HaShem sees fit.This damage to children is trauma passed down through collective memory; to the 4th generation. Not just damage to one set of children. Reply

Anonymous toronto September 9, 2014

abuse Physical abuse is something i have no tolerance for in a marriage . One can be in a position because one chooses to be for the sake and love of family and community. No one is a victim for long, if one learns from the situation. Reply

Anonymous toronto September 9, 2014

time There are always reasons for everything including being in a marriage. There is a time and season for everything. Even a weak situation can increase one`s mental ability to bear and prepare you in many areas . Even what can be seemed as mistakes can be turned to your favor. Reply

Anonymous golus September 9, 2014

intimacy? 1. Closed-door business meetings, afternoon lunches, and out-of-town business trips are intimate?

2. Is the obvious conclusion, therefore, that women should not be in the workplace? Or maybe just secretaries? Reply

Angela Hoffberg Richland September 9, 2014

Running from God My divorce only occurred because I didn't listen to Him in the first place. In my first marriage, I like Sarah, took things into my own hands and knew it. I fell deeper than I thought possible. It was hard digging my way out. After the hardship, I knew I'd never disobey God's voice ever again. Reply

Peggy indianapolis, indiana September 8, 2014

divorce first of all, intimate relations between a husband and his wife isn't animalistic. if a person, male or female is in a abusive marriage get out of the marriage. if you are in a situation where you haven't a choice except to wait until you can leave, that may take a year or so, get out of that marriage. G-D doesn't expect anybody to be in an abusive marriage. abuse is when you have to defend you religious beliefs, or fight about who is going to drive the car, anal/oral sex, physical abuse, rape, children being abused, being belittled (pun intended), emotional abuse.... if you find yourself or your children being abused, get out, get a divorce. don't let anybody scare or intimidate you. Reply

Anonymous toronto September 8, 2014

divorce A Divorce is not supposed to be so dramatic. If a woman or man does not want to be in a marriage, no one can push them together. It is better not to be married than to stay with someone that one does not want to be with. A woman should have self respect in the marriage and her rights should be respected, this is the minimum requirement. A marriage is not a mistake , it happened but if two cannot be together then it is a decision taken with thought. At that stage i am sure she would flee even if there is no adultery involved. If one parent passes away the other parent takes up both duties. A woman can step up to such a position anytime. I would reject any religion which makes it difficult for a woman to come out of something she does not want to be in. No one should deny any one the rights to be a father or a mother for the children other than when it is harmful for the child. Amicable but irreconcilable differences and settlements should take place. Reply

Joanne Toronto, Canada September 6, 2014

the non-jewish world In my opinion, coming from a very secular background, those who care about the values known generally as 'family values' will set up their own fences based upon their own commitments to a moral lifestyle. Self-realization is also about 'setting up these boundaries' ... what is great is when you see men finally doing this for themselves, based on the knowledge of the mistakes they have made in the past. It's my opinion that each man or woman has to find these boundaries themselves .... the most inquisitive will often rebel, but we learn by realizing that the divorce crisis brings to chaos all that we hold near and dear - and our personal peace, as well. Committing adultery is a illusive way to 'hide out from God' . Reply

Shoshanah yerushalayim, Israel May 17, 2011

Answer to May 9, 5 and 4 1 -True that adultry is with a married woman but it is forbidden for him to be intimate with a single girl and also a second wife is forbidden, acording to the cherem of Rabeinu Gershon. 2- As far as learning
not to be dominated by temtation is concerned, just take a look at the outside world (outside of religious Judiasm, that is)and see the difference in devorce rates and broken lives and wrecked marriages even if they don't end in devorce and then you will understand the great wisdom of Chazal and the fences they made. Now you or others will write that you once heard of a case with a religious person, etc. but they ara an almost non-existant drop in the bucket compared to the non-religious population. And it is a known fact that Jewish marriages have always been and continue to be the most stable. 3-Orthodox woman have plenty of rabbanim to turn to who facilitate their safety and hear their voice. and know very well how to help in each individual situation. Reply

Zusel ben Shlomo May 5, 2017
in response to Shoshanah:

Shoshana, RE: pt #3. there are also many rabbanim who are in denial, always defend the man, or side with the money which is often in the man's control. When it your loved one who is being abused or denied a get, they ae not a "drop in the bucket" to you. May you never have personal exposure to this problem.

Zusel ben Shlomo Reply

Sarah Green Afula, Israel May 9, 2011

A Friend's Divorce Sadly the Torah would not have protected your friend. According to Torah it is only adultery because the woman was married. Had she been single, it would have been permissible for him to be intimate with her since Torah permits men everything. It might be he wanted a second wife, his right according to Torah. Reply

Anonymous May 26, 2017
in response to Sarah Green:

Too bad for him! The Torah allowed a second wife because The was no safety net or welfare in those times. It is clear that jealousy and unhappiness are the result of multiple marriages. The damages also affect the children. Rachel was the only wife who was loved. Men need to be socialized and taught ethics and morals since their innate nature is not monogamy.In my father's generation men were taught values that have been scorned .Women ,in copying men ,have become shameless. Reply

Richard London, England May 5, 2011

Learning and spiritual growth If people always aviod being in a situation where they are tempted to give way to their annimal nature, they will never learn to not be dominated by it. Reply

Yehudit Baltimore via harfordjewish.com May 4, 2011

Fences The social fences stated to try to keep a marriage together, can also hinder when a marriage may need to end in situations of domestic violence. People don't talk about it, and ortodox married women in this situation do not have tradition and culture on their side to facility their safety, hear their voice. In these situations, one size fits all should not be the case and individual situations need to be assessed and addressed. Reply

Anonymous May 3, 2011

I'm in middle school Every day I see people violate shomer nagiya and then make fun of the fences, the restrictions. They're not secular by any means, but they don't take it seriously. Today's society simply doesn't discourage things like that. It's considered normal to sleep with your boyfriend, and you hear about dozens and dozens of affairs or accidental pregnancies every time you open a magazine. The lack of fences in the modern world has ruined many lives, and we - the children - are growing up with too few fences to protect it. The press has bulldozed these boundaries, dared people to leave the only place they should ever be in things like that. Reply

Zusel ben Shlomo Upstate, usa May 3, 2011

Concerning boundaries, adultery, and broken marria
While I can agree with Jay Litvin’s argument that extreme separation helps avoid temptation, I think he over states the situation. The vast majority of my non Jewish, and non Orthodox, (and even Orthodox) peers manage to work professionally with women, shake their hands, and even share elevators with them and apparently do not succumb to adulterous activities.

My experience is that, particularly among the younger generation of frum men, divorce is more likely to be a result of a refusal to respect their wives as equal partners rather than of male adultery. These young men see their wives as stupid because they have not had the opportunity to study Talmud, have no advanced education, and still want some level of freedom. Since these young men had never developed positive friendly relations with girls as teenagers in the Yeshiva world, they expect their wives to be satisfied with a life of cooking and childbearin Reply

Anonymous May 5, 2017
in response to Zusel ben Shlomo:

response to Zusel ben Shlomo As a young wife and daughter that grew up with brothers, cousins, and now married to a yeshiva student. I find your comment to be labeling and simply inaccurate, at best I will assume you speak from an uneducated point of view. Reply

Zusel ben Shlomo May 5, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Dear Ms. Anonymous,
May you have a long and beautiful marriage and dance at the weddings of your grandchildren. My perspective is educated by experiences in my family and those of too many friends. The divorce rate in the frum world is a fact, not an anecdotal observation. The growing number of agunot is evidence that one can be "frum" but not a mench. Shabbat sholom,


Zusel ben Sholom Reply

Itche Brooklyn, NY November 17, 2008

Elevators I think a man and a woman may ride on an elevator together, because it may stop on any floor, and the duration is not long enough to be forbidden. Reply

melanie kaufman Little Rock, Arkansas September 21, 2007

shaking hands I usually find the men are not offended. But when a man refuses to shake hands with a woman, I often hear her complain afterwards. The man backs off, a look of disgust or horror on his face. The visual message is "Yuk, slimeball." Naturally she is insulted, and concludes that observant Jews regard women as inherently disgusting. If she has any respect for her own femaleness, she will not want to join a community where she is regarded as inherently offensive.

Observant men need to learn a more courteous way of avoiding being touched. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel via jerusalemchabad.com July 3, 2007

My Divorce I had a similar situation; my ex wife cheated with her university professor...very sad. Reply

Anonymous Worcester , MA July 2, 2007

Beautifully stated. I was once having my car repaired, and I politely declined to shake the mechanic's hand, explaining that Jewish law does not permit this. I assumed he would be taken aback. To the contrary, he looked at me, sighed, and said wishfully, "I wish my wife would follow that law." What a lesson that was for me! While some may view our lives as old-fashioned, Jewish family life remains the envy of the world. Reply