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.