We’ve come a long way from “The Scarlet Letter.” What’s left of the gravity that once surrounded the Seventh Commandment, prohibiting adultery, could be observed in the news sensation of the past couple of weeks. No, I don’t mean the pullout from Gaza. I mean Brad Pitt’s pullout from his marriage to Jennifer Aniston, coinciding with a romance with Angelina Jolie.
All the relevant data were delivered by Vanity Fair under the cover headline “JEN FINALLY TALKS!” The Vanity Fair article wasn’t exactly condoning of extramarital affairs, and it even tried to allow the possibility that Pitt hadn’t cheated:
“When the Pitts split up, Brad insisted he hadn’t slept with Jolie, and Aniston accepted his denial…. The moment he and Aniston separated, however, he re-emerged in what looked like a full-blown affair with Jolie.” Yet the gravest thing anyone is quoted as saying about adultery comes from Miss Aniston herself, who’s got a new movie coming out, “Derailed,” about an extramarital affair that ends violently. Says Miss Aniston, “It will be one of those movies you leave and say, ‘The affair thing? Maybe not!’”
The other end of the current spectrum of opinion on infidelity was indicated in a column by New York Times Magazine columnist Randy Cohen, aka “The Ethicist.” A woman with a sexually impaired husband wrote to Cohen about her adulterous affair. She admitted that her Roman Catholic faith told her it was wrong, but she wanted to know what “secular ethics” has to say. The Ethicist replied that while adultery is “dicey territory,” the woman had “entered the realm of don’t ask, don’t tell,” and anyway, “Few practitioners of any faith adhere to each of its dictates.”
From “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” we’ve descended to “The affair thing? Maybe not!” and “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The Seventh Commandment simply doesn’t have the heft it once did. The husband of a friend of mine, a man who cheated many times over the course of their marriage, explained himself with the curious admission, “I’m not a bad person; I just do bad things.” Though we may formally admit that cheating is “dicey,” as the Ethicist says, it doesn’t make you a “bad person.”
It is not surprising, then, to read the warning of psychologist Shirley Glass that we are in the middle of a “new crisis of infidelity.” Citing survey information from the National Opinion Research Center, Glass concludes that in the realm of cheating, married women are catching up to married men. In her 2003 book “Not ‘Just Friends,’” she writes: “Today’s workplace is the most fertile breeding ground for affairs. The observed increase in women’s infidelity is because more women are in the workplace and more women are in professions that were previously dominated by men.”
But in her explanation of trends in cheating, I think Glass overlooks something basic. The incredible lightness of being an adulterer is due above all to the “secular ethics” that cultural spokesmen like Randy Cohen represent.
The insight comes not from me but from the Ten Commandments. Jewish tradition long ago pointed out that the Decalogue, given to Moses on two tablets, is not merely a laundry list but a matrix of geometric exactness. It is an array of two corresponding lists of five items where the first item on the first list (the First Commandment) corresponds to the first item on the second list (the Sixth Commandment), the second to the second, third to third, and so on.
Thus the Second Commandment (prohibiting idolatry) corresponds to the Seventh (prohibiting adultery). The rabbis explained that one leads to other: Idolatry leads to adultery.
You say there are no idol-worshippers around anymore? The second paragraph in the Shema is worth reading closely: “Beware for yourselves, lest your heart be seduced and you will turn astray and you will serve other gods and prostrate yourselves to them” (Deuteronomy 11:16). Rashi clarifies: “Once a person separates himself from the Torah, he goes and attaches himself to idolatry.” There are two possibilities — Torah and idolatry — with no middle ground. Turning away from Torah results automatically in a person’s turning toward “other gods” — a mistranslation, really, because elsewhere Rashi defines elohim (“gods”) not merely as fictional deities but more broadly as any sources of authority (in Hebrew, marut) other than God.
Turning away from Torah’s authority invariably entails turning toward other authorities. We might call those authorities “secular ethics,” but the Torah calls them “other gods.”
The juxtaposition of the Second and Seventh Commandments conveys the relationship between idolatry and adultery, which makes sense in other ways. If we are not prepared to affirm the exclusiveness of our relationship with God, His unique authority, why should the exclusiveness of our relationship with a spouse be sacrosanct?
A good question, don’t you think, Randy Cohen?
David Klinghoffer is the author of “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).