When a Friend Commits the Ultimate Indiscretion

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by R. Jonathan Schwartz, PsyD

On March 15, 2013, the New York Times published the following letter in its “Ethicist” column:

I am a single woman in my mid-20s. I recently learned from my dear friend that she has developed a longtime pattern of cheating on her husband of five years. I understand cheating happens for various reasons — but if I remain friends with her, am I condoning her ongoing behavior? If I am “anti-compulsive-cheating,” do I therefore have to be anti-her? I value many aspects of our friendship but don’t see her (or my) views on philandering ever changing.

This story might seem sad and foreign to a website like Torah Musings that looks at the world from an Orthodox Jewish perspective based on Torah law which offers a very unambiguous perspective on infidelity with two simple words – “Lo Sinaf” – do not commit adultery. However, the issue publicly started to hit the Orthodox home a bit more than a month later. For on April 23rd of the same year, NEFESH, the organization of Orthodox Jewish mental health professionals and the Task Force on Children and Families cosponsored a fantastic half day training entitled: “Clinical and Halachic Perspectives on Treating Marital Infidelity in the Orthodox Jewish Community.” While the program was restricted to a unique audience – mental health professionals who tend to see the extreme cases in any population — the openness of the conversation and the capacity crowd of attendees, seemed to indicate that the issue of marital infidelity was not one that was to be seen as foreign in our community. In fact, one of the presenters, a world-renowned posek, made it clear that he saw his primary role in presenting as “coming to vent” about a problem that he has seen rising within the Torah -based community.

While the psychology literature is filled with details and studies about couples and marriages that must choose whether and how to weather the storm of infidelity, [1]In fact, one of the most popular researchers/clinicians in the field of marriage and infidelity, M. Gary Neuman is a Rabbi and psychologist, who has written two popular books on why men and women … Continue reading there aren’t as many formal studies of the role of friendships and adultery. In other words, how a person deals with the revelation that his/her friend is carrying on an adulterous affair and how to approach and cope with the situation. And although television has made attempts [2]Of note, is ABC television’s “Primetime:What would you do” from 2/6/2008 available here: link. to try to shed some light on this little-studied aspect of the adulterous affair, no scientific conclusions about approach can be drawn from these experiments.

Moreover, a random search of the topic on the Internet has yielded diametrically opposing viewpoints in almost every article or posting or in the comments section therein. The results seem to suggest that there are many different thoughts that go through people’s minds when they encounter the situation of a cheating spouse – especially when that spouse is cheating on a friend or is a friend cheating.

What thoughts go through the mind of a Torah-observant Jew in this situation? How is he to deal with the revelation that adultery is no longer a topic to hear or read about in the media but rather hits close to home? What sort of guidance can the Torah and halacha provide for the person whose jumbled thoughts play over and over when he knows that a friend is cheating?

I. Thought # 1: I should tell the spouse because what if the cheater passes a medical disease?

What about the concerns regarding the health of the non-adulterous spouse? After all, is it not possible that as a result of the extramarital affair the adulterous spouse might pass a sexually transmitted disease to the married partner? Isn’t there a responsibility on behalf of the bystander to reveal this information if he knows about the affair and the potential threat to the health of the spouse?

It is well-known that there is a Torah prohibition against being a tale-bearer, known as avoiding lashon ha-ra. Rav Yisroel Meir Hakohein Kagan authored the famous work, Chofetz Chaim, in which he delineated the intricacies and rewards of being diligent in avoiding Lashon Hara. Still, he notes that there are times where a person is not only allowed to set aside the rules of lashon ha-ra, but is actually obligated to do so. “Lest the reader think that I am being lenient,” suggests the Chofetz Chaim, “be advised that it is a matter of not standing idly by the blood of one’s fellow man as discussed in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) and codified by the Rambam (Hil. Rotzeiach 1:14).” And while he identifies seven conditions [3]The scope of the five conditions is broad and worthy of its own article and is beyond the goal of this article. that must be met before confidence is broken, it is clear that there are conditions upon which even the Chofetz Chaim would require the revealing of information (Chofetz Chaim, Hilchos Rechilus Chapter 10).

Using similar reasoning not to stand idly by, other modern poskim discuss the need of doctors to reveal a terminal cancer diagnosis to a potential spouse (Chelkas Yaakov III: 136), to reveal a patient’s epilepsy diagnosis (Tzitz Eliezer XV:81:2) or vision problems to the motor vehicle authorities (Tzitz Eliezer XV:13:1; Yechaveh Da’as IV:60) in order to avoid harm to others and to avoid violating “Lo Ta’amod.” In fact, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer XVI:4, see also Nishmas Avraham III Even HaEzer 2:1:2) goes so far as to claim that revealing information is not only limited to cases where there is a potential threat to the life of the spouse, but even where there a potential interruption in the normal health of the marriage or one of the partners. Dr. Avraham S. Avraham (Nishmas Avraham IV: 2:1:2) cites Rav Shlomo Auerbach who adds that a doctor must reveal an AIDS diagnosis to a spouse in order to save her from a potential threat to life.

If Doctors, who are bound by the laws of confidentiality must violate these laws to save a life, doesn’t a lay person have the same responsibility?

On the other hand, if it is possible to guard for the spouses safety without revealing the infidelity – perhaps by encouraging routine testing for general health concerns, is that a better way to proceed? Nishmas Avraham Vol. IV E.H. 115:1 quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach who did not require a doctor to reveal a wife’s affair to her husband even if she had been through treatment for a venereal disease since its origin could have been from the husband. If it is an acceptable way to proceed, is one obligated to do so to avoid lashon ha-ra?

II. Thought # 2: Halachically I need to say something because after all, she may be Assur to him…

The Talmud (Pesachim 113b) tells the story of a man, Tuvia, who had engaged in a sexual indiscretion and was observed by Zigud. Zigud went and informed Rav Papa of Tuvia’s sin. In turn, Rav Papa punished Zigud. Zigud was shocked. He said, “Tuvia sinned and Zigud gets punished?” Rav Papa answered in the affirmative. He noted that when one testifies by himself instead of with the required two witnesses, then the only possible outcome is rumor. Accordingly, by testifying by himself, Zigud had violated the Torah’s prohibition against being a talebearer (Vayikra 19:16).

Based on this story, one might choose to remain silent in the face of news of an adulterous affair. Yet, while Zigud’s case involved Tuvia, a male, would the halacha differ if the single witness would be believed as in the case of a female – at least to potentially forbid her from her husband?

When it comes to an adulterous female spouse perhaps there is a different Halachic issue that requires consideration. The Gemara (Yevamos 11b) debates and the Rambam (Hilchos Geirushin 11:14; see also Smag, Lavin 82; & Yere’im 37) clearly concludes that the husband of an adulterous wife is not allowed to have relations with her. [4]However, there is a discussion as to whether he must divorce her. Rambam (Hil. Ishus 24:17) holds that he must divorce her, while Tosafos (Zevachim 2b d.h. Stam Isha) is of the opinion that it is up … Continue reading If he continues to have relations, he violates a lav. Am I obligated to tell a husband about his cheating spouse in order to prevent him from aveira?

The Gemara (Berachos 19b) quotes Rav Yehudah who states that if one were to find shaatnez in his own clothing he must remove the garment even if he is in the market. The Rosh and the Rambam disagree as to whether the rule would be the same for one who sees his friend wearing shaatnez unknowingly. The Rosh seems to be of the opinion that one need not inform the friend while the Rambam holds that one is obligated. The same holds true for someone who loses a loved one. If one does not know that he has suffered a loss and is not mourning, then telling him is unnecessary. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 402:12) notes that one who informs him of the loss, is a fool. One may even invite a person who is supposed to be an avel but does not know, to your simcha rather than inform him of the aveilus – even according to the Rambam who is strict in the shaatnez case.

How is one to look at the case of adultery? Is it more akin to the shaatnez case where, according to the Rambam, I should let the husband know that he may not cohabit with his wife anymore? Or perhaps this is more like the aveilus case where telling makes me into a fool?

The Noda B’Yehudah in a famous (or perhaps infamous) responsum (Noda B’Yehudah Kama, O.C. 35) responds to a question posed to him by a Yeshiva student who had transgressed the halachos of adultery and was now about to marry the daughter of the adulteress. The questioner asked if he was required to tell the husband of the adulteress (and future father-in-law of the boy)of his transgression. In response, the Noda B’Yehuda assumed that the decision about whether to inform was based on the difference of opinion between the Rosh and the Rambam. The Noda B’Yehuda wanted to rule leniently in that case, citing pegam mishpacha – or the potential disaster this revelation would have on the family. However, in the end, he too, rules that the husband needed to be informed because unlike the shaatnez case where violating the law of shaatnez was temporary, here the intimate relationship between the older man and his adulterous wife would be ongoing – with constant, recurring sin.

Rav Yosef Chaim of Bagdad, the famed Ben Ish Chai (Shut Rav Poalim I: E.H. 1) quotes the Noda B’Yehuda and his comparison to the Shaatnez case. However he comes to a different conclusion. According to the Rav Poalim, there are more grounds to be lenient here as there is no proof that the husband will ever be intimate with his adulteress wife again. If that is the case, why bother reporting the story? For at the present moment when the issue of revealing the information is under consideration, there is no active issur happening. While the husband is living with his wife under the same roof, there is no reason to assume that he is being intimate and there is no proof that he will ever be again. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Shut Yabia Omer II: E.H. 2) questions utilizing this logic alone, because everyone knows that the couple will continue to live together and therefore it is more than likely that they will choose to engage in intimacy.
However, the Rav Poalim adds another factor – namely that just because you tell the husband does not mean that the husband will believe you. If he does not believe you, he will continue to cohabit with his wife. Even if he does believe you, there is no guarantee that he will transgress a prohibition by being intimate with his adulterous spouse. This sets up a classic Sfeik Sefeika which leads the Rav Poalim to conclude that one should not reveal the adulterous affair to the husband. [5]Rav Dovid Cohen, the Mara D’Asra of NEFESH notes that this does not mean that the wife is allowed to just proceed normally in marriage. Rather, she may respond to his desires for her but may not … Continue reading
In addition, there is an argument (see Shut Shoel U’Meishiv Kama, 262) that if the actual adultery was not observed by two kosher witnesses, the woman would not be forbidden to her husband. This is part of the argument of the Sanzer Rav (See Shut Divrei Chaim O.C. 35) who also argued that one need not reveal the information to the husband. He notes that many of the Gedolim of his day also ruled that way. L’Halacha, Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l takes a similar position against informing [6]Of course if the adulteress is the wife of a Kohen, the issue takes on a different concern entirely and is beyond the scope of this essay. but others take a much stricter approach (See Shu”t Mishneh Halachos XII:290).

III. Thought # 3: I should at least tell him/her off

The Torah commands us to rebuke our friends (Vayikra 19:17). In fact, the Talmud (Arachin 16b) reminds us that we have a responsibility to repeat the rebuke in order to see to it that it is heard. On the other hand, if the person will not listen, is it worth wasting one’s breath? The Talmud weighs in again. The Talmud (Yevamos 65b) notes that in the same way that it is a mitzva to state that which can be heard, it is also a mitzva not to state that which cannot be heard. In fact, Rav Abba says it is an obligation not to speak to those who will not listen.

Darkei Moshe (Yoreh Deah 334; See also Rema, Y.D. 334:48 and C.M. 12 ) adds that if there is a threat that if you rebuke you friend, s/he might attack you in some harmful way, you need not speak out. In certain examples, people who reported to adulterers that their behavior was repugnant and “told off” the friend, reported that the friend made threats to start a rumor suggesting the involvement of the one providing the rebuke, According to this position, perhaps one might be exempt. [7]A similar argument is advanced, when the one rebuking is a mental health professional whose treatment modality might require the maintaining of a particular stance. Rebuke in that case might hurt the … Continue reading

It would follow then, that to speak out against someone involved in an extra-marital affair could actually be forbidden especially when the adulterer is not interested in reproof or self-improvement.

Still, choosing not to speak out makes it sound as if he is condoning the aberrant behavior. The Pischei Teshuva (Y.D. 334:19) criticizes those who do not speak out against abhorrent behavior and limits the “Heter” to situations where one is indeed in fear of danger. Otherwise, he encourages people to speak out against poor behavior. Ksav Sofer (Even HaEzer 47) adds that Rabbis in particular have a responsibility to speak up.

How is one supposed to reconcile the need to rebuke versus the fear that the person is not interested in hearing it? The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chessed 3:3) suggests that it is a tightrope that requires particular care and sensitivity to insure that one makes his point but at the same time does not lose the individual. He includes this responsibility under the general parameters of “V’Ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha.”

IV. Thought # 4: “ This is bad, maybe I should I just end the friendship?”

With overwhelming stress coming from a desire to follow Halacha and the awareness that Halacha might not support the revealing of information about a cheating acquaintance, and the opposing tension from guilt about the predicament of the “cheated upon” person coupled with the moral disgust that one might feel toward an acquaintance who can engage in behavior so opposite to the basic values of the Torah, one might choose to avoid the entire situation by simply ending the friendship. Can/should one walk away from an adulterous friend?

On the one hand, simply walking away from the experience seems to be in line with the practices of our forefathers. Avraham Avinu distances himself from Lot (Berashis 20:1) which the commentaries explain happened because of the episode of Lot and his daughters. It sounds as if even Avraham had his limits of acceptance. Perhaps this is consistent with the comments of Nitai HaArbeli who cautions us to “distance ourselves from a bad neighbor (Avos 1:6). Later in life, Avraham needs to remove Yishmael from Yitzchak and to create distance in that relationship too. Once again, at least according to one version, it is inappropriate sexual activity that leads to the separation (See Tosefta Sotah chapter 6, Bereishis Rabba 53:15 and Rashi, Bereishis 21:9). Perhaps the same needs to be true in this case as well and the friendship needs to be severed.

Moreover, the Rambam (Deios 6:1) notes that people tend to be swayed, or at the very least, numbed by the environment around them. If the friend maintains this close relationship with the unrepentant adulterer, will it not sway him to the social acceptability of such a practice? Former Chief Rabbi Rav Yisrael Meir Lau (Yachel Yisroel, Avos 1:6) explains the Midrash’s (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Yisro, Meseches Amalek chapter 1) startling assertion that Moshe and Yisro made an agreement to raise Moshe’s firstborn “for Avodah Zara,” in this manner. According to Rav Lau, by insisting that Moshe remain in Midyan, in to save Midyanite souls, Yisro was sacrificing the children of Moshe – his own grandchildren – who would grow up in the idolatrous environment and run the risk of being swayed and finding that environment acceptable. Is there a parallel to be drawn here as well?

On the other hand, Yaakov Avinu is seemingly punished for distancing himself from Esav too much. For when he crossed the Yabok river, Yaakov hid Dinah in a box in order to hide her from his brother. According to the Midrash cited by Rashi (Berashis 32:23), Yaakov was punished for this. Hashem told him that since he withheld Dinah, who could have been a positive influence on Esav, from meeting him, he was punished with the tragic episode in Shechem. Accordingly, maybe it is better not to end a friendship. Perhaps you might be able to sway the friend back to the “right” derech if you keep the lines open. How is one to decide which decision is the right one?

V. Conclusion – Where to go?

In one of the many places on the web where the discussion of the marital indiscretions of friends were discussed, the following response was offered by Rabbi Dov Fischer, the Rav of the Young Israel of Orange County and Adjunct Professor of Law at Loyola Law School :

It is my belief, derived from my thirty years as a rav, that — from an Orthodox perspective — this matter is too sensitive to be answered in any public forum. That is, if I felt that I personally and uniquely could not or preferred not to respond to this question in this forum, then I could have requested that another of my many learned JVO Orthodox colleagues respond. However, I affirmatively am responding that a question like this must be discussed privately with an Orthodox rav whom your married friend trusts, a rav whom she believes understands her world, has senstivity and compassion as well as Torah learning, and with whom she privately can discuss the matter and its full ramifications. No “textbook” public-forum response to this kind of question is appropriate from an Orthodox perspective because there are so many human, emotional, and other intangibles involved. You or your friend should bring this matter to such a rav for a private discussion. This matter entails not only textbook Jewish law but also implicates aspects concerning her marriage, her husband and his life, and all their futures. [8]Comment attributed to Rabbi Dov Fischer link

Dovetailing on his wisdom, let me underscore that the question of what one who discovers his friend’s infidelity should do, does not have a “one size fits all” answer. Clearly a number of factors come into play. The person in this situation is best advised to seek out both competent rabbinic guidance as well as solid personal counsel to help sort out one’s thoughts and conflicts about the different aspects of the situation. The dual-assistance should lead the person on a unified approach to clarity.
———

Endnotes

Endnotes
1In fact, one of the most popular researchers/clinicians in the field of marriage and infidelity, M. Gary Neuman is a Rabbi and psychologist, who has written two popular books on why men and women cheat and has created an equally popular DVD series on marriage where infidelity gets its own session. Gary Neuman has had segments on Oprah, Katie and many other popular talk shows. His work is far from limited to the orthodox Jewish community.
2Of note, is ABC television’s “Primetime:What would you do” from 2/6/2008 available here: link.
3The scope of the five conditions is broad and worthy of its own article and is beyond the goal of this article.
4However, there is a discussion as to whether he must divorce her. Rambam (Hil. Ishus 24:17) holds that he must divorce her, while Tosafos (Zevachim 2b d.h. Stam Isha) is of the opinion that it is up to the husband to decide if he wants to divorce her but he cannot continue to have relations with her. Rema (E.H. 117:1) concurs with Tosafos though the Rambam’s opinon seems to be the one that is accepted L’Halacha (see Pischei Teshuva E.H.117:2). For further analysis of this issue see Piskei Din Rabboniim vol. I: Psakim p. 235).
5Rav Dovid Cohen, the Mara D’Asra of NEFESH notes that this does not mean that the wife is allowed to just proceed normally in marriage. Rather, she may respond to his desires for her but may not initiate on her own.
6Of course if the adulteress is the wife of a Kohen, the issue takes on a different concern entirely and is beyond the scope of this essay.
7A similar argument is advanced, when the one rebuking is a mental health professional whose treatment modality might require the maintaining of a particular stance. Rebuke in that case might hurt the professional’s livelihood. Competent supervision as well as Halachic guidance is crucial in navigating these waters.
8Comment attributed to Rabbi Dov Fischer link

About Jonathan Schwartz

6 comments

  1. Fantastic. Thank you!

    For whatever it’s worth, there’s a yutorah mp3 where Rabbi Hershel Schachter shlit’a also rules against the Noda Bihuda, i.e. one is not obligated, “to save him from sin”, to inform a husband that his wife has committed adultery.

  2. What if someone happens upon an act of adultery in progress? Can he act as Pinchos? Or what else can he do at the moment? Is it different than finding out after the fact?

  3. What is the law when a wife commits adultery and her husband does not know? Must she inform him? Must she refuse relations, as she knows she is forbidden to him?

  4. Rabbi Student,

    I’m just commenting to register my protest that an article like this is on your website. If you talk about something and discuss it in a calm manner, you normalize it. It becomes just another mistake that people commit rather than the horrible taboo that it is and should be.

    I’m very surprised, Rabbi Student, that you allowed this article on your site. This is adultery we’re talking about!

  5. R’ Schwartz’s conclusion (or non conclusion) leads to a number of interesting questions, what percentage of Modern Orthodox folks have a rav that they relate to on this personal a level (and who knows them at such a level)? Must the “personal counsel” be a Rav and must he ignore his secular training if “best practice” conflicts with micro halacha?

  6. I disagree with MeirD. His attitude would require our banning the Noda B’Yehuda from all Jewish homes and remove all Sifrei Shu”t that address these and related questions from our batei midrash.

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