by R. Gil Student
The Torah (Gen. 35:22) briefly tells how Reuven lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine-wife. Ostensibly, this seems like an act of great disrespect for his father as well as an act of some form of adultery. In Ya’akov’s last words to his sons, he decries Reuven’s having mounted his (Ya’akov’s) bed (Gen. 49:4). That seems to be a reference to the episode with Bilhah.
However, the Talmud (Shabbos 55b) quotes Rav Shmuel Bar Nachmeni who says that anyone who claims that Reuven sinned is mistaken. Therefore, most commentators explain the episode as something less than intimate relations. Rashi (Gen. 35:22) says that Reuven confused or disturbed his father’s bed. In his recently published English Chumash, Rav Adin Steinsaltz explains:
”According to one opinion, Reuben did not actually have relations with Bilha; rather, he “disturbed her bedding.” The Sages explain that after Rachel’s death, her maidservant Bilha took her place as Jacob’s chief wife. Reuben, Leah’s firstborn son, outraged at the insult to his mother, entered Bilha’s tent and disturbed the bed linens. This was either a sort of symbolic protest to his father or perhaps an attempt to give the impression that Bilha had had relations with him, rendering her forbidden to Jacob (Shabbat 55b; Targum Yonatan; Rashi; Ramban).”
However, Radak (Gen. 35:22) takes the episode literally. He explains that Reuven thought he was permitted to have relations with Bilhah because she was a concubine, and not a wife.
However, Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema) states that saying Reuven sinned constitutes forbidden speech (Responsa, no. 11; text below). It qualifies as hotza’as shem ra, false slander. Perhaps Radak’s interpretation avoids the problem by explaining that Reuven thought it was permitted. But absent that consideration, the simple interpretation of the verse constitutes slander, according to the Rema.
Interestingly, Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Ya’akov Al Ha-Torah, Gen. 37:18) argues that there is no prohibition of slander against the deceased.
Below is the text of the relevant portion of the Rema’s responsum and my discussion of Rav Kamenetsky’s view in my Search Engine, vol. 1.