Stay, Don't Stray

“Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners].”
— Maimonides, Laws of Character, 6:7.

"I wish I had never seen that list," was the way a woman shared a difficult moral dilemma with me. She was referring to a list of married people who had signed on to the website Ashley Madison searching for affairs. When the site was hacked, names spilled out into public view. Circulating among her peer group, was not the name of one but the name of two husbands of friends in her circle. What should she do?

Before I had the chance to respond, she wrote back saying that she could not sit quietly knowing that a close friend's husband was on the list. She had a troubling job in front of her, one that many of us might not approach with her bravery. "I grappled with reaching out to her directly but decided I would first let him know that our community was aware that he was on this list, and it was just a matter of time before his wife found out.  I just spoke with him, and it was very tough and awkward."

The husband sounded surprised that the list was making the rounds and shared that registering was more of a curiosity than anything else. Yet this courageous woman who outed him to himself concluded that he must have been very curious because he had registered repeatedly over a year. He did commit to speak to his wife. With a lot of people in the know, he could not escape the pressure of the goldfish bowl approach.

"I wish I had never seen that list" is an understandable response and yet had she not seen the list, she may not have taken the first big step in helping a couple salvage a marriage. Others perhaps saw the same list, experienced shock but held back. I have taught many people who confessed that a friend or colleague was involved in an extra-marital affair, and they did nothing.

The medieval scholar Maimonides writes cogently of the need to serve as a moral insurance policy for each other. "It is a mitzva for a person who sees that his fellow Jew has sinned or is following an improper path [to attempt] to correct his behavior and to inform him that he is causing himself a loss by his evil deeds as [Leviticus 19:17] states: 'You shall surely admonish your friend.' He advises that this needs to take place privately and softly with the assurance that this needs to be done for his or her own good. Maimonides even advocates very harsh critique if the person refuses to listen. In situations of addiction, immorality and potentially life-threatening behavior, sometimes a harsh approach is the only one that will get through. Maimonides concludes this law with the quote above: "Whoever has the possibility of rebuking [sinners] and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke the [sinners]."

Many years ago at a retreat, I was teaching this law in an entirely different context, and a young woman asked to speak with me after class. She confided that a close friend had shared with her that she had begun an affair with a married man. This woman was married herself and had two young children. The woman who approached me was concerned that if she had a strained conversation with the friend about how wrong her behavior was, she would lose an old, close friend. I listened carefully, appreciating the emotional difficulty of her situation. I asked her one question, "What's more important, her marriage or your friendship?" She continued to discuss the friendship, and I asked her the same question again because we both knew the answer.

With all of the moralizing that goes on in our community, adultery is still the "quiet" transgression many are afraid to address outright. But it is the most fundamental breach and betrayal of the fabric of family, integrity and trust - the very foundations of our faith, as we read in Hosea, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in unfailing love and compassion." Our relationship with God and with the person we marry must be one of righteousness and justice, love and compassion.

Ashley Madison's motto is "Life is short. Have an affair." Our motto: "Life is short. Commit to a life of trust and meaning."

Life is too short to hurt the people we care about. Be brave. Protect the sanctity of the relationships that matter. Be a good friend. And if you are the one contemplating an affair or in the midst of a relationship that will break your partner's heart, it's the season of repentance and forgiveness. It may not be too late to save the most important relationship of your life.

Shabbat Shalom