So you have fallen in love. You are in a relationship. You think you are happy. And then the other betrays you.
There are lots of different ways of betraying. It does not just have to be the ultimate, the sexual, though that is the one the Bible focuses on. Modern society, with its greater emphasis on psychology and analyzing human actions, has perhaps gone too far in seeing anything as a betrayal, and at the same time is too cavalier in expecting everyone to forgive and forget everything. Bill Clinton thought he had not committed adultery because he did not go “all the way”, and on the other hand an article I read recently tells me I can commit adultery on the internet.
The Bible has a whole slew of laws about lying, misleading, stealing someone’s mind, and taking advantage of someone’s ignorance or innocence. All these are forms of betrayal but may fall short of being the coup de grace that ends a marriage. I suggest we all make some such mistakes, even in the best of marriages. We are allowed, in Jewish law, to lie and tell a bride she is beautiful, to encourage her and enhance her self-esteem. We may tell white lies about our partners not being fat or wrinkly or badly dressed to avoid hurting their feelings. This surely is not betrayal, but some people I know take it as that.
There are other ways of betraying a marriage such as being cruel, verbally abusive, or insensitive. Some betrayals do indeed indicate a pattern of deceit and untrustworthiness that would be ignored or forgiven at ones peril. That indeed is why we allow divorce in Judaism, and even encourage it to allow a victim to hope for and aspire to a better life and a more honest relationship. Once this option was rare and forbidding. Now it is a lot more accessible (though I am sad to say that in Orthodox Judaism it too often comes at a price over and above an equitable settlement).
Turning, as I always tend to, to our sources, I can find two conflicting ideas. On the one hand, Jewish law forbids a husband to cohabit with the wife who has betrayed him. A co-respondent in a divorce case may not afterwards marry the divorcee. The former is easier to choose to bypass, because the husband who forgives his wife is under no obligation to tell the religious authorities or demand a divorce. In the second case the name of the co-respondent is known and often identified in the get and divorce proceedings. But these examples are of the unforgiving option. Interestingly, the Torah only talks about a person confessing and atoning. Forgiveness seems to be a Divine quality. I cannot find a source to support forgiving someone who was not sorry or did not repent.
The controversial case of the Sotah, the Fallen Woman in Numbers 5, makes unpleasant reading under the best of conditions. Rabbinic close reading of the text insisted that the woman had actually betrayed her husband on two levels. She had consorted with another man inappropriately, even if we had no direct evidence of adultery. And she has persistently refused to obey her husband’s wish that she end the association. She, for her part, insists she is innocent of adultery but not necessarily of betraying her husband’s wishes. The humiliating trial by ordeal is designed to get her to confess only if she insisted on her innocence. If then she came out unscathed, the rabbis expected them both to forgive and make up and have a child to seal the deal. I cannot think of a more obvious example of forgiveness of betrayal.
What better symbol can one ask for than the repeated Biblical motif of the Jewish people betraying their God at the worst and crudest of levels, and yet Divine forgiveness, albeit with a dose of pain and exile, would always be assured. This is the underlying theme of Jewish religious life from the betrayal of Tisha B’Av, the abandonment of God and Jewish values, followed by the month of Elul in which we fall in love with God again, and in Tishrei ask for His forgiveness. God may be forgiving of us humans on earth, but even then not in every case and not necessarily in this life!
It is much harder for humans to forgive. Indeed sometimes anger is a necessary catharsis and must be allowed to run its course. Yet the fact is that perpetuating bitterness and anger can be counterproductive and destructive. Sometimes it is pride, sometimes the pain is so great we simply cannot get over it. Each relationship carries its own baggage, rawness and illogicalities. A good relationship is one in which partners recognize the specific anxieties and neuroses of the other and act accordingly. What other people feel and think is no determinant of what you or your partner might feel. As Tolstoy said about families, each happy family resembles each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; so it is with love. And when a relationship is shaky, it is knowing and understanding the specific way in which one’s partner is unhappy that enables one to recover.
All this is true not only of love, but of any area in which human beings come together in partnership and one of them does something, willful or accidental, that threatens the whole fabric of the relationship. And that is why all of this is relevant to this time of the year, as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur. Can we ask God for forgiveness for ourselves, if we cannot grant it to others?