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Love Betrayed


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?

8 thoughts on “Love Betrayed

  1. I do not read the Sotah example precisely this way (I am not denying how it was operated in Rabbinic times, merely that there is a different way to read it).

    The Sotah in Numbers 5 and the Nazir in Numbers 6 are inextricably linked. Why otherwise would they occur in such proximity? And we indeed see a practical linkage in Judges 13 regarding the foretelling of Samson: he was to be a Nazir from birth and thus so was his mother in preparation; but what would your average married Biblical man make of his wife saying "I met a man today who said I'm going to have a baby …"? We can tell from the course of the story that Manoach was no great brain.

    Look at the phenomena in the two chapters in Numbers, and in particular the three Nazirite restrictions.

    (1) Just as the first thing that happens to the Sotah is that the Kohen uncovers her hair, so the Nazir is required to grow his hair one might say embarrassingly long.

    (2) Just as the ordeal would condemn the woman to a grotesque death, so the Nazir is prohibited from attending family funerals.

    (3) And if you ask what of the third Nazirite restriction: the parallel is in the whole basis for the Sotah ordeal, the Hebrew verb based on the root kuf-nun-alpeh. Its abstraction is that of jealousy or unbridled zeal; the concrete meaning is to dye fabric red (see Brown Driver and Briggs on the point). So the passionate conduct of the husband who accuses his wife of misbehaving is paralleled by abstinance from wine etc., which is known to stimulate or heighten the passions and impare the senses.

    This connectivity conveys a simple message. Society needs a remedy from the secretly unfaithful wife. So the husband can bring her to the Kohen for the ordeal and let God decide. But doing so is not without its social consequences. It is as if to say that the husband (by implication of the proximity of these two practices in Numbers) will be bound to a Nazirite restriction if he himself meddles with the Sotah jurisdiction out of a misguided sense of passion. Rather, let him and his perhaps wayward wife sort this out for themselves.

  2. Thanks, Jeremy, for an almost poetic essay – really beautiful.

    I have only one quibble and that it your using Tolstoy for your quote. Doris Lessing in her foreword to Sofia Tolstoy's newly published diary says that he was sexually inconsiderate and a bit of a monster. Indeed, Sofia says that his sermons of love and goodness made him indifferent to his family and means the intrusion of all kinds of riff-raff into their lives. She was a highly intelligent woman who had no time for her own intellectual pursuits because she was forced into dedication to the tasks he set her; everything from writing down his literary words to being a slave in bed and to his whims.

  3. If it is not written that people should forgive others even if they don't ask for it and don't repent then the suggestions of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust should forgive their enemies is outragious. When the actual Nazis and whoever was involved were asked if they repent for their cruelty and murder they did not. They still thought that they had right to be cruel and murder certain people. It was not 6 Million Jews they murdered it was also disabled children and adults, Polish people, communists, political oponents like the White Rose and homosexuals. It might have been not such a great number but they were still murdered and I am sure the surviving families of those people also suffered too loose them.


  4. Daniel:

    I am not sure what you're trying to say!

    Chazal say the proximity is intentional so that anyone who sees a Sotah would forswear drink like a Nazir.

    The common theme of hair certainly emphasizes its sexual significance.
    But I suspect the common feature is what happens when you try to be holier than thou, go beyond the law, either in denying yourself something the law allows or choosing to haul your wife before the Cohen; the Torah makes concessions to human frailty but does not entirely approve!!!


  5. Anonymous:

    Indeed there is a disconnect between Christian notions of forgiveness and Jewish. In Judaism only the wronged person can forgive; there is no proxy forgiveness.

    Several correspondents have pointed out that the Tefila Zaka on Erev Yom Kipur includes the idea of forgiving people even if they themselves have not asked for forgiveness, but that is a voluntary personal and the forgivenness applies only to those who have wronged the person praying. Anyway it is a late and medieval arrival on the liturgical scene and I was referring to primary sources, Bible and Talmud.

  6. You're right, of course, Jeremy: the quote can be good even from a rotter but I can't help being unable to cope with the good things that T.S. Eliot said because I keep thinking of the awful ones, likewise with all the Jew-haters from Wagner to Wyndham Lewis (and not only Ws). I suppose this is a flaw in my nature.

    Have a gut woch.

  7. Leila:
    Definitely no flaw in your nature, I completely understand and I agree with you on one level. I am sure I'd have gone to see The Ring by now had it not been written by Wagner!!! And yet I love Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. I am nothing if not inconsistent.

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