Does the bible condone adultery?

The 1999 memo of Susannah Heschel that ended up with President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy advisor, Ruby Shamir, excusing the President’s affair with Monica Lewinsky as not being adulterous by virtue of “classical Jewish law” is bizarre. What was Heschel – who is the daughter of the magnificent and eloquent Abraham Joshua Heschel – thinking? That President Clinton is Jewish? That he could use the Torah to excuse unfaithfulness? That the American people would somehow buy her argument about Biblical versus classical adultery? And that having an affair in the Oval Office as President of the United States was not so bad given that “King David” who “had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, murdered… was condemned and punished” but “was never thrown off the throne of Israel?”

Personally, I have no interest in rehashing the Monica Lewinsky episode which should be laid to rest. Through his foundation President Clinton is engaged in saving lives across the world and deserves to have the conversation turned away from the affair.

But with the Clinton presidential library releasing 10,000 new documents, including the memo from Heschel which argued that “President Clinton is guilty” not of adultery but “of the common sin of onanism [masturbation], a sin that probably afflicts the consciences of most Jewish men at one time or another,” a response is essential lest anyone conclude that Judaism is lax on husbands who cheat with single women. 

Heschel – if the memo is accurate – is not the first to use Judaism to minimize the sin of faithlessness in marriage with a single partner. Many husbands over the years have tried to make the same argument and there was even some perverse book written in the name of Jewish law a few years back that falsely argued that Judaism allows concubinage.

I still remember the time when a husband called my office and asked for counseling. It turned out that he lived with his thirty-something wife in a sexless marriage and given that the couple had three kids they were loathe to divorce. He came to see me to receive a second opinion about advice given to him by, he said, a scholar who told him he was allowed to have sex with women so long as they were not married. 

This advice is an abomination to Jewish faith and values.

The Biblical definition of adultery as pertaining to a married woman relates solely to punishment the act incurs. It does not in any way allow for a husband to cheat on his wife with any other person.

To the contrary. Judaism views the sin of marital unfaithfulness as the most serious breach of marriage involving as it does unsanctioned sexuality, deceit, injury to an innocent party, violation of the exclusivity of the marital bond, and an often mortal blow to its intimacy. Worse, unfaithfulness is even more harmful as a marital sin of omission than commission, depriving a marriage of the necessary investment of love and erotic attraction and channeling it to another. The man who is not pursuing his wife is neglecting his wife. No marriage can long survive the distraction of a stranger.

Many mistakenly believe that ancient Judaism endorses polygamy. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The Bible says clearly that God created Adam and Eve. Not Adam and Eve, and Clara, and Bridgette. From the very beginning the monogamous foundation is set.

Abraham was not, as is often misunderstood, polygamous. For most of his life he lived monogamously with Sara. He had no desire to live differently. It was his wife who pressured him to take her maidservant as a concubine because she was barren. 

Isaac was always monogamous with Rebecca.

Much is made of Jacob’s four wives but the Bible is clear that he was romantically in love with and wished to marry only Rachel. He was swindled by his father-in-law Laban into a union with Leah and later his two wives gave him concubines to father more offspring. But Jacob’s clear desire was to be monogamous. 

The only real example of polygamy in the Bible is the kings of Israel, especially David and Solomon. Both are criticized for the monumental errors they made with women. David is the most famous example. His kingdom never fully recovered for his sin with Bathsheba.

Concerning Solomon the Bible says, “

When Bill and Hillary Clinton turn to Judaism…

What do you do when you are president of the most powerful nation on earth and you get caught red-handed having an affair? 

You turn to the Talmud, of course.

At least that's what former President Bill Clinton did, according to recently released documents from the Clinton Library, in the aftermath of his scandalous dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, who was then a young, impressionable White House intern. 

According to reports, the White House consulted Jewish Studies scholar Susannah Heschel, a professor at Dartmouth and the daughter of renowned rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who cited Jewish law — known as halacha — to exonerate the libertine president, just as it exonerated promiscuous Jewish men for centuries.

“According to classical Jewish law,” a senior aide for Hillary Clinton wrote to political fixer Sidney Blumenthal in January 1999, “President [Bill] Clinton did not commit adultery; adultery is defined as a married man having intercourse with a married woman, and Monica Lewinsky is single.”

O, the benefits of being unwed! 

According to the New York Post, which first reported the story, the aide went on to insightfully suggest that, “At worst, President Clinton is guilty of the common sin of onanism [masturbation], a sin that probably afflicts the consciences of most Jewish men at one time or another.”

Heschel was apparently the brains behind this Talmudic mind-bender, reiterating an ancient Jewish law that defines adultery as when a man, married or otherwise, has sexual relations with a married woman. In those days, men were permitted to have multiple wives and multiple relations, while women were expected to remain chaste. In other words, a man could have Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, while Libertine Bill gets to be a one-and-holy.

And there’s a biblical hero as precedent:

“From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn president Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David?” Susannah Heschel reportedly wrote. “King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered.

While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”

I asked Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University if he would have offered the same dispensation as Heschel.

“As someone who considers himself a male feminist, I think [what Clinton did] is absolutely adultery — without a doubt,” Rabbi Alexander said.

“Whether it falls into the strict category of halacha is neither here nor there, because what he did was go outside the context of his own marriage with another person, whether she was married or not.”

Alexander allowed that Heschel was correct in understanding the law, even though he finds it disturbing. “Technically,” Alexander said, “according to a strict definition of halacha, a man can take on multiple wives; but if she [Lewinsky] had been married [in biblical times], she would have been the one stoned to death.”

“When it comes to adultery, it’s so complicated,” he added. “And it shows the extend to which misogynistic traditions develop over time, that they never lose their roots and can still be problematic” — even in the 21st century.

“And it’s dangerous for Judaism and dangerous for religion; but mostly, it’s dangerous for women — this idea that biblical religious law has a double standard that is so apparent, that when it comes to two people who did the exact same thing, one is patur — exempt — and one is hayevet — obligated.”

As both an observant Jew and a teacher of Jewish law to rabbinical students, Rabbi Alexander said it is laws like these that make religion in general, and Judaism, in particular, a hard sell to enlightened modern minds — even if they have worked wonders for President Clinton.

“Anybody who might have thought religion can be used as tool to elevate dignity will see this [verse] and say, ‘Look what we can do! Look how we can maneuver religion so that people with power can stay there.’”


Two months before Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a child with his housekeeper, I spent a week e-mailing rabbis about adultery.

My question to them was this: Would they agree to a public dialogue with the creator of an online matchmaking service for people seeking extramarital affairs?

One after another, they said no.

I understood. The Web site,, has a whiff of sleaze about it, and the discussion was to be filmed for an upcoming HBO documentary on adultery, over which the rabbis would have no control.

But now, in the wake of the Schwarzenegger scandal and the sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, there seems more than ever to be a need for an ancient religion to confront all the ways we can destroy marriages, trust, families and reputations. Temptation is not new, but technology has made it even more convenient. Is there a way for Judaism to address this directly, publicly, effectively?

All weekend, at the Shabbat table Friday night, at Temple Beth Am on Saturday, at a Milken Community High School event Sunday, on the beach at Lag b’Omer on Sunday night, three topics ruled conversation: Obama and AIPAC, Strauss-Kahn and his maid, Arnold and his maid.

We as a community can talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ad infinitum, but let’s be honest: Our lives are a lot more likely to be upended by infidelity than they are by Mahmoud Abbas.

I first heard about on my morning drive, when a radio commercial on “The Howard Stern Show” ended with the tag line, “Life is short, have an affair.” 

Really? Pushing affairs like Coca-Cola? What about, “Money is fun, rob a bank”?

Here’s how it works: People cruise AshleyMadison’s online personals looking for fellow cheaters, then purchase credits that enable them to e-mail one another. In 2009, in the slough of the recession, the company quadrupled its revenue, reaping an $8 million profit on earnings of $30 million. It has 9 million users, and growing. 

What we have is a culture of entitlement fused to a culture of convenience. Is there any inoculation against this behavior? Rabbi Ed Feinstein once posited that so much of Jewish law and culture has its origins in curbing male sexual desire. But those laws don’t have the same catchy come-on as

One morning, I listened to Stern perform one of his virtuoso interviews on Noel Biderman, the 39-year-old CEO of the site’s Toronto-based parent company, Avid Life Media. Happily married, loyal (Stern had him swear), a doting father, a synagogue member — where what I’d expected was a more sadistic Larry Flynt, what I heard was a thoughtful philosophy major-turned-lawyer. He almost had me convinced that is nothing more than JDate plus 10 years.

I forwarded the link to our singles blogger, Ilana Angel. She tore off after the site and Biderman, accusing him of demeaning his Jewish heritage and destroying her belief that there are good, loyal men out there.

Biderman agreed to discuss his views of God, morality and the Seventh Commandment with Ilana and a rabbi, in a conversation moderated by me, at a synagogue. At zero hour, Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T’Shuvah stepped up. Beit T’Shuvah is a treatment center for addiction, Borovitz explained, and adulterers wreak havoc on families in much the same way as addicts do.

In person, Biderman is soft-spoken and polished.  His main argument is that people are going to cheat, no matter what, so why not offer them a more discreet and safer way to do it?  He believes we Americans have a limited view on the role of cheating in saving marriages that would otherwise dissolve due to boredom or sexual incompatibility.  Other cultures, he said, are much more accepting. 

Needless to say, Biderman does not see the Seventh Commandment as a moral absolute, but rather as open to modern interpretation, as is stoning the Sabbath-breaker or nailing your slave’s ear to the doorpost.

When I pressed Biderman on whether he feels he owes a “karmic debt” for breaking up marriages and destroying lives, he said he gives to charity, then backtracked and denied feeling any such debt. His Web site is a tool, a service, he said. You don’t blame bartenders for alcoholics.

It occurred to me that what Judaism needs is its own tool that’s just as effective. In her book “Talking to God,” my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, recounts a true story of how she once returned a cryptic voice mail message only to have the man on the other end of the line ask her if she were “Island Girl.” The caller was a married man who had misdialed the number for a call-girl service. Instead he found himself talking to a rabbi. And he was Jewish.

Naomi and the man spoke for a long time, and he thanked her for keeping him from straying. In the end, he inspired her to write a prayer, which appears in “Talking to God,” for men and women facing temptation. makes it so easy to unravel the covenants of trust we have with ourselves, our loved ones, with God. Fallen leaders like Arnold seem to set the behavioral bar lower and lower.

Judaism has answers, it just doesn’t have the business model of Maybe some enterprising synagogue or rabbi can start a Web site, or a hotline, 1-800-DONTCHEAT, for people on the verge of infidelity.

Perhaps Noel Biderman can fund it.  I even thought of a slogan:  “Life is short, don’t screw it up.”

Opinion: Why powerful men can’t keep their pants on

The number of public men destroyed of late through sexual scandals is simply staggering. Within 48 hours of each other we heard that IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who many believed would be the next President of France, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger, until a few weeks ago the Governor of the most populous state in the Union, self-destructed with sex scandals.

The stories themselves are beyond belief. An IMF chief, disciplined enough to oversee one of the world’s most important banks, is alleged to have forced himself on a hotel housekeeper. Schwarzenegger, disciplined enough to rise from immigrant status with a funny accent to become of the biggest movie stars in the world and one of the most powerful men in the United States, apparently could not muster the control to prevent himself from fathering a child with a woman who worked in his home. 

The biggest mistake we make in determining why powerful men cheat is to believe they’re looking for sex. If it’s sex they’re after they have wives who can cater to their needs. No, these men are looking for something else entirely: validation.

Men cheat not out of a sense of entitlement but out of a sense of insecurity. And the bigger they are the harder they fall, not of arrogance but out of fear and weakness. What makes men slowly climb the ladder of success is a desire to prove they’re a somebody. They want to be and feel important. They seek to rise from the poverty of namelessness and the penury of anonymity.

It is not the promise of their potential that drives them but the fear of being a nonentity. They absorb the noxious lie of a culture bereft of values that only money and power will rescue them from being a nobody.

Therefore, even as they ascend the ladder of ‘success’ they do so with a gaping hole in their center. And whatever accomplishments they will shove into that hole – money, fame, power – it goes in one end and comes out the other.

They never feel good about themselves. They are never content. They are defined by insatiability and characterized by voraciousness, which explains why Wall Street bankers who were earning tens of millions of dollars a year still felt it was not enough and cut corners to make even more.

The first rule of success is that there is nothing on the outside that can compensate for a feeling of failure on the inside. External accouterments of success – from armored limousines to an army of personal bodyguards – can never protect you from the din of demons who whisper to you that for all you have achieved you are still are a big zero. And that’s why these men turn to women to make them feel good about themselves.

They want to feel desirable. They seek to silence the inner voices that taunt them as to their own insignificance. Because of its power, sex has a unique capacity to make insecure men feel – however fleetingly – like they’re special.

Having women desire them makes them feel desirable.  So why can’t their wives give them this same feeling? Because the man who thinks of himself as a giant loser sees the woman dumb enough to marry him as a loser squared.

She, as the woman who bears his last name and his children, is part of his entire loser package. But the woman who is not married to him, who has never aligned herself with his failures, remains eminently desirable and can thus make him feel the same.

When Tiger Woods self-destructed with an alleged fifteen mistresses I was asked to be on a TV show discussing why he did it. He had a beautiful wife.

Why wasn’t that enough? The male panelist next to me said, “It’s simple. Men love sexual variety and Tiger had the money and the fame to get it.” I responded, “If it was variety he was looking for, why did he have sex with the same woman 15 times over? Every single one of the women he allegedly cheated with looked just like his wife, a blond-haired Nordic bombshell. There was no variety. No Asian woman, no African-American woman, etc.”

The explanation lay elsewhere. When he was a little boy they took Tiger, put a metal stick in his hand, and told him, “If you learn to use this better than any man who preceded you and knock that little white ball farther than anyone who competes against you, you’ll be a somebody,” which was another way of saying that right now you’re a nobody, you’re nothing. Contrary to the Biblical message that every human being is born a child of god.

Tiger heard the opposite. You are either the child of success are you don’t exist. So no matter how many tournaments he won and how much money he earned in his mind Tiger still remained a nobody with a lot of trophies and a lot of money. But none of that external success changed the original message: he was born a zero.

So he tuned to an endless number of woman to make him feel desirable and special. He sought someone who wanted him for his being and not his sporting prowess. And he was stupid enough to believe that any of these women would be out with him if he weren’t’ a champion.

It was his wife alone who loved him, but in his selfishness he lost her. This also explains why so many men who cheat end up opening up emotionally to the women they cheat with. If it was just sex they were seeking they would not be sending these women texts telling them how lonely they are and how only she, the mistress, understood them.

You may ask what this has to do with a renowned banker and politician allegedly attacking a hotel housekeeper? We don’t yet know all the circumstances of the alleged assault, so I do not wish to discuss this case in particular. But I have counseled enough men in similar circumstances to know that they don’t expect the woman to resist. When you inhabit a $3000 a night hotel penthouse – yet more external accouterments of success –and the woman in question is an immigrant cleaning up, you’re convinced she’ll be as impressed with the bells and whistles of success as you are and she’ll melt like putty in your hands. Her resistance becomes a complete shock.

The motivation, however, remains the same. Men who inhabit the top social sphere are usually driven to get there by a constant need to prove themselves. And in taking a woman who would otherwise have no sexual interest in you and transforming her instantly into a woman who desires you, you quiet the failure demons for even a brief moment.

In this sense, Strauss-Kahn’s comment in an earlier interview with the French publication Liberation, after he had been caught having an affair with a subordinate – “Yes, I love women. So what?” – displays a stunning degree of self-ignorance. The degree to which he loves women was never the issue but rather the degree to which he hates himself.

These scandals of decent men ruining themselves either through affairs or, much more seriously, through allegedly illegally and outrageously forcing themselves on women, should server as a wakeup call to a society that continues to have a single definition of success for men.

It’s not your gentlemanly behavior, sense of personal honor, or your devotion to your wife and kids that makes you special. No one really cares a hoot for all that. It’s rather the level of name recognition and money you attain that really makes you hot. 

Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ is a renowned relationships expert and broadcaster whose books on love and marriage have been translated into 17 languages, with the most recent being, “The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets of Erotic Desire.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

City Voice: The Mayor is cheating … on L.A.

Breaking the commandment against adultery shouldn’t disqualify you for public office.

Still, I don’t think the adulterer should expect cheers from the
Jewish community. This is especially true when the official is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has made his family and his life story a big part of his persona.

I felt let down by the news that Villaraigosa had an affair with television journalist Mirthala Salinas, who has reported on the mayor for Telemundo. (Her involvement with the mayor violated one of the three ethics rules I give my USC journalism students: Don’t lie, don’t steal and don’t sleep with your news sources.)

I was disappointed because he offered hope for uniting a fractious city behind some common goals important to the middle class and poor — the majority of the city’s residents, which includes many Jews — teachers, social workers, supermarket checkers and blue-collar workers. And he has had the support of the city’s most affluent Jews, who are among his campaign contributors.

Jews have a vested interest in working with the rest of Los Angeles on improving the public schools, saving affordable rentals from condo conversions, creating better transit and other issues.

As a political leader, Villaraigosa crossed ethnic lines in his successful campaign and began his tenure the same way. He has dashed from one part of the city to another — a highly visible mayor — and has been as at home in a synagogue as in a community meeting in South Los Angeles.

That is good. His predecessor, James Hahn, stuck to the office too much, neglecting the symbolic aspects of the job.

“People like to touch and feel the mayor,” said professor Peter Dreier, chair of Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Program and a Villaraigosa supporter.

But as his term moved along, he seemed scattered, bouncing from one event to another, bragging about existing on four hours of sleep a night, embracing the television cameras, always with a big smile. Recently, I heard a Russian say that Americans smile too much. I don’t want the mayor to grump around like Putin, but that huge grin in every photograph starts to look insincere.

As he dashed about, Villaraigosa always talked about his climb up the ladder from the Eastside, and portrayed himself as a family man. As reporters Duke Helfand and Steve Hymon noted in the Los Angeles Times, his family was featured in campaign literature and — until recently — on the mayoral Web site. He was a family guy, perfect for a city that despite the heavily publicized Hollywood and Westside glitz puts a high premium on family values.

Did he think he could keep his private life hidden? Privacy seems impossible in today’s media atmosphere, where news is shaped through the Internet. On Jan. 29, blogger Luke Ford reported that the mayor and his wife had not been seen together for 10 months and he was no longer wearing his wedding ring. The chase was on, and this month Beth Barrett of the Daily News broke the story of the affair.

After several days, the short-attention- span news media had moved on to other stories, and the mayor has been hard at work repairing his image. Success is important for the city and him personally. He is expected to run for re-election and may be a candidate for governor.

Professor Dreier said he thinks the mayor can come back.

“I think the reporters are more interested in his personal life than the public is,” Dreier said.

With Villaraigosa, he said, “a lot of people feel let down on a personal level,” but the mayor’s future depends on “whether the crime rate goes down, the schools improve” and on his ability to deal with matters as mundane but important as potholes in the streets.

And that’s going to be difficult. Even though a City Charter reform greatly increased the power of the mayor, a municipal official is limited in solving problems that are national in scope. You can’t build a subway to the sea without federal funds. And every city in the country is fighting for more state and federal funds for schools.

“His biggest problem is that he raised expectations real high, and it is almost impossible to reach those goals,” Dreier said.

If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, he said, “there will be a lot more funds flowing to L.A., and he’s got a lot of people expecting miracles and that’s part of the problem.”

The immediate spotlight is on the public schools.

Villaraigosa raised the money and provided the campaign know-how to allow his candidates to become a majority on the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

The mayor moved quickly to shape district policy. His aides prepared a series of initiatives speedily adopted by the school board.

The measures are designed to measure student performance, decrease the drop-out rate, improve education for students who are learning English and build smaller schools. Training of principals would be improved and parent involvement would be encouraged.

What will happen to these lofty goals is uncertain. History tells us that board proposals turn to mush as they make their way through the district’s bureaucracy. Since his staff wrote the proposals, the mayor will take the heat for their success or failure.

This is unglamorous work, requiring great focus. The mayor, Los Angeles’ most visible and powerful public official, is the only one who can make it work. Making things work is a big commandment in politics and government. If Villaraigosa follows through on his promises, his failure to obey the biblical injunction might well be forgiven.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at

‘I Am Not an Adulterer’

It was Ted Koppel who broke the news to all the world that our president does not consider oral sex to constitute adultery. That being the case, Koppel concluded, it was perfectly correct for Clinton to maintain to probing journalists that he had never had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The president reportedly had once told Arkansas state troopers that oral sex is not, according to the Bible, adultery.

Is Clinton correct? “The answer is yes,” says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a pre-eminent Conservative Jewish scholar on Jewish sexuality. Dorff explained that since the penalty for adultery was death, the ancient sages, as was their practice in the case of capital crimes, sought to define the act as narrowly as possible. Adultery, then, was defined as sex with a married woman.

But what kind of sex? Again, the rabbis narrowed their terms. Did the rabbis even know from oral sex? “Certainly,” said Dorff. “They weren’t bashful.”

The great scholar Maimonides, in the first chapter of “The Laws of Forbidden Intercourse,” decreed that adultery can only happen when “the penis of the man enters the vagina of the woman,” paraphrased Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and author of a seminal report on Jewish law and sexuality.

On that score, Clinton is on firm ground: He would not have been strangled — the standard biblical penalty for adultery.

But if he did do what he is being accused of doing, he would have been, under his definition, whipped or fined. Those were the penalties for prostitution, a crime the rabbis defined broadly because no death penalty was involved. Prostitution involved any form of sexual contact with a woman other than one’s wife. In most countries, including Israel, such contact between consenting adults is no crime. “But Jewish tradition prizes marriage,” said Dorff. “The rabbis didn’t see consensual sex as outside the bounds of prostitution,” even if no money was involved.

In that, the ancient rabbis have something to say to all of us today, from presidents to paupers. “Whatever sex act you have [outside marriage] is certainly a breach of trust of the marital bond,” said Dorff, who also served on the Presidential Health Care Task Force headed by the first lady. “If he did what he’s accused of doing, Clinton subjected his wife and daughter to embarrassment and a breach of trust that a man owes his family. He also violated the fiduciary relationship between an employer and an employee. The biblical definition of adultery is the least of his problems.” –Robert Eshman, Managing Editor