How Can I Tell My Son…

Peace be with you. I’m a Christian by faith, and I have great love and respect for Jews and Israel.

I’ve read the Torah and many books of the Bible and always wondered, why were male Jews allowed to marry more than one wife and/or be with their wife’s servant?

Among the 613 and 10 commandments, was there a loophole in Jewish culture or was it understood that a male’s sex drive is much stronger than that of females?

When I think of King David, King Salomon, even Jacob and Moses, how do I explain to my son that it was ok for God to bless these men, but today is considered adultery?

Or was it that as long as you marry each one of your wives then it wasn’t considered adultery?

Very respectfully,

Javier

Dear Javier,

We appreciate your asking a question and seeking a truthful answer on such a sensitive topic. We don’t know how old your son is, but you are wise to explore tricky subjects and think about difficult questions in advance. What is more, teaching your children the truth of male/female relationships is best done by studying the Bible together with them. This eliminates much awkwardness and allows God’s plan for men and women to emerge organically and delicately.

If we may put one of your statements to the side, while ancient Jewish wisdom observes that there are important differences in the physical drives and needs of men and women, never does that excuse misbehavior. Wrong remains wrong whether or not the temptation is compelling.

Having said that, Biblical nomenclature is very precise. The Biblical sin of adultery does not correlate with our modern definition of the word. Adultery is extraordinarily serious for many reasons, one of which is the consequences for a child born from such a union. In the Biblical legal sense of the word, adultery is a relationship between a man and a married woman (obviously, not his own wife).

This is so starkly wrong, that even if two consenting couples openly agree to switch partners for an evening, they are in violation of the terrible sin of adultery. Marriage is not merely a contract between a man and a woman. It is a covenant, which is a contract that includes God. Maybe the men and women involved agreed to a switch, but God certainly did not.


However, a relationship between a married man and another woman – single, widowed, or divorced – may be wrong and immoral, but it is not Biblical adultery.

Biblically, a man was allowed to marry more than one wife, though this was not encouraged and happened only infrequently–seldom with felicitous outcomes. Incident after incident in Scripture reveals problems that stem from such marriages. In addition, there was a different kind of relationship, a tier lower than marriage, in which a man undertook responsibility for a woman but where she did not have the benefits of being a full wife. This is sometimes translated as concubine. Over the generations, as men became less capable of shouldering the responsibility of more than one woman, both these options were forbidden in Jewish life.

However, the fact that they are allowed in the Bible does tell us certain fundamental truths. Serial relationships are a sad reality today. Instead of marrying more than one wife at the same time, society tolerates men marrying more than one wife, one after the other, often with shattering results. Many men today leave a trail of non-marital physical relationships with women behind them. Sometimes the wreckage includes children who grow up without a father. In what emotional and societal way is that better than it would be for those men to marry and commit simultaneously to more than one woman? Neither way is good, not serial, and not parallel, but if men are going to have more than one wife, we would have to seriously question whether less damage is done to women, children, and society if they are lasting parallel marriages rather than a string of broken commitments.

Women living without having a man in their lives is also a common reality today. Women in that circumstance often choose to raise children alone. This has individual and societal implications that confront many people and countries today. Is this better or worse than every child knowing who his or her father is and the father being responsible for the child’s well-being, even if that father is shared with children from another woman? Is a woman becoming dependent on the government and upon the taxes extracted from other faceless citizens, and a child growing up without a father, a better solution than sharing a good man with another fully consensual woman?

Again, we are not advocating for this social/family arrangement, but a lesson your son will learn is that in the real world, the choice is often between two bad decisions, and we must be able to determine which is less bad. These are not practical solutions today, but we should be careful not to dismiss other solutions to problems we still face. In other words, we don’t get to live in a perfect world. We can only do the best we can with imperfect humans.

The subjects of sexuality and marriage deserve much deeper exploration. The Bible is a wonderful pathway for opening discussions on difficult topics. Suffice it to say that the Bible does not present us with perfect people, nor does it hide flaws and mistakes that great people make – an important lesson on its own. However, none of the men you mention above fit the legal definition of having committed adultery.

Enjoy growing with your son,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

This Ask the Rabbi is dedicated in memory of Shir Yaron, age 21. Shir attended the Supernova music festival with a group of four friends, all of whom were shot dead by Hamas terrorists.

And with continued prayers for the remaining hostages, and among them, Pinta Nattapong, age 35. Pinta was one of 32 Thai workers captured and kidnapped by Hamas terrorists while they were trying to build a better life for their families by earning money in Israel.


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