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Lo Tinaf (You shall not commit adultery)
The Seventh Commandment

Lo Tinaf (You shall not commit adultery)

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The Seventh Commandment is the second of the group composed of the last five pronouncements. In many subtle ways the Seventh Commandment is connected to the Sixth. The ideal of not having sexual relations outside of marriage might be the most difficult of the commandments for many people to observe.

Often, both the “love” drive and the “sex” drive make having sexual relations outside of marriage all too enticing, and if the marriage is an unhappy one, then adultery is an easy trap in which to fall. Additionally, modern society and social media seem not only to excuse adultery, but at times Hollywood in particular and popular culture in general seem to promote it.

If we take a slight detour and review the Sixth Pronouncement, Lo Tirzach (You shall not murder), we see that it is about the robbing of another human being of his or her life. Like all the commandments, the Sixth Commandment does not exist by popular vote. Morality is not democratic. Were that to be so, we might, as the German people did during the time of Nazi Germany, vote out the Sixth Commandment and make murder legal. Were the commandments based not on what God demands of us, but rather on what we would prefer to do, then it would be all too easy to turn morality on its head and declare murder a moral good. That is exactly what the German Nazis did during World War II. The Biblical answer is simply one does not murder because it is forbidden by a higher source than that of a popular vote.

The Seventh Commandment, perhaps one of the commandments most often ignored, continues in this vein. One only needs to read the daily news or see television to know how often the Seventh Commandment is ignored. To sleep with another man’s wife destroys a different form of life — family life — and “murders” trust. Adultery destroys marriages, and marriages are the building blocks of a moral civilization. Although adultery might not always lead to divorce, no matter what the Hollywood elites might try to sell us, adultery does not help stabilize the couple’s relationship, nor that of the family.

Unfortunately, adultery and sexual misconduct are often part of modern life. The movie and television industries promote it, and our public schools have too often reduced sexuality to a biological phenomenon. Too many people in political and corporate power have come to see adultery and sexual exploitation as mere perks connected with their job. The multiple sexual exploitations that have recently come to light and the “MeToo” movement are constant reminders that humanity lives with a constant struggle — the struggle between the sacred and the profane.

In our day, too many people have experimented with some form of open marriage. Judaism considers such an action to be an offense to one’s partner, to one’s community and to God. Although different people might have their reasons for seeking some form of love outside of marriage, the Torah views marriage as a necessary ingredient not only for a stable person, but also a stable society.

The Biblical term adultery referred to sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who was married or betrothed to another man. Biblical law, as differentiated from later Jewish law, does not refer to two unmarried people or to a married man having sex with an unmarried woman. In these cases the issue would be one of virginity or of family dignity. Torah law, however, proscribes the same punishment for both a man and a woman who have entered into an adulterous relationship (See Leviticus 20:10). Furthermore, although the death penalty exists for an adulterous couple, the law could only be enforced in the unlikely event that the two guilty parties had sexual intercourse in the presence of two unrelated male witnesses.

As Judaism advanced through the millennia, so did its understanding of adultery. For example, Joseph Karo’s 16th century classic The Shulchan Aruch forbids sexual relations both for men and women outside of marriage.

The Seventh Commandment is about our moral character. September is also the month that we Jews celebrate our High Holidays: Rosh Ha’Shanah and Yom Kippur. These are the days when we make an inventory of our lives, seek to repair damaged personal relationships, and seek God’s forgiveness for our personal and collective failures during the past year. As such, all of us need to ask ourselves. Are we more Godlike or animal-like? Do we make decisions that bring us closer to the spiritual, or farther away? We live in a time when truth and dignity have so often been turned on their heads.

The Jewish High Holidays and the Seventh Commandment require that we ask ourselves: What type of society we will leave to future generations? Are our actions destroying the family structure? Have we ignored the basic rules of decency? The Seventh Commandment serves as a determinant of who we are personally and collectively. I pray that in this coming New Year of 5781 we choose wisely. My family joins me in wishing everyone a year when each person shall be inscribed for good in Sefer Ha’Chayim, the Book of Life.

Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

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The Eighth Commandment appears to be forthright and easy to understand. What makes this pronouncement so difficult, however, is that it demands that we go beyond the theoretical to the applied and incorporate its ideals into our daily lives. 

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