How do Jewish values apply to this question, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Ethicist column. I am a single woman in my mid-20s. I recently learned from my dear friend that she has developed a longtime pattern of cheating on her husband of five years. I understand cheating happens for various reasons - but if I remain friends with her, am I condoning her ongoing behavior? If I am "anti-compulsive-cheating," do I therefore have to be "anti-her?" I value many aspects of our friendship, but don't see her (or my) views on philandering ever changing. What is the Jewish response to this?
Friendship is a very important value – and challenge -- within Torah. See, for example, Avot 1:6,7; 2:13,14. The reality is that we do not live alone but, in fact, are social beings. We are meant to relate to others – and herein lies the value and the challenge. As social beings, we inherently affect and are affected by others – and this is part of the Divine plan in that our goal is not solely our personal development but the triumph of everyone’s development within a proper communal model. We thus must consider our relationships very carefully with a recognition that we have a responsibility for ourselves and others. We, thus, must ensure that our friendships affect us positively and not negatively while we also accept the obligation, to the best of our abilities, to affect others positively and not negatively.
When we reflect upon friendship, we, of course, must still consider our emotional feelings for each other. Friendship, in many ways, is clearly an alogical activity – who can truly say why we love or like another? The Torah perspective on friendship and relationships is not intended to change our human connections into solely a pragmatic activity whereby our only consideration is how we may benefit and receive benefit from another, albeit even of a spiritual nature. The reality is that we have connections with others and our emotions and familial connections inform us of the nature of these connections. This is part of the Divine plan. The further call, though, is to build upon these connections in the furtherance of the Divine plan – and so our emotions must translate into responsibilities.
Thus, in your particular case, you find yourself bonded in friendship to another with an immoral standard. The question is: how are you to respond in such a situation? The fact that you have a connection with this person means that this is a situation to which you must respond. You cannot simply walk away or ignore the responsibilities that go with the reality of this friendship. We have a responsibility to assist another in their moral challenges (Vayikra 19:17.18) and this is doubly so when we have a further, special bond with them. The issue is not simply whether you can be friends with this woman but how you should conduct this friendship. This is broader than the sole issue that you mention. It may be that you may not be able to change her conduct – but do not think solely in the short run. Maybe your friendship with her will eventually affect her positively in this regard over time. Maybe, still, it will never affect her in this particular way but your friendship will be positive for her in other ways and that also is important. You being a positive influence in your friend’s life has value.
There is, however, a limitation on this. You have to also be aware of the possibility of being a negative influence through your acquiescence of her behaviour. It may be that you cannot change her actions and it may be that you are a positive influence upon your friend in other ways but you must also be concerned that maintaining your friendship could give the impression that you are in agreement with her behaviour. There is also the possibility that others may interpret your friendship as a tacit approval of her behaviour. Giving a wrong impression is a negative value in its own right and it also has to be a consideration. It is always important that you are clear about your moral standards.
This leads into the other side of the issue – the effect of this relationship upon you. You also have a responsibility to yourself to maintain friendships with people who have a positive influence on your life. While you may think that you are not being affected by this woman’s negative behaviour, the reality is that one could be negatively affected by another’s actions in the most subtle of ways. Even simply tolerating the negative behaviour of others can have negative effects upon a person. There are many further ways that sharing a friendship with a person of poor moral stature can have negative effects on a person. Maintaining a friendship cannot override your duty to your own personal integrity and ethical standards and development.
So the answer to your question in terms of how Judaism would respond to such an issue is actually a most complex one. Every case is actually different based upon the actual personalities involved and the nature of the friendship and relationship. You are responsible for yourself and for others although the responsibility to self has priority in terms of personal, ethical development. You should not walk away unless you must but it is also important that, even if you maintain, the relationship, you never give the impression that you accept her negative behaviour. That may actually be a strain on the relationship but there is a greater good than the friendship and, although we value friendship, we are further committed to the greater Divine good.
One of life’s challenges is that we often find ourselves in relationship with people whose behavior we cannot condone. I can’t say that Jewish tradition offers a single unequivocal answer to this problem, but there are some key points that guide us to an answer:
Are you in any way helping your friend continue this behavior? Judaism forbids us to help others do things that are morally wrong – if they need your help to accomplish their misdeed, the tradition applies the verse, “Do not place a stumbling-block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14); but even if they could do it without your help, you are still forbidden to “Aid the hands of sinners.” If your friendship somehow aids or enables her behavior, you must find a way to cut off that aid, even if that means ending the friendship.
Are you likely to be influenced by her behavior? Social interactions can have a powerful influence on our behavior, and we must be careful not to enter into (or remain in) relationships that will lead us in a bad direction (See, e.g., Maimonides, Laws of Personal Character 6.1). In the present example, however, it sounds like you are extremely firm in your opinion about the wrongness of cheating, and would probably not be influenced.
Are you likely to have a positive influence on her behavior? The power of social interactions moves in both directions, and if your friendship with her might eventually lead her to improve her conduct – if not by direct persuasion, at least by personal example – then you have a moral obligation to remain in that relationship and continue to be a good influence (this is the implication of the story in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b, in which Rabbi Zeira became friendly with the neighborhood thugs in order to influence them to change their ways).
I also think you need to consider carefully how you approach this issue within your relationship. The Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 65b) instructs us, “Just as a person is obligated to give feedback when the other person will listen, a person is also obligated not to give feedback when the other person will not listen.” In other words, you should at least once make it clear that you do not condone this behavior; but if you are correct that your friend’s views will not change, you should not continue to attempt to persuade her otherwise.
To ask your question a different way: how can you be a supportive friend without being judgmental or permissive? Jewish tradition understands that col yisrael aravim ze ba ze--that we are all responsible for one another, and as a result endorses the idea of 'loving rebuke'; that is, you are permitted to correct someone's behavior in a caring fashion. Cheating is often the result of dysfunction in a relationship--perhaps there is abuse of one form or another, or marital issues of a more 'mundane' nature. Regardless, your friend needs a friend right now--to support her and help her figure out what's wrong with her marriage, and fix it if possible, or, with sadness, leave it (God-willing, amicably) if not. You won't be able to do that if you see her merely as a 'philanderer', and not as a human being created in the Divine image, worthy of both God's love and your own.
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