At the beginning of my relationship, I communicated clearly to my s.o. that I considered pornography to be infidelity. My partner agreed that he would stop. He continued for years without my knowledge, even lying about his computer being broken in order to hide his use. At points he even described his use an an addiction. This deceit went on for 6 years. According to Jewish Law, is it fair to consider this infidelity equal to a physical betrayal?
[Administrator's note: See an earlier related question and answer on JVO at http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=304]
As your note reveals, your husband goes to great lengths to lie to you and to deceive you. This is classic behavior for virtually all addicts. The need for whatever it is that a person becomes addicted to – pornography, gambling, alcohol, drugs, etc., becomes his/her primary, and roles like husband/wife or parent, secondary. As you spell out so clearly, you husband has been untrue to you and instead, faithful to the demands of his addiction. The neuro-chemistry of addiction is such that addicts also lie to themselves, as well: " Just this once more…I'm entitled to this pleasure…those girls can't really be as underage as they look…I'm not depriving my wife of my attention because I am shameful and disgusting and she doesn't love or want me anyway…" He isn't being willfully evil, he is ill. Pornography addiction is a documented illness and requires treatment that no spouse can provide.
To answer your specific question, to my reading of Jewish tradition, being addicted to pornography is not technically equivalent to body-to-body infidelity, it just breaks many other Jewish ethical laws and values. Even so, knowing those values, customs and laws or telling them to your spouse won't override the thrall of addiction, even if he is saying: "if it's infidelity under the rules of Judaism then prove it to me." Please reference the responses by other rabbis for details on these Jewish values. But I won't go on about them here, because they won't help you. Theissue in the face of an addiction in the family actually is what exactly are you going to do to help yourself given the painful circumstance and betrayal of trust in which you find yourself continually? Perhaps another underlying question is: Can your marriage be saved?
You don't give us many details about your relationship such as mitigating issues like whether you are disabled and perhaps unable or unwilling to fulfill your partner's sexual needs, or have unusual fears or needs that might require a sex therapist to put things back on track. Assuming good basic health, the first thing spouses of addicts require is help with setting and keeping healthy relationship boundaries, as in working on yourself rather than trying to fix your partner. Years of living with an addict inclines a person to think peculiarly, it's not your fault, this happens wherever there is an addict. Please read the little $5 (or so) book Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self Deception by Rabbi Abraham Twersky. He explains this graphically and I hope reading his work(s) will motivate you to secure a CAC therapist to work with you, the non-addicted spouse, a Certified Addictions Counselor. No generalist social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or spiritual guide will suffice. CAC certification in my opinion is essential. It is very difficult to be effective with addicts and their family, finding a quality CAC, will be your best chance at saving yourself and your marriage.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski has dedicated much of his life to providing help and resources to those who are in relationship with someone suffering an addiction, as well as those who are addicted. Look for his seminars and retreats and also reach out to your local Jewish Family Service, they may offer programs for the spouses of addicts or have recommendations for you. JACS, Jewish Alcoholics and Chemically Dependent Significant Others may welcome someone in your situation, or have a good referral for you.
Definitely reach out to Alanon for help. Alanon is a 12 Step-style program for families of addicts. By participating in an Alanon group, you will learn how to draw and hold your own lines in the sand, be listened to with understanding and honesty by those in a similar position. Your group will help you to discover surprising distortions in your own ways of being that arise from being in relationship with an addict and probably also from prior family-of0origin patterns that may still be unconscious to you. You will begin to change in healthy and holy ways that will affect your whole family system.
Remember, you can't change your spouse; your spouse has to want and be ready and able to change and actually go for it. Through therapy for yourself as an addict's partner, your own changes will shake up your family system, provide strength and clarity for all involved who are willing and able to join in, and pave the way for your spouse's possible awakening and transformation. This is not guaranteed; you may find yourself one day walking away from the relationship if he doesn't rid himself of his addiction. When a marriage becomes irredeemable, divorce is sanctioned in Judaism, very clearly, right in Deuteronomy. Though I certainly don't wish divorce on anyone.
Ultimately any untreated addiction will destroy a marriage, in my experience as a rabbi and social worker. Beware trying to shame or blame an addict into change—doesn't work and may send them to drugs and/or alcohol as co-addictions are common. Your clear new boundaries that will come with your own progress and evolution will make all the difference; you will begin to recognize their distorted thinking patters and not get pulled into an old painful, dysfunctional dynamic. Taking care of yourself, letting the other person know "Because I love you and I want to have a good future with or without you, I am getting help for myself. I absolutely will not support your habit in any way. I pray that you will one day accept help, until that time x and y apply regarding me and my person." A CAC and Alanon will help you to carve out a good life going forward, and just maybe keep your family intact.
Blessings on your life and highest hopes, Rabbi Goldie Milgram
I can certainly appreciate how you might feel now: betrayed, lied to, cheated on. Your s.o. has been jerking you around for a long time and you would like to say or do just about anything to get him back. Throwing the damnation card would be wonderful and gratifying, and my gut reaction would be to say that this is absolutely infidelity. However, the Torah would seem not to share this sentiment, at least from a legalistic standpoint.
Infidelity in Jewish terms only applies to one type of relationship: marriage. Biblical marriage actually has two stages, kiddushin (betrothal) and nissuin (full marriage), but the ceremonies are now done back-to-back so for our purposes only a married couple can cheat on each other. Furthermore, the only type of act that has actual real halachic (legal) significance that in fact divorce would be required would be actual sexual intercourse, defined as regular sexual intercourse and “unnatural” sex. Voyeurism in strict legal terms isn’t anything since the person didn’t do a physical action. The Talmud in Shevuot points out the fact that a person being required to bring a sacrifice for taking a false oath is already a novel concept since all the person did was say something without doing a physical action. Watching something isn’t doing anything, and many a waist line can attest to this.
This does not take away at all from the fact that your partner has severely violated your trust and has violated a Biblical prohibition besides for obviously surfing porn which is a form of entertainment completely antithetical to everything we stand for as Jews. He is guilty, apparently repeatedly, of taking false oaths, that he will not do such-and-such. Swearing falsely is in the Big 10 that he should be familiar with. He is also guilty of acting deceitfully and not distancing himself to falsehood. Claiming that he is a porn addict is a lie and a sorry excuse. You’d know if he was really a sex addict because he wouldn’t be able to hold down a job, would have hygiene issues, or have some other issue with normal functioning. The only problem he seems to be happening is keeping his word to you.
I say this with one caveat: if you did know about this or any issue at the beginning of the relationship and continued to pursue it anyway, it might be considered a stamp of approval of sorts. In the formal marriage institution, if there is something about the woman that had the man known about he would have never affected the marriage transaction, the marriage is annulled retroactively. However, if after they are married he continues to stay with her, it is considered as if he “forgave” the condition and he accepts her as is. Then the marriage is fully in force even if he decides to complain about it later on.
I do want to revisit one point because I believe I would be delinquent as a rabbi not to expand upon this thought. As I said earlier, infidelity only involves married couples. According to Jewish law, a person who didn’t put a ring on it isn’t cheating in the literal sense if they decide to go outside the relationship. Technically they are still shopping, and my experience with this generation is that unless someone is at least engaged they are in fact really still shopping. Six years later and he hasn’t proposed? It doesn’t take six years to know someone well enough to know whether or not you can spend rest of your life with them. This person may already have one foot out the door, and the porn is simply symptomatic of that. The fact that he won’t stop after six years fully knowing how much this upsets you is ahzariut (cruelty), plain and simple. You don’t treat the people you love that way. The big problem of course in our generation is that people do treat the people they love that way. That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate it.
It seems unnecessary to moralize about the evils of pornography or how much Judaism values intimacy. Instead, I want to focus on the terminology we use to talk about this kind of conflict. You use two terms to describe what your partner has done – infidelity and betrayal. So if we are to speak about this through the lens of Jewish Law we have to understand what we mean by these terms.
The key question is whether you are thinking of these terms in a legal sense or only an ethical one. Infidelity in a legal sense generally refers to a violation of legal vows made between partners in a marriage. That is, it is only marriage that creates a legally significant sexual commitment that we can even speak about being violated. This is the actual text of the blessing that begins the wedding ceremony – we become absolutely forbidden to all others and permitted to our spouse. We often talk about “cheating” in the context of other committed relationships, but this is a violation of a promise, of a personal pledge, rather than any legal obligation.
Secondly, the force of this legal prohibition is specifically about sexual intimacy with another partner outside of the marriage, essentially adultery. While other types of betrayal may feel like violations of the bond of marriage, they do not rise to the level of actual adultery with another partner. The reality is that pornography, as distasteful as it is, does not involve a physical and emotional bond with another person which displaces the marital relationship.
What I sense is really at the heart of your question is how angry you have the right to be over what your partner has done. This is ultimately a question of how you feel about it and cannot be answered by a stranger, but here is how I would approach it. There are two separate issues here: pornography and betrayal of trust. You imply in the question that a partner watching pornography is not in its essence equivalent to actual adultery – it is an egregious violation specifically because you so clearly expressed your feelings about it at the beginning. So we are left with two points of crisis. One is that your partner knowingly engaged in a practice that he knew was deeply repugnant to you, and failed to show sufficient respect for your moral judgment to allow himself to be guided by it. The second is the deep and corrosive damage done by an extended period of deception. The years of deceit and lies have eroded the sense of trust and safety that you can feel with him, and trust is the bedrock of any healthy and fulfilling relationship.
So the bottom line answer is this. In a legal sense, adultery and pornography are two separate realms. But I doubt that this sense is relevant because I assume that no legal issues hang in the balance. Rather, the question is how deep a sense of betrayal you are justified in feeling at this discovery. It seems to me that an apology and a promise to do better would hardly suffice to convince you to move beyond this crisis. And so you are left asking yourself some difficult questions. Is there anything you could imagine your partner doing, any process of teshuva, that would convince you that he has made a real renewed commitment to full openness and honesty in your relationship? And if he did agree to such a process, can you imagine yourself reaching a place where you can once again feel a deep sense of trust, where you can be as open and unreserved with him as you have a right to be in, hopefully, a lifetime partnership? It is, in the end, less about how egregious the betrayal was than what kind of healing there can be for your sacred bond of love.
Your question touches on a few different and equally important topics. The matter of a spouse having a sex addiction is a serious one. My esteemed colleagues have responded to a question on this site specific to cyber-sex addictions. Their response highlights that regardless of whether or not one suffers from the illness of addiction, infidelity occurs when a person is deceitful with their spouse, lying or hiding their behavior and addictions. Certainly one suffering from an addiction should seek therapy, and their partner (that's you) should also seek professional guidance and support.
On the matter of Judaism and pornography, the core issue again (especially in relation to your question), is whether or not infidelity is taking place. Judaism does view sex, within a marriage, as an enriching expression of human love. Outside of a marriage (or a committed partnership in contemporary non-Orthodox communities), where sex is perhaps not being expressed in the context of loyalty, trust, understanding and love, Jewish tradition is much less welcoming of sexual acts and activities.
Pornography is particularly challenging from a Jewish perspective because it violates our traditional values of modesty as well as creating a environment and culture of disrespect for the human body, which we believe to be created b'tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image.
It is true that one could argue that pornography might be viewed or used as a marital or relationship aid when both partners engage in it willingly and together. The use of aids to establish a satisfactory sexual relationship within a marriage is not banned or taboo in Jewish tradition. The Torah makes mention of love potions and the Talmud refers to certain foods that can be eaten to arouse desire. Judaism is not “prudish” and encourages married couples to enjoy their sexual relationship.
Judaism also does not ban works of art or literature simply because they deal with sex. Jewish tradition does, however, encourage us to handle all matters relating to sex and sexual desire with modesty and dignity. Jewish tradition also compels us to rise above our base or animalistic urges. Our sacred texts remind us time and again that unlike animals, we are created with the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
Engaging in or enjoying pornography, especially when one is married and/or their spouse or partner is not a willing participant, is akin to failing to rise above our base instincts. The culture of pornography urges us to lose control of ourselves and our sense of right and wrong, and this is directly in opposition to Jewish values.
Therefore, the questions that must be asked of someone who is engaging in or enjoying pornography are: What are your motives? Are you promoting a serious form of art or are you exploiting the human body for your own sexual gratification? Is this something your spouse/parter approves of and participates in with you, or is this something you have to hide from them and lie about?
When pornography exploits for the purposes of sexual gratification it is not sanctioned by Jewish tradition, and when pornography is viewed and consumed by a member of a committed relationship without the knowledge or approval of their spouse or partner, Jewish tradition considers this to be a form of infidelity.
Pornographic consumption can lead to online affairs, which can (and often do) lead to physical affairs. Furthermore, as my colleague Rabbi Brooks Susman writes in a related answer on this site, “Judaism posits that there is no mind-body dualism; that there is a unity among the mind, body and soul.” If the mind or the eyes are engaging in infidelity, than so too is the heart and the soul, even if the hands are idle. Physical contact does not need to take place for this transgression to be considered infidelity.
Similarly, my colleague, Rabbi John Sherwood, z”l, also responded to a related question on this site, reminding us that in biblical times, adultery was defined a woman having sex with a man who was not her husband. However in our time, adultery might be considered, “any behavior that adulterates, or takes away from the quality of a marriage. It might be physical sex, flirting online, or being preoccupied with pornography...Furthermore, adultery is not necessarily sexual. It might be obsession with the wood shop in the garage, a garden club, or any other behavior that done to the extreme takes one partner away from the (committed) relationship.”
Your S.O. lied to you and acted deviously to hide his pornographic addiction. Certainly, Jewish tradition considers this to be adulterous behavior. That said, Judaism is a tradition that also values opportunities for t'shuva (repentance) and forgiveness. With the help of therapists, family, and community, hopefully you and your S.O. can work through the challenges of living with his addiction in a healthy and committed relationship founded on fidelity, honesty and trust.
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