Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Adultery and Apathy

Chana's latest post, a very well-written short story entitled The Adulteress about, well, an adulteress, has dovetailed nicely into one of the rants that have been festering in my mind recently. It has been so long since I have had a good, serious full-throttle rant, so I am planning to enjoy this. I realized after writing this that it was, in many ways, merely an extension of this rant, but I don't really care, so there you go.

Now then. The protagonist of the story (and I know this will surprise you) infuriated me. (I should note that it is possible that Chana intended to make her infuriating. I'm not really sure.) Not so much the moral weakness of the main character, because even my judgmental mind knows that people are weak. Including me, obviously. Not even the self-pity that took the place of the deserved self-recrimination.

No, it was the perverse insistence that somehow the character's love for the 'other man' justified her weakness. This general concept that one's emotions are somehow a more moral basis of action than one's hormones- that this story of star-crossed lovers is different than drunk, hormonal people jumping into bed with each other in respects other than the magnitude of the temptation faced. I know that I am speaking from the insupportably lofty viewpoint of one who has never had to act on their principles, but love does not justify anything. Not butterflies in the stomach love, and not real, true storybook love.

Because really, in the purest moral sense, a marriage is not about love. I mean, don't get me wrong, it is an institution greatly facilitated by love, and I personally am darn sure planning on the two being closely associated, but at its core, marriage is not about love. It's about being motivated- for whatever reason, starting from love and spanning all the way to financial convenience- to accept upon yourself a certain set of duties. Chief among such duties is to be faithful.

And that's really all there is to it. Because the thing about duties- and this is cool, if you think about it right- is that they don't care about your emotions or how you felt when you got up that morning or whether true love is hovering just around the corner. Lack of love may constitute a reason to end the contract, depending on how it relates to the reasons that it was formed in the first place, but it does not constitute an excuse or even a mitigating factor for breach of that contract.

For me, the rant-festering actually started around a week ago, sitting around a Yom Tov table with an assortment of people whose religious affiliation spanned from formerly-religious to ba'alat teshuva. The conversation turned, naturally, to the subject of religion. And what with everybody fumbling to come to some common ground, the general topic was the uselessness of empty symbols, the foolishness of mouthing prayers, etc etc. The newly religious talked about how they connected to the mitzvot, the formerly about how they never could connect to them, everybody else about how they struggled with the connecting thing and what they did and didn't connect to.

The word connect was used a lot. The words 'truth' and 'duty' were not mentioned once. And that is because duty is out of fashion these days. Why on earth would anybody in this enlightened day and age hang about doing things they don't connect to, don't enjoy, don't love, when they can be out discovering themselves and all of the lovely things that they can be connecting to?

And again, I think that emotion and spiritual connection are key elements in one's religion. A religious experience that is lacking them is, well, a loveless marriage, and should definitely be avoided. I will admit that I am, at the moment, having some trouble mustering up emotional attachments to my observance. This bothers and disturbs me and is probably the main thing that I would like to work on in the coming year.

However, that in no way affects the marriage itself. I have chosen, and continue to choose, to accept upon myself a set of commitments for a variety of reasons, many of them intellectual in nature. My feelings don't affect those commitments and duties. The fact that lack of emotional attachment often leads to diminished observance is wholly rational, wholly natural, but not really morally justified.

I'm going to end with a pretty bowdlerized version of a story that I read once a long time ago about some Rebbe, who told his students about his own teacher. The teacher had been so holy, he explained, that every day when he davened, he was overcome by spiritual energy and could feel God's presence around him. What, said the Rebbe, could be more holy than that? And one of the students stood up and said, "I have never felt that. And yet I still daven every day."


Yosef said...

First, I applaud your sentiment, and I agree (not with the parts pertaining to the story that I haven't read, necessarily, though). Duty is indeed an out-of-fashion word and concept. Perhaps even moreso is the word obligation.

We, as Jews, are duty-bound, obliged, to do certain things, and not to do others. Similarly, a married person is obliged to do certain things.

The argument made by many to do only the mitzvoth that make sense to a person is analogous to a husband saying that he won't take out the trash when his wife asks, if he doesn't feel like doing it right then.
The right answer, of course, is to do it, especially because it takes so little effort and the punishment for not doing is so great. (Great in the sense of heavy, severe, gravitas, not as in exalted nor large.)

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

yosef: what's this about not allowing access to your profile? This is an open society man- an open society! ; )

e-kvetcher said...

Adultery involves betrayal of trust of another individual who you know exists. You cannot allegorize this to religious observance IMHO. Meaning, I can feel very compfortable saying that no person should commit adultery. It is breaking a solemn oath. This person has the option to dissolve their marriage and then act on their feelings.
I cannot see myself making an "ought" statement about another person and religion.

Personally, I thought the story was rather weak. Believable, but weak.

Tobie said...

E-Kvetcher: I think that the chief difference is the lack of a clear divorce mechanism in religion. I can be fairly confident saying that you should never commit adultery because that simply means not being inconsistent with your self-accepted loyalties. It's not really so much about the other person, in my mind, which is why cheating on a mean, evil spouse is still a violation of duty, although less morally repugnant.

For the nimshal to work, there needs to be a divorce mechanism for religion, which there isn't actually. However, if we hypothesize a sort of unilateral divorce from religion- which is what exists in practice, since God never really states what His feelids are about the whole matter- then I stand by the metaphor. If you're not going to dissolve the marriage, then don't cheat on it either.

Yosef: bringing punishment into the question isn't so relevant. The fine for dereliction of duty is, likewise, irrelevant to its moral status.

Yosef said...

Tobie - That wasn't my point at all. Why did you decide to focus on the last sentence?

Tobie said...

Because it was the only bit that I didn't agree with ;) Amend my comment to: "Absolutely, I agree, well said, except for that last sentence there."

Anonymous said...

Tobie dear,
Sorry for the delayed response.
Firstly as usual I greatly enjoyed your rant.
I agree that words and concepts like commitment, duty,and obligation are quite unfashionably these days and unfortunately so.
This discussion is an age old conflict , it exists in the Talmud : mitzvot tzrichot kavana?! which is obviously not exactly the same thing but does touch on the essential question about mitzvot which is what really is the point -is there some metaphysical reality created by our doing the mitzva irrespective of our feelings towards it or is the mitzva there to effect us...I think that is the core of the question. Chasidim and Mitnagdim also hashed out this conflict as you well know and it seems for the most part the Mitnagdim won that battle.
You speak about Truth with a capital T, but whose? I think about this often on fast days when I read what G-d has to say about fasting ( through the neviim) Like on Yom Kippur the haftorah where G-d is like " You think I need you to fast?" and in Zecharia as well. I think fasting is really important - but it is for us - it is to effect a certain change/experience in us. So when religious practice loses its meaning and one stops practicing I am not sure who the breach of contract is with. G-d or oneself? But my real point is this:Even if the contract is with G-d and not us I think you underestimate the power of human emotion and whether you think it should be so or not -it inetivatablly needs to be a factor - because mask it in whatever you want -It will come out somehow. Its the Law of conservation of energy used by Freud in terms of psychology , push away some feeling and it will pop up somewhere else, in the form of neurosis,anxiety ...etc. So what you ask? Who cares how you are feeling today- you have commitments, obligations, duty..etc.
Well I think that being emotionally dead in a marriage may be incredibly destructive to it and to the other person involved thus causing one to have already broken one of the clauses of the marriage contract- I think emotional faithfullness ,while not neccesarily possible to quantify, is inherent in a marriage contract. So does this excuse adultary? no. I don't think so , but it does excuse seperation and reevaultion.
I think people that do things that they are not happy doing end up hurting other people. Like burnt out social workers ( :) an example I love) .I think it is encumbant on us to try and make it work, to look for the source of the problem...to go on a romantic getaway and recapture the spark ..hee hee I am getting carried away but I think you get my point, but seriously I don't neccesarily think that blindly mumbling words even though you don't really mean it- is the more morally sound coice.

Miri said...

Also, Tobie, you leave out an extremely important factor - suffocation. This can be emotional, spiritual, phsycological, or intellectual. Sometimes an emotional suffocation is an excuse for breaking off duties - if continuing them is only going to be to everyone's detriment. I'm not justifying adultery - in the marraige situation, obviously this would call for, as you put it, a dissolving of the contract. But sometimes an action which will lead to the dissolving of the contract is necessary as an initial impetus. Sorry if I'm incoherent due to jet lag, but it was an angle you'd missed.

Tobie said...

shana, mir:

Obviously the religion metaphor is weaker than my original, marriage-related point. But I still stand by it. Passion in your religion is vital- at the very least as a necessary prerequisite for being able to have any of the other stuff, and at the very most as the ultimate purpose of the whole thing (I'm not sure I believe that, but it's a possibility).

But my point is that it works in that direction, not the other one. That is, if you are feeling that your religious practice is justified- if you make the decision to stay in that marriage- then lack of passion is a problem that you should target and solve. It sounds cold, but I don't quite mean it like that. If you aren't feeling anything, or feeling suffocated, it certainly calls for a change of tactic.

But lack of passion isn't an excuse to cheat on your religion. Dissolve it or fix it, but you can't be in between. I'm not sure how dissolving a marriage works in religion. From the perspective of Halacha, it's pretty much a Catholic marriage; from the perspective of modernity, it's pretty much unilateral no-fault divorce. I suppose it's another thing that one who is interested in divorce would have to investigate.

And lack of passion may indirectly signal divorce. If (in the marriage metaphor) you feel that the primary purpose of your marriage was to love and you don't feel that you are loving, that's a perfectly good reason to dissolve the contract. But the marriage exists as something extrinsic to the love. In contract terms, the contract is voidable, but it isn't retroactively void.

In the religion metaphor, if you feel that the purpose of your religious practice is to feel close to God and you are not feeling any such closeness, then that might be a good reason to dissolve the contract. But you need that middle step- lack of passion doesn't automatically make the commitment null and void.

harry-er than them all said...

email me please

harry-er than them all said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
harry-er than them all said...

sorry, this post has been tagged