Adultery as a property crime

I am sure that most readers are a sick of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story as I am but I saw a news item recently that used that episode to shed an interesting light on how adultery is viewed according to Jewish law.

At the height of the scandal, a Jewish scholar wrote a defense of Clinton that argued that he had not in fact committed adultery, and that Jews should stay loyal to him especially since King David, who is viewed as a great hero, did much worse things.

“According to classical Jewish law, President Clinton did not commit adultery; adultery is defined as a married man having intercourse with a married woman, and Monica Lewinsky is single,” said the Jan. 27, 1999, ­e-mail that ended up with White House adviser and political fixer Sidney Blumenthal.

“From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David?” Susannah Heschel wrote.

“King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”

I am by no means a biblical scholar but I had noticed that whenever the Bible mentioned cases of adultery, it was always the case that the woman was married while the man’s marital status seemed immaterial. I suspect that a married woman is seen as ‘belonging’ to her husband and that by having sex with her, the man was using property that did not belong to him and that was the real offense.

Any rabbinical scholars out there who can shed some authoritative light on this?


  1. Ethan Vishniac says

    I’m not a rabbinical scholar, but I am Jewish. The question of whether or not King David existed is not relevant. Even imaginary heroes can be used as arguing points. However, it is certainly incorrect to assume that biblical heroes could no wrong. They could, and they did.

  2. anat says

    Well, the laws that were the basis of Halakha (Jewish religious law) are the laws of a society that endorsed polygyny. A man could be legally married to multiple wives, but not the other way around. So a wife had no expectation of exclusiveness (at most she had the expectation to be provided for at some basic accepted level no matter how many additional women her husband married, and her male children had the expectation to not lose whatever existing claims to inheritance they already had), while a husband did.

    Also, a principle of Halakhic thought is that while newer laws can modify older ones, laws and interpretations of rabbis cannot outright obliterate a law from Torah, the newer ones have to work around the Torah laws. (For example, the law about stoning rebellious children stands, but has been interpreted so strictly to the point it can’t apply to real world situations, and a rabbi is quoted in the Talmud saying the law was never enacted, it was only intended to be studied.)

    The practice of polygyny among Jews was typically on par with what the local broader culture accepted – more common in Muslim countries, rare in Christian countries. The most famous source for a rabbinical ban on polygynny is a ban attributed to Rabbi Gershom, some of Judah, of Mainz, from ca 1000 CE. The ban was originally authoritative in the Rhineland communities and spread from there (though some of the more isolated Jewish communities such as those of Yemen continued to practice polygyny into the 20th century).

    According to The Ordinances Attributed to Rabbi Gershom of Mainz as Regulations of Disasporic Communications: A Proposition Gershom’s ban on polygyny (as well as a ban on divorcing a woman against her will) was part of a set of ordinances intended to regulate interactions between Jewish communities at a time of increase in international commerce and communication. Specifically, the need for the ban arose when Jewish men from the Rhineland married second wives in Spain or other Muslim countries.

    It is sometimes argued that Gershom’s ban was temporary and that it has expired by now or is about to expire soon, snd though this may have been true for the original ban, it has been extended by later authorities. Still, there are ways around it in some cases – a Jewish man may marry a second wife without divorcing the first one if he has the permission of 100 rabbis. There are several such instances every year in Israel – the grounds usually being the woman’s infertility or insanity (also possibly the wife’s apostasy?).

    In any case, any rules limiting polygyny are enacted as patches over laws made in a culture that accepted polygyny at least in principle.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Wives are as much husband’s property as real estate, slaves, and domestic animals.
    “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” (Exodus 20:17)

  4. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    Well, the Lewinsky affair alone may not have been worthy of all the sturm and drang it generated, but it is certainly part of a larger pattern of Clinton abusing his position to take sexual advantage of women – Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Juanita Braddock – that should give any feminist pause.

    And of course that’s quite aside from his legacy as the archetypal neoliberal warhawk…

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