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Some years ago a rabbinic colleague of mine in Chicago was giving a class on the Ten Commandments to a secular audience. Not one given to apologetics, he staunchly defended the death penalty the Bible prescribes for adultery. The rabbi argued that society as a whole, even today, would be a much better place if adultery was a capital crime.
Everyone in the class vociferously disagreed, saying that the Biblical punishment was too harsh. Except for one young man who sat there silently. This fellow had suffered through horrible teen years in large part because his father had been involved in an adulterous relationship. When he spoke up, all he said was "I see nothing wrong with the Torah's penalty." His words brought the rest of the class - who knew of his background - to immediate silence.
This week's Torah portion, Yitro, tells of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Why did God single out these ten? In analyzing the Decalogue, many commentaries note how the Ten Commandments focus primarily on relationships: between God and man, between man and man, between children and parents. Central, to any successful relationship is fidelity,
loyalty. Without that, any relationship is bound to flounder.
Let's examine some classical commentaries on the commandment prohibiting adultery.
Nachmanides (13th century Spain) describes our relationships as a "ladder of love." He says that a person must first love himself before he can successfully love his spouse. Then, if he has formed a solid relationship with his spouse, this will help develop his relationship with the Almighty.
The converse, however, can also be true. A man who is disloyal to his spouse will most likely be disloyal to his God as well.
The Midrash Mechilta says this idea is alluded to by the placement of different commandments on the two tablets. The seventh commandment, the prohibition against adultery, appears opposite the second commandment, "Do not have other gods before me." Suggests the Mechilta, this positioning is not accidental. It is to hint to us that one who is disloyal to one's spouse will eventually be disloyal to God.
Another Midrash observes that the Hebrew word for adultery, "tinaf," can be split into two words, "ten af," which translates as "giving anger." The Midrash explains that adultery is an action particularly abhorrent to the Almighty - which particularly invokes His anger. The hallmark of the Jewish People has historically been the stability of family life. One who commits adultery violates and ignores this hallowed tradition.
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century), says that adultery also violates the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself." Adultery is a grievous sin against one's neighbor - treating the neighbor in a way that one would not want oneself to be treated.
Maimonides explains adultery in powerful, eternal terms. He says that the entire purpose of creation is to establish "Shalom Bayit" - harmony between husband and wife. The adulterer destroys that harmony and, in the process, undermines the very purpose of creation.