General Petraeus & Us

November 15, 2012

4 min read


It’s no wonder Judaism forbids a man from being alone with a woman who is not his wife.

Another scandal involving a powerful man brought down and destroyed because of an affair with a woman he had spent an inordinate amount of time with. General David Petraeus, at the height of his career, former general and the head of the CIA, has admitted to an affair with a married woman who traveled extensively with him while writing his biography.

This type of self-destruction is almost a cliché by now, but it still shocks us. How can a man with such great integrity, a role model for the nation, end up ruining his career and causing such pain to his family by stumbling into an affair?

When I became observant and entered the Torah observant world, I was struck by the marked sense of separation and formality between the sexes. Men and women avoided mixing, and as one man quipped to my husband: “No wonder your marriages last longer, you go to a wedding and check your spouse at the door. “ Colleagues are not referred to by their first names. The more formal title “Rabbi” or “Mrs.” is used, creating a healthy distance and professional interaction in the workplace.

The laws of yichud (seclusion) forbid a man from being alone with a woman who is not his wife. That means even when one is dating, it must be done in a more public fashion. And once you are married, neither spouse can be alone in a private way with someone else of the opposite sex. More than once a woman has shared with me a story of the break-up of her marriage that involved her husband working late at night, the secretary was there helping, and was so, so understanding. A neck massage to relieve the tension…and then…

Yes these laws are sometimes awkward. At times you must make sure that even in the middle of the day the office door is left ajar so anyone can walk in unannounced. If my husband is out of town on business, I cancel any repairman’s visit. And if I am out of town, my husband has to leave the house if it is the housekeeper’s day to come and clean. They’re supposed to be a bit awkward; they alert us to the underlying risks that are natural and intrinsic to a man being alone with a woman.

These laws apply to the greatest rabbi and his niece. Do I trust my husband and does my husband trust me? Of course. But the Torah is teaching us that everyone, under the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances, can fall. Marriages go through ups and downs, and when you are going through a down, you are vulnerable. Now add in travel out of town, being with a co-worker, a few drinks, and….well, it happens every day.

It’s not hard to understand the underlying rationale of these laws. Judaism recognizes the power of sexual attraction. It’s natural. There is supposed to be that electricity in the air. Maintaining that sensitivity heightens one’s appreciation of the opposite sex, which expresses itself within the intimate relationship one has with his or her spouse. Sometimes that underlying current isn’t there between a man and a woman, but I don’t think that is necessarily good. Dulling our senses means we lose something very precious. Men and women are supposed to be different.

But I suspect that more often than not, the electricity is there beneath the surface, ready to erupt if given the chance. We just deny its presence. I’m sure General Petraeus didn’t start out his rendezvous with his biographer hoping things would escalate into an affair.

General Petraeus is not the first to fall and unfortunately he will not be the last. And unfortunately the destruction is not limited to his career.

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