Marriage/Divorce: Restoring Balance, part 2


(This is the second of a four-part series; here are the links to part1, part 3, & part 4.)

In my last post, I started addressing a question or two put to me by a reader asking if it is kosher to consider sexual refusal as a valid reason for divorce, a la adultery. After all, he correctly noted, it only takes one act to commit adultery, whereas refusal is a long-term situation. At what point does it become “sexual immorality,” he asked. In fact, he asked that question again in response to my One Coin, Two Sides post:

There is a slight problem with the abandonment is equal to adultery argument in my opinion. The act of adultery along with sexual abuse (may as well throw that in for good measure) is sustained by a single act. A single act of adultery would be grounds for divorce and a single act of sexual abuse could mean a lengthy stay in jail. Now clearly a single act of refusal, even though it may be a break of the marriage covenant, wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow in most circles.
So when does refusal become abandonment and then possibly/maybe grounds for divorce,1-day, 2-weeks, 3-months, 9-months….?

Wrong Question. Go Back To The Source.

It seems to me that asking what constitutes “sexual immorality” misses the point. Instead of “immorality” we need to be looking elsewhere, at what constitutes a violation of the promise of fidelity.

After all, isn’t adultery an act of in-fidelity, the breaking of the vow made when entering marriage? When we stand before the minister or JoP, we make this promise to our spouse: “forsaking all others, keeping myself only unto thee” (as the traditional vow goes.) So when a husband or wife decides to step out of the vow by stepping into another’s bed, they are guilty of an infidelity. Okay, adultery, easy-peasy, right? A no-brainer.

But let’s examine that vow a little closer. That vow, that promise of fidelity to your spouse? It has two sides, doesn’t it?

1 – “forsake all others”
2 – “keeping myself only unto thee”

The vow of marital fidelity is FROM others TO you. The installation of a regime of sexual refusal into the marriage means that one spouse has decided, unilaterally, to rewrite the vow and tells the other that the vow now reads, “keeping myself from thee, as well.” When one spouse decides that the sex within the marriage is over, the promise of marital fidelity is broken. S/he may have forsaken others, but s/he has also decided to forsake thee, too.

Okay, What Constitutes “Forsaking Me?”

That’s the question, isn’t it? As the reader pointed out, one act of adultery constitutes infidelity, but certainly one, “Not tonight” surely isn’t an act of forsaking, is it? Of course not!

But I do want to come back to that statement about the difference between Judaism and Christianity, that I quoted in my last post:

“Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity.”
~ Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath.

I’m not saying that the whys of gatekeeping and/or refusal are of no consequence; the Colloquy that Chris Taylor (Forgiven Wife) and I did a couple of years ago demonstrated that. However, we have to accept the fact that the elephant in the room is the refusal, not the whys and wherefores of refusal. The whys are the beliefs in that statement above. The refusal is the practice, the tangible action (inaction!) that is defining the relationship.

If the marriage is marked by the practice of refusal and gatekeeping, Why-chasing, while a useful diagnostic tool, is not the cure for the situation. All manner of “This is why I can’t have sex with you” is secondary to the fact that one spouse is reneging on his/her promise made when entering into the marriage covenant.

So if one “Not tonight” doesn’t constitute refusal, what does? This question is not a new one. In my last post, I listed as one of my biblical givens the belief that the Bible includes conjugal refusal as one of four valid reasons for divorce. David Instone-Brewer, in Divorce & Remarriage in the Church, writes of rabbinic debates on this topic, in Biblical times:

“These debates were not about whether or not divorce for neglect was valid – that was accepted – but they were about how to define neglect. They debated the minimum quantities of food and clothing which had to be provided and the amount of ‘conjugal love’ that was necessary to avoid being charged with ‘neglecting’ your partner.” [my emphasis]

Remember that old joke about the guy propositioning a woman and saying, “We’ve already established what you are, now we’re just haggling about the price”? That punchline is applicable here; in Old Testament times, and even into the time of Christ, divorce due to refusal was accepted. The problem was, and still is, haggling to define it.

I’m sure that you would agree that trying to creating guidelines in order to define obligations for the “Provision of conjugal love” would seem to be a difficult challenge. But the rabbis were up to it! According to the Ketubbot Tractate of the Talmud,

The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey drivers, once a week; for camel drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months.

(While the Talmud might not have been compiled until a century or two after Christ, the teachings were both well-known and widely practiced for centuries before.)

Realizing that by the time of Christ, 1) sexual refusal was a valid reason for divorce, and 2) the rabbis had discussed and adjudicated what constituted a man’s duty to his wife was, vis-à-vis provision of conjugal provision, can there be any doubt that there were guidelines in place by the first century about what amount of refusal might cause just cause for divorce? Why, yes. Yes there was.

So, for my next trick post, I will present information on divorce due to refusal from the Talmud, and try to give a coherent answer to the question “How do you ascertain how much refusal counts as infidelity, with regard to the marriage covenant?”



Filed under Marriage & Sexuality

3 responses to “Marriage/Divorce: Restoring Balance, part 2

  1. Pingback: Marriage/Divorce: Restoring Balance, part 1 | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

  2. Pingback: Marriage/Divorce: Restoring Balance, part 3 | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

  3. Pingback: Marriage/Divorce: Restoring Balance, part 4 | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

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