Yevamot 95a-b examines the human cost of forbidden sexual relationships, and specifically, how a marriage is halachically impacted when the husband or wife engages in a forbidden relationship.
Significantly, I use the phrase ‘halachically impacted’, because the primary focus of our Gemara is whether a couple may remain together, or whether they must divorce, in a situation when one of the parties have engaged in a forbidden sexual relationship.
But there are two further points which are not directly addressed in our Gemara yet which are nevertheless crucial when reflecting on this topic in the modern era.
Firstly, while it is important to understand the ‘halachic impact’ of forbidden sexual relationships on a marriage, it is also crucial to understand the ‘emotional impact’ of such relationships on a marriage. What this means is that even if a marriage has not necessarily been halachically ‘destroyed’ when one of the couple has engaged in a forbidden sexual relationship, it can nevertheless be emotionally destroyed. True, a marriage is bound by halacha. But equally true is the fact that the foundation of a marriage is trust and faith in one another.
Secondly, while our Gemara primarily focusses on forbidden sexual relationships, there are a variety of actions which many would likely regard to be acts of infidelity – notwithstanding the fact that they do not involve any sexual act. To quote David Ribner and Talli Rosenbaum‘s ‘I Am For My Beloved’ (pp. 140-141): ‘In our evolving electronic universe, where one can easily move from a public Facebook conversation to a private Messenger communication, couples need to have a sense of the type of boundaries with which they are comfortable regarding outside contacts. Spouses should discuss and agree on what feels right for them. Much of this comfort level is based on trust, communal norms, and how each couple themselves negotiates what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable behaviours… While a WhatsApp conversation or a business lunch with a member of the opposite sex may be completely appropriate, if you find yourself quickly deleting texts or purposely omitting the mention of lunch meetings with a certain co-worker, you may be entering into behaviour that could potentially damage trust. If you find that you are seeking interactions with a certain individual for the purpose of stress relief, pleasure-seeking or novelty, it may be time to seek professional counsel in order to better understand your behaviour.’
Today, even within Jewish communities, there are instances where married men or women engage in forbidden sexual relationships, and when this happens, while the ‘halachic impact’ of such actions can destroy a marriage, the emotional impact of such actions can be truly catastrophic to all involved. And this is why I would like to repeat the words of David Ribner and Talli Rosenbaum that: ‘couples need to have a sense of the type of boundaries with which they are comfortable regarding outside contacts… [and] what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable behaviours’, and this is because while a marriage may halachically end due to a forbidden sexual relationship, the faith and trust in a marriage can dissipate much earlier when one member of a marriage betrays the boundaries and trust of that marriage. Which is why every marriage demands that each party understands what those boundaries are, and respects them faithfully.