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General Petraeus & Us

General Petraeus & Us

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.

November 13, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 114

(61) ceecee, December 18, 2013 4:33 PM

He is only 50% to blame!

Regardless of whether the man is in a position of power or not women still have the option to say no. And today women and teen girls are so sexually aggressive that they have no shame asking a stranger for sex. We make too many excuses for females who can't keep their legs together. I see him as a victim of a sexual predator. God made no excuses for adultery and neither should we.

(60) Anonymous, January 14, 2013 3:18 AM

Prevention is not absolute

Yes, not allowing unmarried people of the opposite sex to be in a room with the door closed (or not allowing a man in the house when the husband is absent, or a woman when the wife is out) does preclude temptation that can have unintended sexual consequences. But making this a rule for any and all situations is impractical and overdoing. For example: a personnel manager who must reprimand or dismiss an employee of the other sex, would find confidentiality nearly impossible with an open door; the only practical alternative would be to meet in the building's lobby or on its front steps -- not a normal way of doing business. In a long career in the news business, I often had to travel for an hour or two with a female photographer. Should we have further enriched the OPEC people who buy arms to kill Jews (and spewed extra pollutants as well) by taking two cars? Should one of us have sat in the back seat? (Often we needed each other's help to find the destination.) Reducing opportunities for temptation surely must reduce improper behavior and the inducements to improper sexual contact, but ultimately, what matters is the individual's self-control and sense of integrity. Men and women live together on this planet, and in all of life, we must control our impulses -- for sex, money, possessions, domination -- in order to get along. A good deal of leading an honest life is learning to say "no," whether that's to a possible opportunity with an attractive woman (or man) or to a ham sandwich when no other Jew is looking. Personal-behavior rules are guides; when they become absolute, they can become ridiculous. The Holy One told us what was right and gave us the ability to choose.

Anonymous, December 17, 2013 11:09 PM

It can be practical too!

I know at first glance the article sounds impractical but in truth there are many exceptions and ways to still function while keeping the laws. For example, in some situations it is sufficient just to leave the door unlocked - not open. Before completely throwing away something that could greatly enhance your life, learn the laws and ways to make it practical.

Anonymous, December 18, 2013 1:12 AM

Who is the BOSS

With such a delicate matter as human encounters, which can sometimes lead to some kind of relationship, the simple question is - who is the boss?

We all have ideas of what is right and wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. G-d also has ideas regarding these matters, and so do the Jewish leaders throughout the ages. Even the rabbis of our times, giants among men, have their ideas about the nature of human relationships.

When one takes upon himself to follow the Boss - the Boss helps. A wise person can do a good job maneuvering through the confusing turns of life and relationships on his own; An even wiser person will not try to figure it all out on his own, but rather take the the advice of those wiser. Don't fool yourself into believing that the modesty laws are impossible to follow, by focusing on such extreme scenarios, instead realise that we are capable of the unimaginable - just study history - and it is therefore, necessary for laws which cover for the unimaginable, even if they seem extreme.

(59) Robert, December 12, 2012 12:01 AM

Women and men alone

It is too black and white to say that a man and woman, not married, should never be alone. This position ignores a not uncommon situation where there may be a secretary or cleaning woman, etc. 20 or 30 years older than the man and in no way could be considered a temptation for the man. The same situation could be in play for a wife alone with a repair person in her home.

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