May 24, 2011
Two months before Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a child with his housekeeper, I spent a week e-mailing rabbis about adultery.
My question to them was this: Would they agree to a public dialogue with the creator of an online matchmaking service for people seeking extramarital affairs?
One after another, they said no.
I understood. The Web site, AshleyMadison.com, has a whiff of sleaze about it, and the discussion was to be filmed for an upcoming HBO documentary on adultery, over which the rabbis would have no control.
But now, in the wake of the Schwarzenegger scandal and the sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, there seems more than ever to be a need for an ancient religion to confront all the ways we can destroy marriages, trust, families and reputations. Temptation is not new, but technology has made it even more convenient. Is there a way for Judaism to address this directly, publicly, effectively?
All weekend, at the Shabbat table Friday night, at Temple Beth Am on Saturday, at a Milken Community High School event Sunday, on the beach at Lag b’Omer on Sunday night, three topics ruled conversation: Obama and AIPAC, Strauss-Kahn and his maid, Arnold and his maid.
We as a community can talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ad infinitum, but let’s be honest: Our lives are a lot more likely to be upended by infidelity than they are by Mahmoud Abbas.
I first heard about AshleyMadison.com on my morning drive, when a radio commercial on “The Howard Stern Show” ended with the tag line, “Life is short, have an affair.”
Really? Pushing affairs like Coca-Cola? What about, “Money is fun, rob a bank”?
Here’s how it works: People cruise AshleyMadison’s online personals looking for fellow cheaters, then purchase credits that enable them to e-mail one another. In 2009, in the slough of the recession, the company quadrupled its revenue, reaping an $8 million profit on earnings of $30 million. It has 9 million users, and growing.
What we have is a culture of entitlement fused to a culture of convenience. Is there any inoculation against this behavior? Rabbi Ed Feinstein once posited that so much of Jewish law and culture has its origins in curbing male sexual desire. But those laws don’t have the same catchy come-on as AshleyMadison.com.
One morning, I listened to Stern perform one of his virtuoso interviews on Noel Biderman, the 39-year-old CEO of the site’s Toronto-based parent company, Avid Life Media. Happily married, loyal (Stern had him swear), a doting father, a synagogue member — where what I’d expected was a more sadistic Larry Flynt, what I heard was a thoughtful philosophy major-turned-lawyer. He almost had me convinced that AshleyMadison.com is nothing more than JDate plus 10 years.
I forwarded the link to our jewishjournal.com singles blogger, Ilana Angel. She tore off after the site and Biderman, accusing him of demeaning his Jewish heritage and destroying her belief that there are good, loyal men out there.
Biderman agreed to discuss his views of God, morality and the Seventh Commandment with Ilana and a rabbi, in a conversation moderated by me, at a synagogue. At zero hour, Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T’Shuvah stepped up. Beit T’Shuvah is a treatment center for addiction, Borovitz explained, and adulterers wreak havoc on families in much the same way as addicts do.
In person, Biderman is soft-spoken and polished. His main argument is that people are going to cheat, no matter what, so why not offer them a more discreet and safer way to do it? He believes we Americans have a limited view on the role of cheating in saving marriages that would otherwise dissolve due to boredom or sexual incompatibility. Other cultures, he said, are much more accepting.
Needless to say, Biderman does not see the Seventh Commandment as a moral absolute, but rather as open to modern interpretation, as is stoning the Sabbath-breaker or nailing your slave’s ear to the doorpost.
When I pressed Biderman on whether he feels he owes a “karmic debt” for breaking up marriages and destroying lives, he said he gives to charity, then backtracked and denied feeling any such debt. His Web site is a tool, a service, he said. You don’t blame bartenders for alcoholics.
It occurred to me that what Judaism needs is its own tool that’s just as effective. In her book “Talking to God,” my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, recounts a true story of how she once returned a cryptic voice mail message only to have the man on the other end of the line ask her if she were “Island Girl.” The caller was a married man who had misdialed the number for a call-girl service. Instead he found himself talking to a rabbi. And he was Jewish.
Naomi and the man spoke for a long time, and he thanked her for keeping him from straying. In the end, he inspired her to write a prayer, which appears in “Talking to God,” for men and women facing temptation.
AshleyMadison.com makes it so easy to unravel the covenants of trust we have with ourselves, our loved ones, with God. Fallen leaders like Arnold seem to set the behavioral bar lower and lower.
Judaism has answers, it just doesn’t have the business model of AshleyMadison.com. Maybe some enterprising synagogue or rabbi can start a Web site, or a hotline, 1-800-DONTCHEAT, for people on the verge of infidelity.
Perhaps Noel Biderman can fund it. I even thought of a slogan: “Life is short, don’t screw it up.”