January 29, 1998
‘I Am Not an Adulterer’
It was Ted Koppel who broke the news to all the world that our president does not consider oral sex to constitute adultery. That being the case, Koppel concluded, it was perfectly correct for Clinton to maintain to probing journalists that he had never had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The president reportedly had once told Arkansas state troopers that oral sex is not, according to the Bible, adultery.
Is Clinton correct? "The answer is yes," says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a pre-eminent Conservative Jewish scholar on Jewish sexuality. Dorff explained that since the penalty for adultery was death, the ancient sages, as was their practice in the case of capital crimes, sought to define the act as narrowly as possible. Adultery, then, was defined as sex with a married woman.
But what kind of sex? Again, the rabbis narrowed their terms. Did the rabbis even know from oral sex? "Certainly," said Dorff. "They weren't bashful."
The great scholar Maimonides, in the first chapter of "The Laws of Forbidden Intercourse," decreed that adultery can only happen when "the penis of the man enters the vagina of the woman," paraphrased Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and author of a seminal report on Jewish law and sexuality.
On that score, Clinton is on firm ground: He would not have been strangled -- the standard biblical penalty for adultery.
But if he did do what he is being accused of doing, he would have been, under his definition, whipped or fined. Those were the penalties for prostitution, a crime the rabbis defined broadly because no death penalty was involved. Prostitution involved any form of sexual contact with a woman other than one's wife. In most countries, including Israel, such contact between consenting adults is no crime. "But Jewish tradition prizes marriage," said Dorff. "The rabbis didn't see consensual sex as outside the bounds of prostitution," even if no money was involved.
In that, the ancient rabbis have something to say to all of us today, from presidents to paupers. "Whatever sex act you have [outside marriage] is certainly a breach of trust of the marital bond," said Dorff, who also served on the Presidential Health Care Task Force headed by the first lady. "If he did what he's accused of doing, Clinton subjected his wife and daughter to embarrassment and a breach of trust that a man owes his family. He also violated the fiduciary relationship between an employer and an employee. The biblical definition of adultery is the least of his problems." --Robert Eshman, Managing Editor