Saturday, November 10, 2007

Why Not Adultery?

It occurs to me that each of the 10 commandments can be reformulated as rights, i.e.
  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

  2. God has the right to the Israelites' primary allegiance and loyalties.

  3. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God...

  4. God has the exclusive right to be worshipped by the Israelites.

  5. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

  6. God has the right to be treated as sacred; God has the right to his good reputation.

  7. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates...

  8. Everyone has the right to a day off, even foreigners. Surprising? I think there's enough material in the rest of the Torah about how workers should be treated that I can fairly believe that this isn't just an odd religious observance done for no practical purpose.

  9. Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

  10. Israelite parents have the right to be supported by their children in old age and respected by their children at any age.

  11. Thou shalt not kill.

  12. Israelites have the right to life.

  13. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

  14. Married Israelites have the right to a faithful spouse (or spouses, as the case may be).

  15. Thou shalt not steal.

  16. Israelites have the right to property.

  17. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

  18. Israelites have the right to a fair trial.

  19. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

  20. Once again, Israelites have the right to property, but this right isn't limited to keeping property; a person shouldn't be adversely treated in other ways for owning property. Maybe I'm stretching on this one.

It also occurs to me that we enjoy many of these rights in our own country, today (God enjoys none of his, but that's a natural consequence of freedom of religion). One right that is noticeably absent, at least to me, is the right to a faithful spouse. Adultery is not a crime in the US. Adultery is grounds for divorce, and therefore can be used to establish fault in a divorce, but this results in no penalties if the injured spouse doesn't want a divorce or was married in one of the 15 states where no-fault divorce is the only option. I suppose I can see the practical difficulties in punishing people for adultery, but still, it does give marriage, as a legal institution, a bit of a farcical quality. Think of it: two people get up in front of commonly dozens, if not hundreds of witnesses and swear before God to love each other for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, and then a legal document is signed by several of the witnesses afterward to attest to this fact. Breaking an oath taken in a court of law will get you jail time. Breaking a cell phone contract can get you a couple hundred dollars in penalties. But breaking this vow, which was made much more ceremoniously, isn't necessarily such a big deal.

I like having a faithful spouse, and I'd like to have a right to her faithfulness. I'm perfectly willing to grant her the right to mine. I expect that most couples are the same way. Really, my wife and I both have a right to each others' faithfulness, just not a legal one. So why is there this particular gap between legal rights and social rights? Why can't a society's laws reflect a society's mores? Maybe they do. Maybe there are enough people out there who are in love with the idea of dressing up in white dresses and tuxedos and spouting romantic-sounding oaths solely as hyperbolic expressions of their warm feelings for each other that the laws really do reflect the mores of a significant portion of society. The question is: how did their mores come out on top?

1 comment:

Vanessa said...

Some of your wife's thoughts:
First and foremost, I grant you the rights to my faithfulness :) Since there isn't punishment for adultery, does that by chance mean society doesn't value faithfulness as much as property? Is a divorce that settles in favor of the faithful somehow a payback to the unfaithful? Maybe there should be punishments for adultery...but does that evoke too many memories of the book, "The Scarlet Letter"? Perhaps we should take from one of our favorite Rowan Atkinson skits and have male adulterers "line up by the small guillotine".