As you may suspect, an online fling is not the same as an actual affair. From a halachic (Jewish legal) perspective, the 7th commandment, “Lo Tinaf” (“Thou shalt not commit adultery”), is violated only by means of actual sexual intercourse (“bee-ah”). Thus, a fling that ‘only’ involves kissing or other acts of intimacy, but does not involve intercourse, is not considered adultery.
Having said that, it is still unethical for your friend’s husband to be having an online fling. With or without any physical contact (let alone intercourse), he is still violating the holy covenantal bonds of his marriage. In the Jewish tradition, marriage is not merely a romantic, social, and/or economic union; it is primarily a spiritual union. This ethos is reflected in the Hebrew word for marriage, “kiddushin,” a word that comes from the root “kadosh” (holy).
Even though the online fling is morally wrong, this does not automatically lead to the conclusion that you should inform your friend about her husband’s misdeeds. As is often the case with ethical dilemmas, there is a tension between two competing Jewish values. In this case, there is a tension between “emet” (truth) and “r’chilut” (tale-bearing, which is a form of forbidden speech). Among the many sources of the Jewish value of truth is the following biblical verse, “Mi-d’var sheker teer-chak.” (“Distance yourself from a false word.”)  Among the many halachic sources about the transgression of tale-bearing is Sefer Chafetz Chayim, Issurey R’chilut 9: 1-12.
If you were to inform your friend, you would be performing an act of forbidden speech even though you would be upholding the Jewish value of truth. If you were not to inform your friend, you would be avoiding the transgression of forbidden speech, but you would be doing so at the expense of upholding the value of truth.
Fortunately, there is something that you can do that would enable you to uphold the value of “emet,” while, at the same time, avoid any forbidden speech utterances. You can do this by confronting your friend’s husband, telling him that you know about his online fling, and strongly urging him to discontinue his virtual affair. By doing this, you would not only be avoiding a transgression, you would actually be performing a mitzvah! It is the commandment that is derived from the following biblical verse, “Ho-chay-ach to-chee-ach et amitecha.” (“You shall surely reubuke your fellow.”) Maimonides elaborates on this mitzvah by saying, “Whoever has the possibility of rebuking a sinner and fails to do so is considered responsible for that sin, for he had the opportunity to rebuke him and possibly prevent him from sin.” This sentiment is also conveyed in a dictum that appears in several places in the Talmud and other rabbinic texts, “Sh’tikah k’hodaah damya.” (“Silence is equivalent to tacit complicity.”) In other words, by saying nothing or doing nothing, you would actually be tacitly condoning the unethical behavior of your friend’s husband. As Jews, we are urged to speak out in the face of injustice or wrongdoing; we should never stand idly by while an immoral act is being committed. Although your friend’s husband has not yet sinned by having any physically intimate contact with his online mistress, your approaching him and rebuking him might prevent him from continuing his online fling or from taking his affair to the next level by consummating it in person.
Bottom line: Do not stand idly by and let this affair continue to go on without any action on your part. It is your responsibility to do something to try and stop this virtual affair. Confront your friend’s husband and try to get him to discontinue his online relationship.
I’m sorry that that your friend’s husband is not behaving like a mensch and that you are in this difficult position. Perhaps your actions will enable your friend’s husband to do teshuvah (repent) and be faithful to his marital partner.
Welcome to the 21st Century! Since our Sages never heard of ‘online’ anything, we have to find some parallel in Rabbinic literature to, at least, try to answer the question.
Your question, however, already anticipates your answer. Since you say that you would tell your friend that her husband is having an affair, it seems pretty clear that, if you are quick to jump in that regard, you will be quick to jump in any similar circumstance. The question becomes moot, in such a case. However, I would ask a more pointed question – How do you know he is having an affair? How do you know he is flirting online? Where is that information coming from? And, do you have a responsibility to share the information?
There are, at the very least, two avenues to look at this. The first is the issue of ‘rechilut’ – gossip and the second is the issue of ‘sakana’ – danger.
Our Sages are pretty clear about ‘rechilut’ – no surprise there. The Torah states in Leviticus 19:16 , "Lo taylech rachil b'amecha.' According to the 1917 Jewish Publication Society version of the Tanach (Hebrew scriptures), the translation is – “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people.” This is in line with other uses of the word רָכִיל֙ (or its root) such as can be found in Jeremiah 6:23, Jeremiah 9:3, Proverbs 11:13 and Proverbs 20:19. In fact, these texts restate the mitzvah in the Torah as, for example, Proverbs 20:19 which says, “A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler.” It is pretty clear what the text means to say.
(Interestingly, the new JPS Tanach (1985) uses this as the translation of the verse: “Do not deal basely with your countrymen” translating the root רכלto mean ‘basely’ or ‘to be base.’ Frankly, I have no idea why the JPS 1985 insists on this translation which follows no use of the root רכל anywhere else in the Bible.)
There are also a great many ethical works on gossip, the most well-known by Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan who is known as the “Hofetz Hayiim.” He was, for all intents and purposes, obsessed with the issue of gossip. His first work, Sefer Chafetz Chaim (1873) was his clarification of the laws regarding gossip. He wrote other works, too, including Shmirat HaLashon, which emphasized the importance of guarding one's tongue through Rabbinic prooftext techniques. As you can imagine, any hint, any indication, any type of gossip, slander, etc., was to be avoided. He knew what we know: that appearances do not always reflect the truth. So, going back to the original question, I reiterate my question: how do you know he is having an affair? Truthfully, unless you saw them having sex, you don’t. You may be suspicious and you may even be right but unless you have proof (and other witnesses), you risk ruining more than a marriage.
However, let’s for a moment assume that you saw them having sex and that there is no doubt about it. This may be an issue of ‘sakana’ – danger. And, in issues of ‘sakana’ there is a moral obligation to say something. For instance, if you see someone who is drunk, you have a moral obligation to take away their car keys regardless of the consequences. (In fact, I actually did this at a party several years ago, blocking the door so an inebriated congregant could not get out of the house before giving me the keys.)
However, the warning of ‘danger’ – ‘sakana’ – is to be directed to the one doing the danger, not their relative. In other words, you may see the danger to the marriage. You may see the pain that infidelity has the potential to cause. But running to the wife – who will be incredulous, embarrassed, angry, and hurt all at the same time – may backfire in ways that you cannot even imagine. In other words, if you see this, it may be your responsibility to let the husband know the ‘sakana’ and the consequences of it.
Having said that, let me now approach the issue of an online flirtation, what you call a ‘fling.’ A ‘fling’ implies physical contact of which there is none. That is why I prefer the word ‘flirtation.’ Indeed, the Internet and all its benefits easily give rise to renewed flirting, old boyfriends and girlfriends, and so forth. Clearly flirting while married is not permitted. But since when are we the Jewish Taliban, enforcing the performance of mitzvoth and threatening another if they do not do as we wish? Your friend’s husband has a responsibility to himself and his family. He has the responsibility to control his flirting. You don’t. By becoming embroiled and involved in this issue, you are creating pain, jeopardizing friendships, hurting families, and truly being a ‘talebearer.’
Our tradition understands that words, though powerful, are not sins in and of themselves when used incorrectly. When Jimmy Carter said he had to atone ‘because he lusted in his heart’ many Christians nodded in approval while most Jews responded, “So what?” People fantasize. People flirt. People think and say the wrong things. But what matters – what really matters – is what people do. Since your friend’s husband has not done anything and your reaction would be to ‘do’ something you must ask yourself the question, “Who is the one committing the sin?” You may not like the answer.
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