Rabbi, I have a problem
QUESTION: My late husband was always wary of a man whom he thought was interested in me. When he was dying, he made me promise not to marry him and I agreed. Two years later we have become very friendly. Am I still bound by my promise?
YOU DESCRIBE AN extremely difficult emotional and moral dilemma. Is your pursuit of a new relationship a betrayal of the relationship you shared with your late husband? Must the price you pay for loyalty be loneliness?
It is understandable that your late husband would want to prevent you from marrying someone whom he considered a rival for your affections. He built a life with you and the thought you might replace him somehow after he was gone would have been very painful.
Rashi cites a midrash that illustrates this by suggesting the reason Eve made Adam eat from the forbidden fruit, after she had already eaten of it herself, was that she feared punishment by death for her sin and she could not bear the thought of Adam surviving her and marrying another woman. My reading of the midrash is that it is critical of Eve who would sooner condemn her husband to death rather than allow him to love another woman after she was gone.
While your husband has not condemned you to a death sentence in a literal sense, he has, by forcing this promise, condemned you to a life of loneliness and unfulfilled longing which can be just as bad. While it is easy to understand and even sympathise with his motive, ultimately he had no right to extract such a promise from you.
It is understandable that you will experience deep feelings of guilt but you must try to overcome them. You deserve happiness, companionship and love. The loss of your husband closes a significant chapter of your life. Yet now, two years on, you have every right to begin a new chapter. Exploring a new relationship is not a betrayal as it in no way detracts from the love you shared with your husband. That love is secure in your heart and it will always remain. If you are fortunate enough to have a good, kind and sensitive man care about you, then make something of it and don’t let the opportunity slip away.
On a practical note, there is the halachic imperative to honour a promise. Jewish law has a mechanism by which one can be absolved from certain promises that one deeply regrets, especially if one was unaware at the time of making the promise the extent to which they would be affected by it. This mechanism is called hatart neder and you should discuss it with your rabbi.
THIS IS A curiously positive problem to have. So many other widows and widowers face a bleak future when they lose the time they had expected to share with their partner; instead they spend many years being lonely even though they still have much love to give and still need to receive.
As for the promise you made, from your brief description, it seems that at the time of your husband’s death you did not have a relationship with this man and it only developed later.
Promises are important, and those made to a dying person carry even more weight as they cannot be unmade with that person’s agreement. However, in this case, there are two significant factors that need to be considered.
First, although you readily agreed to your husband’s request, it is questionable whether it was right for him to ask it of you in the first place. It reflected his phobias and jealousies, not your best interest. Emotionally, no one wants to think of their beloved marrying someone else, but rationally we know that we should want them to be secure and happy after our departure. Secondly, circumstances change. You were not involved with this man when you were married, but now that you are single and have been so for two years, there is no reason why you should not have a relationship with him or anyone else. Your husband is dead and should not control your life beyond the grave. In fact, it is not uncommon for widows and widowers to marry someone with whom they had already been friendly platonically. It means that companionship, trust and respect — three essentials for marriage — are already in place and so it is not surprising to want to spend more time with each other.
Something you have not mentioned is whether you have children (be they young or adult) or if they know of your promise; if so, it would be important to explain to them both why you made the promise and why you wish to move away from it. Emphasise, too, that the new relationship does not lessen what you felt for your husband or the ways in which his influence will live on for you.
In some faiths, widows took the veil and entered a monastery, turning their back on the world. Judaism is about life and living it to the full.
Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue