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?

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

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

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