The new tractate that we will be studying for the next 49 days is Sotah, which outlines the ordeal of a married woman who is suspected of adultery. The ordeal outlined in במדבר (the Book of Numbers) involves her public humiliation as she is forcibly undressed, and forced to drink a potion containing the dissolved words that describe the ceremony in the Torah. If she is guilty, she later undergoes a rather gruesome death; if she is innocent, she returns to her husband and is promised to conceive a child with him.
There is no such ceremony for a married man suspected of adultery. In fact there is no biblical prohibition for a married man to have a sexual relationship outside of his marriage. But insights from contemporary research in biology and the social sciences, together with a scandal from the sewers of the internet, have revealed (as if you needed proof for this) that married men are in fact far more likely to be the ones doing the cheating.
Rates of Infidelity
Although monogamous marriage is the norm for over 90% of humanity (with 10% practicing polygyny), up to 40% or married men and 25% of married women report having had an extramarital affair during their lifetime. Religiosity is however, negatively associated with infidelity, although there is no evidence that the religious denomination plays any role in the tendency towards philandering. Study after study have revealed that married men are more likely to be the ones doing the cheating. Here is how one recent review of the topic summed it up:
A large body of research with American samples indicated that men have a stronger desire to engage in sexual infidelity, are more likely to engage in sexual infidelity, have more extra-dyadic sexual partners, have more episodes of infidelity, including short or long term affairs and one-night stands, have more physical contact with an extra-dyadic partner (including intercourse), cite more sexual motivations for infidelity, and are less likely to fall in love with an extra-dyadic partner.
Genes and Infidelity
New research is also suggesting that genes play a role in the complex story of infidelity. In a study of 7,400 Finnish twins published last year in Evolution and Human Behavior, researchers found that about 10% of men and 6% of women had two or more sexual partners in the last year. They also found a significant association with a gene for vasopressin and the likelihood of infidelity – but they only found this association in women. This hardly makes for a compelling case that infidelity is genetically determined, but it does fit in with a body of animal evidence that supports a relationship between our genes and our ability to be monogamous.
Some of this work comes from studies of two kinds of vole: the montane vole, which is sexually promiscuous, and the prairie vole, which is monogamous. Each of these species has vasopressin receptors that are located in different regions of the brain, and injecting the hormone vasopressin into the little vole brain causes two distinct kinds of behavioral response. When the monogamous prairie vole brain is injected with vasopressin it triggers pair bonding. Blocking of the receptors has an opposite effect – prairie voles still want vole sex, but are no longer monogamous.
Now here’s the crucial anatomical piece: The vasopressin receptors in the monogamous prairie voles lies near the brain’s reward center, so when vasopressin is released, it activates neurons in that reward center. However, the vasopressin receptors in the promiscuous montane voles is found in the amygdla, which is thought to process anxiety and fear. So releases of vasopressin in the promiscuous vole does not stimulate the reward center, and does not lead to pair bonding.
Another team working with twins was not been able to find an association between human infidelity and the vasopressin receptor gene implicated in the sexual behavior of other mammals. However, even that team concluded that "...infidelity and number of sexual partners are both under moderate genetic influence (41% and 38% heritable, respectively) and the genetic correlation between these two traits is strong (47%)." We are certainly very far from identifying a gene for infidelity, but there is evidence that genetics and neuroendocrine release plays some role in the expression of this behavior.
Data From a Website You Should Not Visit
There is new data to support the assertion that married men are more likely to cheat than are married women, and that data comes from the Ashley Madison breach. (Now for those of you who do not read from the sewers of the Internet, here’s what you need to know. Ashley Madison is a website that offers to pair up married people – men and women – who want to cheat on their spouse and have an affair. In August of this year it was revealed that the website had been hacked and some of the data of the subscribers to the service was leaked. OK, that’s the background. No read on to the more important part of the story.)
In a report published in Gizmodo, it was revealed that out of a database of 37 million Ashley Madison users, only about 5.5 million were marked as female. While acknowledging that some of these users are not real, the raw numbers show that for every married woman looking to have an affair, there were more than five married men. The report goes on to note that
...out of 5.5 million female accounts, roughly zero percent had ever shown any kind of activity at all, after the day they were created...The men’s accounts tell a story of lively engagement with the site, with over 20 million men hopefully looking at their inboxes, and over 10 million of them initiating chats. The women’s accounts show so little activity that they might as well not be there….we’re left with data that suggests Ashley Madison is a site where tens of millions of men write mail, chat, and spend money for women who aren’t there.
Jewish Adultery In the Middle Ages
In his essay on rabbinic attitudes towards nonobservance, Ephriam Kanarfogel pointed out that "[s]exual promiscuity and even adultery were never absent from any region on the medieval Jewish world." These adulterous relationships were "widespread", but, continues Kanerfogel, "...the presence of even more objectionable possibilities (i.e., relations with married Jewish women) also had to be considered…" As evidence of just how widespread was the practice of married Jewish men having affairs, Kanarfogel cites R. Moses of Coucy of Spain who preached "at length" in 1236 about the sins of sexual relations outside of marriage. The issue of sexual promiscuity was so widespread that in Toledo a herem (communal ban) was issued against it in 1281. Remarkably, "many who had vowed to honor the ban could not retain themselves and either openly flouted the ban or attempted to circumvent it." It was the widespread promiscuity of married Jewish men that, according to Kanarfogel, led the Ramban to accept the institution of pilagshut (concubines) as an alternative. Married Jewish men have been cheating for rather a long time.
The Double Standard for Married Women
The fact is that while the Torah only mandated the Sotah ordeal for a married woman suspected of adultery but not for a married man, it is married men who are far more likely to be the ones doing the cheating. This bias represents another way in which women are objectified – and we have observed this while studying Ketuvot. Indeed, as several scholars have noted, the Talmud speaks to men, but it speaks about women. And nearly always the statements about women represent nothing more than the faulty perspectives of the men who uttered them. A final example of the way in which adultery is only of concern when it is committed by a woman will be encoutntered in tomorrow’s daf, Sotah 3b. Here's a sneak preview:
Rav Hisda said: Adultery in a house is like a karya worm to sesame. [Just as the worm eats and destroys the sesame, adultery destroys the family structure.] And Rav Hisda said: Anger in a house is like a karya worm to sesame. [Just as the worm eats and destroys the sesame, so anger destroys the family structure.] Both of these statements were said with respect to the behavior of the woman; however with respect to the man, we have no concern about it.
Why Was the Ritual Abolished?
The ordeal of the Sotah was abolished sometime during the second Temple period, although there are three separate Tannaitic sources that describe why this occurred. The most well known is in the Mishnah in Sotah (9:9):
משרבו המנאפין, פסקו המים המאררים; רבן יוחנן הפסיקן, שנאמר לא אפקוד על בנותיכם כי תזנינה, ועל כלותיכם כי תנאפנה
When adulterers increased the waters of bitterness ceased. Raban Yohanan ben Zakkai discontinued them. For it is written (Hos.4:14): I shall not punish your daughters wine they fornication nor tour daughters-in-law when they commit adulery..."
Another version is found in the Tosefta (Sotah 14:1-2):
תוספתא מסכת סוטה פרק יד הלכה ב
משרבו המנאפין פסקו מי מרים לפי שאין מי מרים באין אלא על הספק עכשיו כבר רבו הרואין בגלוי
When adulterers increased the water of bitterness ceased, for the waters of bitterness functions only to clarify a doubt, but now many see adultery in the open...
A third version is found in the Sifrei 21 (25):
ספרי במדבר פרשת נשא פיסקא כא
כשהאיש מנוקה מעון האשה ההיא תשא את עונה... (הושע ד יד) אמר להם הואיל ואתם רודפים אחר הזנות אף המים לא יבדקו את נשיכם
...Only when the man is free of that sin will "the woman bear her iniquity" [ie. be punished by the ritual of the Sotah]...(Hos.4:14): I shall not punish your daughters when they fornicate nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery..." [Hosea] said to them: since you keep the company of whores, the water will not examine your wives...
As the scholar Ishay Rosen-Zvi notes, the Sifrei attributes the end of the ritual "to the failure to apply its moral standard to both men and women equally." Evidence from the social sciences, genetics, and even from Jewish history have demonstrated that (Jewish) men were, and are, far more likely to be the ones cheating. We know this today, but perhaps the Sifrei, (a work of halakhic midrash likely composed in Israel some time after the end of the fourth century CE.) understood this long ago.