Sunday, June 28, 2009

Contemplating Governor Paterson

The Megillah ends on a very positive note. Haman and his sons have paid the big price for their murderous anti-Semitism. The Jewish citizens of Persia have vanquished their foes. Mordechai has been elevated to a position of supreme importance in the government, and an era of peace and security has been ushered in, not solely for the Jews, but for all citizens of the empire. Everything sounds perfect!

But what happens to Queen Esther? Mordechai's prescient words, "Who knows if you have become queen only to be in the right position to save your people?" are very stirring when he says them to Esther, imploring her to put her life on the line by entering the king's presence uninvited and begging for her people. She, of course, responds nobly and bravely. The king listens carefully. Haman meets his fate. The Megillah ends. Everybody goes home. But what of Esther? Does she stay married to King Achashverosh? She's suspiciously absent from the last chapter of the book, which is entirely about Mordechai. And we already know that women with whom the king has been intimate do not get to go back home. Ever. We know this, in fact, from the specific point the Megillah makes about the other women, the ones who don't win the king's beauty pageant. From all over Persia they come to Shushan. They are given months to prepare themselves under the watchful aegis of Hegeh, the eunuch in charge. But then the Megillah notes, subtly but clearly, that they don't return to Hegeh after they're done--once they've spent their one night with the king, they are transferred to the authority of Shaashgaz, the eunuch specifically in charge of palace concubines. In other words, once they've been to the king's bed, they have the status of concubines, non-wives who are nevertheless royal property. (This is the simple meaning of Esther 2:13.) And they don't go home again, probably to prevent any man in the kingdom from being able to boast about "knowing" a woman whom the king himself has also "known."

What that means to me is that Esther is basically stuck. The danger has passed. Haman is gone for good. But the king isn't gone at all...and his queen must therefore remain by his side. I suppose that the author of Esther didn't address this issue because it seemed so self-evident that Esther would stay. Where else would she go? She was married, there was no option of divorce--if sleeping one single night with the king led to a lifetime of confinement in the harem of the concubines, then it's hard to imagine someone actually married to the man could possibly just walk away--and, obviously, a virtuous Jewish girl like Esther would not consider the possibility of stepping around the boundaries of marriage to pursue her own side interests. So married, I think, she stayed. For better or (possibly) for less than better. But for good. Really, what other end could the story have?

I was thinking about these matters as I listened to Governor Paterson speaking openly yesterday about his extra-marital affairs. With regret, but (if I can say this) without any audible shame, he spoke about the occasions that he strayed into the arms of other women. Then his wife added her two cents: she also had some affairs. They are solid now, they assured the citizenry, and, judging from this morning's newspaper, everybody in Albany seems entirely fine with how things have worked out. They went through a rocky patch and they put things back together. Where's the problem? He, at least, didn't commit any crimes while betraying his marriage vows! And, given the events of the last week and a half, that's already a big point in his favor.

I'm not by nature an especially judgmental person. I actually admire David Paterson for all that he has accomplished, especially given his disability. He seems affable, clever, intelligent...all the best things...and I have high hopes for his work as governor of this state. I think we could do a lot worse. But what I want to suggest that we devote some time to considering is the question of adultery itself. When did it stop being a big deal? It isn't crime in this or any state, but the prohibition of adultery is, after all, the cornerstone of our faith, one of the Ten Commandments, one of the most basic norms of society. And the notion of complete, unyielding fidelity to a spouse means today just what it has always meant: not sleeping with other people, even when angry with your husband or wife, even when separated from your spouse by circumstance or by design, even when you yourself are unsure whether you wish your marriage to continue. It means giving yourself to another wholly and not conditionally, not on spec, not only when the sun is shining. It means refusing to seek solace or comfort elsewhere, but sticking around either to work things out or, absent that possibility, to end one's marriage in a dignified and decorous way. I don't think we need to require adulterers to sew big A's on their shirts--some of you know how much a fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing I am--but there really ought to be some middle ground between publicly humiliating people who betray their spouses' trust and barely pausing to notice it.

As I said, I don't write this because I want to discuss the Patersons' marriage. As I said when writing about ex-Governor Spitzer, that's not my job. Nor is it something I wish were my job. Just to the contrary, I wish the new governor great success. And I really do mean that sincerely. But I do think it is more than overdue for moderns to devote some thought to the concept of marital fidelity and ask themselves why, if they continue to pay lip service to the general concept, they are so willing not to think ill of people who, almost in passing, admit to betraying the promise of unconditional fidelity that marriage by its very nature entails. (March 21, 2008)

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