The Oy of Sex; Adultery Can’t Be Kosher. Can It? A Story About God, Conscience . . . and Concubines

You can seek all the outlets you want, but don’t claim God blesses you for it.

In Judaism and Christianity and Islam, sex is a genie to be confined to the marital bottle (Dennis Prager’s words).

I may sin but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna say it is OK.

Men keep asking me to pimp for them because I know so many fallen women.

I always say no.

I always say no.


Laura Blumenfeld writes for the June 2, 1996 Washington Post:

The fliers, it seemed, fell from the sky one night, step-by-step instruction sheets on how to cheat on your wife without making God mad. Men arriving for morning prayers in Queens found the sheets dancing wind-circles outside their synagogue doors. Rabbis in the Bronx heard them slither through their fax machines. The fliers were yellow and bright like chicken soup fat, and they clung to so many lampposts in Jewish areas of Brooklyn that the sanitation police stepped in.

The message was unbelievable — extramarital sex, kosher style. A mysterious, secretive group called Shalom Bayis, Hebrew for "household harmony," was proposing to resurrect the concept of concubines. "Concubine" is a biblical term, as ancient as Abraham, for a woman who is not legally a wife but acts as a sexual mate. Not a prostitute, nor a mistress, but a devout woman performing a service with the blessing of the Almighty, to help save a lifeless or childless marriage. No commandments broken. No atonement necessary. Just dial this Manhattan number and leave your personal details. No fee charged.

"It is our ultimate goal to preserve peace and harmony in the Jewish home," says a young woman with a Brooklyn accent on the hot line’s answering machine. "There are now hundreds of career women on the Upper West Side who are desperately seeking to be concubines to exclusively married men. Remember, our leading rabbis, such as Rabbi Jacob Emden, strongly advocated concubines as a means to offset sins of illicit relationships and masturbation."

Is it a hoax? A joke? No one knows for sure, but in the months since the idea fluttered into religious circles, "Concubine Mania," as the New York Jewish press calls it, has become a topic of teeth-gnashing debate. Prominent rabbis have thundered against it from the pulpit.

Liberal Jewish theologians say it is a subversion of Scripture in the service of misogyny. Women’s rights advocates call it a blessing in disguise, because it forces a long-overdue dialogue about attitudes toward the sexes: In Orthodox Jewry, women’s roles are distinct from men’s, and in the view of many, subordinate.

Are concubines actually being provided? Maybe, maybe not. That has become essentially beside the point. In the grand Talmudic tradition, where hairs are split joyously, the debate about the idea has far outstripped its practical application. The discussion is narrow, but what drives it is universal: loneliness, temptation, piety, sanctimony and guilt.

"The response has been surprising, insane. There’s a whole world of people silently suffering," says Yossi, a spokesman for Shalom Bayis. Yossi won’t tell anyone his last name; Yossi might even be a pseudonym. You dial a phone number, leave a message, and he calls back. He is evasive about everything, especially when asked if he is actually a matchmaker, or just a troublemaker. He reveals only that he is 30, single, handsome and lives in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. He says his group’s goal is to "stop the plague of divorce" within the Jewish Orthodox community. The idea is so explosive, he says, that if his identity were revealed, some rabbinic authorities would go after him. It is as if he were the Unabomber of the Jews.

"Obviously the guy is nuts," says Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the largest Jewish Orthodox grass-roots organization. "It’s sad but true that one person with a fax can wreak havoc."

The fliers are an embarrassment to mainstream Judaism, the kind of slander that could turn a rabbi’s beard white overnight. "He makes Jewish law sound not only insensitive to Jewish women — but wacky," Shafran says. "He’s like a person on the street talking about Martians." Heaven forbid, Shafran says, that anyone take it seriously. No rabbi would endorse this, no woman would acquiesce, no man would actually call.

Achh, but that’s where he is wrong.

Beep. "Hi, I’m looking for a good girl. It has to be tall and blond, my wife is short and brunette, she is terribly overweight, 140 pounds — I’m looking for more in the 95 pounds area and she has to be extremely pretty."

Beep. "Hi, my name is Sol. I called you a few times before, please call me back."

Beep. "I am calling from Jerusalem. I’m very excited to hear about this. Send them over."

Beep. "Oy, oy, oy. Can you fax me a sheet of information?"

Beep. "I pray to God this is a joke. Do you realize this is the biggest mockery of God ever committed? Don’t you know the point of Judaism is to raise you spiritually?"

Beep. "You are running a prostitution ring and I am giving this number to the vice squad. You nuts."

Beep. "Hi, Zach here, I’m a 27-year-old investment banker, 6 feet tall, weigh 180 pounds, have dark hair. I’m looking for someone I could be associated with aside from my wife. Someone I could have fun with, like the outdoors, movies, theater, nature. I hope to hear from you soon."

These are a few of hundreds of people who phoned Shalom Bayis and left their office numbers, beeper numbers and hotel numbers. Shalom Bayis provided the tapes to The Washington Post, and a reporter called the men back. None had yet heard from Shalom Bayis. Some had called just as a prank. Some had called to voice their contempt. But many called for companionship, and more.

"So, where are the women?" the caller named Zach asked a reporter, suspiciously.

These men come from a community of people who try to elevate the mundane experience of life by living according to a set of precepts that dictate everything from what time of the month they can have sex, to what kinds of fabrics they can wear, to how many hours they have to wait between eating steak and ice cream. It is a life of obedience to a code of law nearly as old as civilization. They phoned looking for women, but more to the point, they were looking for dispensation.

"There’s a culture in the Orthodox community that Jewish law is like the IRS code," says Jonathan Mark, associate editor of the New York Jewish Week. "You can loophole it or find legitimacy. For these people there’s no morality other than what’s in the code."

That is no simple matter. Because like most concepts in Jewish law, there is a division of opinion on everything, even concubines. Some scholars have written that they are only for kings; Solomon and David had royal concubines, standard practice for ancient monarchs. Others have argued that they were banned a thousand years ago, when polygamy was abolished. They cited the Bible, Deuteronomy 23:1 "There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel" and ruled it punishable by lashes.

Only one authority, Jacob Emden, an 18th-century rabbi, allowed concubines for the average man. They are acceptable, Emden wrote, as long as the woman is unmarried, monogamous, and observes Jewish laws of female purity — which means abstaining from intercourse during menstruation and monthly dips in a ritual bath.

Rabbi Jacob Emden — here was the loophole. Yellow Shalom Bayis fliers are spreading the word, outlining Emden’s conditions for extramarital relations. This is the heart of Yossi’s mission, he says — not supplying concubines, but providing a do-it-yourself kit. The advantages of concubinage, says the Shalom Bayis flier:

1. A man’s wife and concubine can try to regulate their menstrual cycles so they do not overlap, eliminating weeks of frustration for the man. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a couple cannot have sex for about two weeks after the onset of the woman’s menses.

2. It will prevent the spread of AIDS because men will not seek prostitutes.

3. Career women who are deemed too old to find a husband will still be able to have religiously sanctioned sex.

4. A man will have more children, increasing the declining Jewish population. Children of concubines are considered legitimate.

At least one contemporary scribe has publicly endorsed the practice. Rabbi Shea Director of Brooklyn says, "It hasn’t been done for hundreds of years, but if someone wants to do it quietly, there is no prohibition. You see it in the Bible."

For some men, that was permission enough.

"It’s going to happen anyway, so why not do it according to Jewish law," says Dave, a man who had phoned the hot line. "I don’t just want anything in a skirt. A concubine elevates it."

The message Dave had left: "Hi, I’m a businessman, 45 years old, from New Jersey. I’ll leave you my beeper and you can get to me, and we can talk. Thank you so much." Dave, like other married men who called Shalom Bayis looking for sex, spoke to a reporter on the condition that his last name be withheld. He doesn’t want his wife to know: "I don’t hate her. I may not love her. But I’m not ready to hurt her."

Dave has been married for 24 years. In the last year, he says, he hasn’t slept with his wife: "We haven’t discussed it, I can’t read her mind. These things just happen."

Dave is an Orthodox Jew, though he says a man’s religious observance is irrelevant when it comes to the issue of concubines. Dave says he knows Hasidic Jews — the bearded, black-hatted men who wear ear locks and beards — "and they’re as human as I am. They may wear a black uniform, but they fool around like every other human being."

There is a universal drive to cheat, says another caller, Michael, a drive that transcends religion and ethnicity: "A man has certain needs and fantasies, and when they stop being fulfilled he gets the feeling that life is boring."

Michael is 48, from Brooklyn, and described himself to Shalom Bayis as "6 foot 1, 170 pounds, very financially secure." After 20 years of marriage and raising five children, he was ready for something other than his wife.

Five years ago he says, he met a 19-year-old woman in the neighborhood, an Orthodox Jew like himself. "She was young and gorgeous and wanted to please me in every way," Michael says, his voice warming with the memory. He began to see her regularly.

Michael ended the affair three years ago, after the young woman got married. Lately, though, she has been calling him. He says he won’t see her: "It would be too much guilt to perform adultery." In the strict technical sense, according to Orthodox Jewish law, the sin of adultery applies only if the woman, not the man, is married.

"It’s a Ten Commandment," Michael says, a prohibition as unyielding as the stone it was carved in.

Two stone tablets adorn the synagogue prayer hall, marble tablets with 10 lines of gold letters. Line No. 7: Thou shalt not commit adultery. The men sit in pews, facing the golden words. The women sit separately, upstairs in a balcony, their pews mostly facing the men.

"If there is a back-to-basics time on the Jewish calendar, that time is Shavuot," says Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, beginning his sermon to the 400 congregants. It is 11 a.m. on Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of Jewish law. Lookstein, one of the leaders of modern Jewish Orthodoxy, stands before Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He is a mild, goateed man, today turned darkly angry.

"One does not pray to God on the Sabbath, and prey on people the rest of the week," he says. For 20 minutes he talks, denouncing the hypocrisy of people who meticulously observe Jewish rituals, while ignoring its ethical teachings. He gives several examples, but the one he saves for last, the one that makes him raise his voice and wave a fist, is the bizarre proposal of concubines.

"Shalom Bayis is now a full-blown public scandal," Lookstein says. He has already delivered one sermon on the subject, as have several other New York rabbis. "Let us set the record straight," he says. The titters in the pews die down, the smiles freeze. "There is no such thing as permissible extramarital or premarital sex. This is an obscene perversion of Jewish law. People will do what they please, but let no deceitful, cruel, allegedly religious organization promote this at the expense of decent women."

Afterward, a 13-year-old girl explains the sermon to her friend: "Some men got an idea to cheat on their wives, but Rabbi Lookstein killed it."

Actually, the rabbi was wading into one of the stickiest subjects in the Jewish world — relations between the sexes.

The shame brought on the Orthodox community by a fringe group like Shalom Bayis, Lookstein says in an interview, is related to a broader problem in the treatment of women: Orthodox Jewish family law states that only a husband has the power to grant a divorce. He can remarry at will, but she cannot, without his permission. This gives a man an overpowering advantage in negotiating terms of divorce. He can elect to leave a woman in limbo, sometimes for the rest of her life. There is even a term for a woman in such straits: an "agunah."

"We’re dealing with a community, and I include myself, that has not had the guts to demand a Jewish legal answer to this problem," Lookstein says. "The law, that’s supposed to be used as a shield for women, is being used as a sword."

But in Lookstein’s own synagogue, men and women sit separately, and not equally. The congregants are generally affluent and well-educated and lead lives integrated in modern society. In the synagogue, though, only men can lead the prayers, chant from the Bible and are counted for the quorum needed for a service. The women watch from above, leaning over a cool brass rail. Lookstein is forward-looking, but there is much in his own Orthodox tradition that says women, no matter how smart, pious or professionally successful, belong up in the balcony.

"The rabbis have managed to creatively adapt laws to technological problems," says Rivka Haut, co-director of Agunah Inc., a support group for women in divorce cases, and herself an Orthodox Jew. Scholars have reinterpreted the Bible to allow for modern realities like banking, organ transplants, the use of elevators on the Sabbath, she says. "The one area where they continually say they can do nothing is Jewish divorce, where it’s only women who suffer. Women don’t have much voice in the Jewish community, they are easily ignored."

Ironically, Haut says, the concubine scheme is a boon for women: "If there’s ever going to be any change, it’s going to come from the embarrassment factor. The rabbis will be ashamed."

But along the streets of ultra-Orthodox Boro Park, Brooklyn, where girls buy their jelly beans in Yiddish and little boys ride bicycles wearing dark suits and black hats, there are no soul-searching sermons about concubines. The fliers are crumpled. Ridiculous.

"We look at it like Orthodox-bashing," says Rabbi Mendel Epstein, who says he is a "great-great-great-great-grandson" of Rabbi Jacob Emden, author of the infamous concubine loophole. "My wife’s not concerned it’s going to become a new style, nor my six daughters."

Outside a kosher bakery, standing with his friends, Elliot Berman says, laughing, "Concubines are from the old generation." His friends nod in agreement, their ear locks bobbing. Beneath their shirts they wear four-cornered vests with white fringes that hang over their waistbands and shimmy as they chuckle. They wear the fringes because they were ordained 3,000 years ago, when the Hebrews were wandering in the desert.

"Concubines!" To them the concept is laughably archaic.

Are there really concubines? Yossi says yes, and promises to put us in touch with one. The next day, the phone rings and a woman who identifies herself as "Sarah" says she is willing to talk.

Sarah says she is 32, a speech therapist from Brooklyn with brown eyes and thick hair that ripples down her back. She says she wears long skirts, high-buttoned blouses, is deeply religious and considers herself lucky to be a concubine. A year ago, she says, she had never so much as kissed a man. Now she has sex with a married man in a bedroom down the hall from his wife, three sons and daughter.

"I don’t mind sharing," Sarah says.

The arrangement is simple, she says: He pays for her living accommodations, her food and phone. She helps the wife with household duties, "I’m the family tutor, babysitter and shopper. And I’m making her husband happy." The wife, severely overweight after multiple pregnancies, was relieved to have a sexual surrogate."We’re like pillow-talk sisters," Sarah says.

The husband, a prosperous Hasidic Jew, wears a short beard, expensive hats and Christian Dior cologne. She met him when she was hired to help his son lose a childhood lisp. One afternoon, Sarah says, the husband shocked her. He fixed his hazel eyes on her and suggested she become his concubine, "He was smiling like a little schoolboy saying something evil. But it isn’t evil. He called Yossi and asked. They confirmed that it was kosher."

Is this for real? We cannot know for certain because Sarah would not reveal her last name or meet a reporter in person. But she spoke in grave detail for more than two hours, her accent Yiddish, her tone naive, her sentences knowledgeably laced with religious terms. Jonathan Mark, the Jewish Week editor, has also interviewed Sarah at length by telephone and believes her.

"Is it cruel to women?" Sarah asks. "I learned about feminism in college. I was alone in my cold little apartment, wondering: Will I find someone? Just compare my life now."

Now she can spend all of her paychecks on beautiful clothes. This very day, Sarah says, she went to Macy’s and bought a new Liz Claiborne outfit, a Kasper suit and two pairs of Nine West shoes.

Does she consider herself a prostitute? Sarah is bewildered by the question. It is nothing like prostitution, she says. Her rabbi says it is allowed. And the husband kept assuring her, their first night together in bed, "it is a hundred percent Orthodox."

There is another reason to believe Yossi is really introducing Jewish women to married men. Shira Dicker, a 35-year-old freelance writer from Manhattan, was given the hot line number by a friend and says she called it for a laugh. "I sat here in mixed horror and hysterics," she says. She is married, a mother of three. "It’s like they think everyone on the Upper West Side are these licentious, horny women."

Dicker decided she would write an undercover story and left a message on the machine, describing herself as "Jackie, 35, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, a career woman in public relations, very healthy, very attractive." Twenty minutes later, she says, Yossi called back. He discussed several married men — a doctor from Washington, a man in the garment industry. In the end, he gave her the name and number of a New York writer, the best match for Jackie, he said, because the guy was modern Orthodox.

Turned out, Dicker knew the man socially.

Dicker has decided to drop the story. Too weird. Also, she says, Yossi is claiming that God strikes down anyone who criticizes his group. "Am I scared consciously? No. Did it get to me? Yes." Two nightmares so far.

But what really bothers her, she says, is that if she meets one of these religious men, "I might have some existential crisis." Dicker is the daughter of a rabbi and a practicing Jew. "Monogamy is like monotheism, it’s a challenge," she says. "Other gods may be more attractive, but this is your marriage."

There is something about the concubine story that’s different from other writing jobs, she says. "Something more metaphysical. Something creepy. I don’t want this thing to touch me."

At Mendys, a kosher sports bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, customers watch the National Hockey League playoffs, wearing skullcaps and eating hot corned beef sandwiches.

"Hey, Dave," says Mark Weiner, 26, to a guy playing a game of air hockey. "You heard about the concubines?"

David Zack, 25, grunts yes and smacks the puck.

"Maybe they would have saved your marriage," Weiner teases.

"My wife needed a concubine," Zack says, his eyes on the goal. He was divorced two years ago.

Zack and his Orthodox friends have phoned the hot line, like most callers, out of simple curiosity. "It’s a fabulous alternative for venting marital frustrations," Weiner says.

"Shut up!" says Jonathan Davis, 22. "It’s a desecration of God’s name."

The young men say Shalom Bayis is the logical extreme of a challenge facing Orthodoxy, the tension of trying to straddle two contradictory worlds. Women are putting off marriage to pursue careers, but they don’t want to remain virgins. So they go to a ritual bath — a centuries-old rite of passage meant for a bride on her wedding day — and then sleep with their boyfriends. Guys who pray every morning want to spend the night at their girlfriends’. So they toss their prayer straps, tefillin, into their car trunks, for use the morning after. There is a new phrase among young Orthodox Jews, to the rabbis’ dismay — "tefillin dates."

"They’re taking part tradition and part modernity, mixing it together and you get B.S.," Davis says.

"It’s a total disgrace," says Robert Kaminsky, a 21-year-old Talmud student. But enough talk about concubines already, Kaminsky says. There’s a new phenomenon in the Jewish community, something even more shocking, he says.

"Have you heard about the lesbian rabbis?"


On Friday, Yossi telephoned The Post, elated at the election results from Israel.

It was not so much that he is a supporter of Binyamin Netanyahu, the winner. It is what Netanyahu represents.

The new prime minister is the poster boy for concubines! Yossi says Netanyahu’s three marriages and highly publicized extramarital affair would never have happened if he’d had access to a concubine.

Shalom Bayis, he said, is taking its show on the road.

The fliers, he said, are on their way to Israel.

Avi Shafran in an article in Moment magazine wrote the following:

In New York City, in the summer of 1996, a man identified only as Yossi claimed that the biblical institution of concubinage was being revived in the Orthodox community. In the Bible, Israelite men with wives—predominantly kings—took legal mistresses. The practice had allegedly become widespread in New York, although it has been in disuse among Jews for several thousand years, rendered both impractical by secular laws and inadvisable by traditional Judaism’s ideal of monogamous relationships. Yossi reportedly had a concubine service, christened with the rather ironic name Shalom Bayis (peace in the home), and claimed that he had serviced hundreds of satisfied—though unidentified—customers. The press was all eyes and ears—and keyboards.

Without so much as even a last name to go with, and no real substantiation (Yossi did eventually make one purported concubine available for interviews), everyone from the JTA to the BBC, from the Washington Post to somewhat less staid publications such as Marie Claire, reported on the concubine trend as if it were established fact.

It was not, of course, and Yossi is now nowhere to be found.

As it turns out, one year prior to the coverage of the concubine trend, Yossi had also managed to fool the press into swallowing a story about a flood of Orthodox child betrothals.

The duped included the New York Times, which ran three separate articles on the issue over the spring of 1995. "Only a few cases of minor betrothal have surfaced in New York in recent months," the Times said on May 27, "but they are enough to cause concern the practice is spreading."

In a JTA report, Yossi claimed that the biblical practice of kedushei ketana (betrothal of a minor) had been revived.

Orthodox men involved in messy divorces were marrying off their young daughters—but withholding the names of the new husbands as a means of protecting themselves, the story went. The Times quotes an unnamed Shalom Bayis spokesman who explained the phenomenon this way: "Men who refuse to give ghets [divorces] are often hounded, threatened, and even beaten up by their wives’ backers … but if a husband holds knowledge precious to his daughter’s future, he can trust, at least, that he won’t be killed." The paper reported details of one such case, that of an 11-year-old girl, who was only spared "a future of spinsterhood" by a ruling of Orthodox judges.

The JTA report described the details of only one alleged case; the New York Jewish Week upped the ante to two.

But the JTA, paraphrasing Yossi, reported that "at least 20 girls have been betrothed by their fathers in the past several months alone." The Times also reported that there might be as many as 20 such cases, citing the unnamed Shalom Bayis source.

Yet no other specific cases were ever subsequently described.

With a bit of perspective born of hindsight, the Forward, in an editorial, rhetorically asked, "Just who is this renegade group [Shalom Bayis]?" and drolly answered: "Its spokesman, who goes by the name Yossi, claims that it has some 100 member rabbis—all of whom insist on anonymity."

Yet despite the utter lack of substantiation (which would surely condemn any other similarly outlandish story to most respectable newsroom shredders), and despite condemnation of the practice by dozens of respected Orthodox rabbis, this story persevered.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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