Rabbi I Have a Problem

If my wife is in a coma, can I have a relationship with someone else?

Rabbi, I have a problem


Question: My wife has been in a vegetative state for the past two years following a serious illness and doctors believe it highly unlikely that she will recover. I visit her regularly, but have my own needs. Would it be adultery if I were to have a relationship with someone else?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

That is an agonising dilemma. As I understand it there are two components to your question; one is ethical/moral, the other is legal/halachic.

Let's start with the ethical dimension. What is reasonably expected of you in this situation will very much depend on one's perspective. Some will be sympathetic to your needs, others will judge you harshly. Their opinions should not matter. The only opinions that do matter are yours and your wife's and you have to do your best to try to determine what she would have wanted for you in this tragic situation.

Assuming you decide that it is ethical to proceed, you must confront the halachic dimension. Is your relationship with another woman adulterous? The simple answer is yes. In the eyes of the law you are still married to your wife and any extramarital affair would be adulterous. Your only solution would be to grant your wife a get. The problem is that in Jewish law a woman cannot be divorced against her will. Since your wife cannot express her will, it follows that she cannot be divorced.

If the situation were reversed and the husband were in a vegetative state, it would be even more difficult to grant the wife a get since a get is only valid if willingly initiated by the husband. Yet, in a recent groundbreaking case, the beth din of Safed argued that since a loving husband would never want his wife to be locked into a dead marriage, the beth din could grant the get while claiming to act on his behalf. This rather controversial mechanism is called a get zikui.

This ruling was sharply criticised by some halachic experts who argued that the principle of zikui can only work in a passive context and since the halachah requires the husband to actively initiate the divorce, it was irrelevant in this case.

However, it does leave open the possibility of applying this mechanism to your situation since all that is required of a woman is the passive receipt of the get. It might be argued that since your wife would never want you to suffer in this unresolved state, a beth din might be able to receive the get on her behalf.

I am not qualified to render a ruling on this. I only point out an area worth exploring. How you, or your children, if you have any, might feel about divorcing your wife in her current state is an entirely different question and one worthy of deep consideration.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

What a tragic situation this is. Whenever I have come across families where a relative has entered a persistent vegetative state, it is inevitable that someone says "Frankly, they'd be better off dead".

That may be blunt, but it is hard to disagree. Hopefully, they are unaware of their condition. It would be so much worse if they were unable to move or communicate, but still mentally alert and trapped in a body that was not responding.

But whatever their condition, they are still alive, which means they must be cared for physically. They must also be treated with the same respect as if they were functioning fully.

No doubt that is obvious, but it is worth restating, as it is very easy for one's attitude towards them to gradually change from a loved person to an object of pity to a nuisance to a burden.

Assuming she is in a care home, it is important to keep up visits. This is partly so as to maintain your sense of her humanity. Even if you take a book and just read in the same room, the act of seeing her will enable that to continue.

It also sends a message to the nurses who look after her: that she is valued and cared about, which will in turn help them do the same. Conversely, a person who is neglected by family, and whose treatment is never checked, is much more vulnerable.

But you matter too, and I am sympathetic to your own needs, both
emotional and physical.

If you did start a relationship with someone else, it would technically be adultery and therefore condemned in Jewish law. But there is also an argument that as your wife can no longer act as a wife, it is as if you are not married and so, realistically, it is not adultery. Another option, divorcing your wife, would solve the legal problem, but not the moral situation of abandoning her and may be worse.

However, I would be more concerned if your new partner was at the expense of making regular visits. An extra-marital relationship could be justified if it helps you, not if it distracts you, and your trips should continue.

There are those that might balk at this stance and want to remain committed solely to their spouse for as long as they live, and I have every admiration for that.

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