ASK THE RABBI:Like Jael and Esther of old?

On the utilization of illicit sexual relations for the achievement of national-political goals.

‘QUEEN ESTHER’ (1879) by English painter Edwin Long (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘QUEEN ESTHER’ (1879) by English painter Edwin Long
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A left-wing Israeli daily recently published a report alleging that a religious Jewish organization, well known for purchasing properties from Arabs in east Jerusalem, offered 20 years ago the services of non-Jewish prostitutes to induce a married Arab man to complete a secretive property sale.
The legal purchase of real estate in east Jerusalem by Jews is clearly a legitimate nationalistic goal. The question is whether this should be performed by all means, including the use of sexual enticement.
Without passing judgment on this specific case, this column will focus on the utilization of illicit sexual relations to achieve national-political goals.
The classic example is the so-called “honey-trap” strategy used by intelligence services to obtain secrets or capture enemies, which Israel successfully used to arrest the traitor Mordechai Vanunu in 1986.
A quick glance at the Bible will reveal that sexual enticement was used as a means toward important national missions. The most famous example is the heroine Esther, who utilized her proximity to King Ahasuerus to save the entire Jewish people. The Sages perceived her forced marriage as passive action (“karka olam”) forced upon her.
Yet they also looked positively on Tamar, who proactively disguised herself as a prostitute to trick Judah into bearing children with her, a union whose descendants include King David and the messianic lineage.
While the Sages praised Tamar for her actions, since Judah had wrongfully abandoned her, they are more ambivalent toward the daughters of Lot, who slept with their father after the destruction of Sodom. While this was clearly an immoral, incestuous act, the Sages speculated that the daughters’ intentions were noble since they believed that humankind had been wiped out and this was necessary for the repopulation of the world.
A decidedly positive outlook was taken toward Jael, the married wife of Heber the Kenite, whom the Bible praises as the “most blessed of women.” She enticed the exhausted enemy general Sisera into her tent and then killed him with a tent peg. The Sages asserted that she used sexual means to lower his defenses and cited her act as a paradigmatic example of an “aveira lishma,” a transgression done for the sake of Heaven.
THIS NOTION, as one can easily imagine, may be easily abused, as evidenced by followers of Shabtai Zvi, who invoked it to violate sexual taboos. As Prof. Nahum Rakover has documented, many figures such as Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner and Rabbi Naftali Berlin severely limited the utilization of this rationale. In fact, Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman castigated pre-World War II settlers in Eretz Yisrael who under the justification of “aveira lishma” tried to physically compel Jewish farmers to use only Jewish workers (avoda ivrit).
Nonetheless, the notion of committing a sexual transgression for the sake of national security, following the paradigms of Jael and Esther, continued to reverberate in halachic works, in spite of the general rule that an individual should be killed rather than commit an illicit sexual act.
Rabbi Shlomo Goren invoked it to justify male Mossad agents marrying gentile women to protect their cover while working in enemy territory.
Regarding women, Jewish history has tragically provided many examples of women whose bodies were used to save lives. In the 17th century, for example, Rabbi Ya’acov Reischer justified a married woman who offered her body to prevent a group of marauders from killing her traveling party, and similar stories emerged from the Holocaust.
As Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman asserted, many halachic texts support the notion that men and women may perform illicit sexual acts under duress to save groups of Jews, even when the entire nation is not at risk. This would seemingly justify the utilization of the “honey-trap” when selectively employed by national security agencies, especially when done by unmarried agents who willfully accept such a mission.
Yet, as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein emphasized, “aveira lishma” does not mean that the ends always justify the means. Any such decision must be weighed carefully. In fact, Rabbi Abraham Kook argued that, except when the entire nation was at stake (as in the case of Jael), such “emergency measures” required approval by the highest court. It’s quite plausible that a state-ordained agency like the Mossad has such approval; it’s far from clear that a private political organization, even when operating under rabbinic supervision, has such prerogative, especially when no lives are directly at stake.
Equally significantly, there is no reason to think that a gentile prostitute (hired through a pander) is interested in taking part in this national mission. Given what we know today about the sex market, her entire involvement in prostitution is likely nonconsensual.
Moreover, even if she is generally a willing participant, one might still not be allowed to contract her services.
This may be understood from a remarkable statement made by Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet (Rashba) in the 13th century, cited favorably by the famed Rabbi Yosef Karo.
The case involved a dilemma where bandits demanded that a group of women hand over one woman, or the entire group would be raped. The Talmud prohibits them from handing over any woman. What if one of the women was regularly promiscuous? Rashba still prohibited them from handing her over, since her previous transgressions do not justify future sins. Furthermore, perhaps she regrets her past actions and has done repentance. This position, we should recall, was taken even when other lives were directly at risk.
The ruling, in short, highlights how strictly Jewish law views illicit sexual behavior, even to save lives or for national needs.
While it is perhaps justified in severe circumstances when deemed necessary by authorized agencies, one hopes that private organizations have not used women without their consent for their own mission. Controlling the Land of Israel is a great cause, but even the best of intentions can’t justify the means used in some circumstances.
The writer, a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute.