"Yossi ben (son of) Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be open wide, let the poor be members of your household, and do not chatter excessively with women. This was said regarding one's own wife, certainly with another's wife. Based on this the Sages have said, one who chatters excessively with women causes evil to himself, wastes time from Torah study, and will eventually inherit Gehenna."
For the past two classes we have been discussing the sanctity of the home. As the Sages instruct, religious practices and values must not be relegated to the synagogue or some other setting outside the home. Our homes must be permeated with sanctity, and both Torah scholars and the downtrodden should be welcome within.
We are now ready to discuss the second issue of our mishna, talking excessively with women. It is appropriate to approach this from the context of this and the previous mishna. The sanctity of the home to a great extent rests on the husband-wife relationship within. If their relationship is founded upon closeness and a sharing of values, the home will flourish. If it is based upon frivolity and lust -- or if the husband finds he has better "chatter" (what we'd today call "chemistry") with women outside the home -- the basic building blocks of the home will be lacking, and the home will only with difficulty survive.
Our mishna uses the term "sicha" for speech, which means light or trivial talk, kibitzing or banter. Regarding another man's wife the danger is evident. Empty, frivolous conversation may lead to a much more serious breakdown of behavior. We will learn later: "Jesting and lightheadedness accustom a person to immorality" (3:17). Interaction with women may be a regular part of our daily activities, but we must always take care to maintain a certain sense of formality. This of course does not mean to imply coldness or aloofness. As always in Judaism, the correct balance must be sought. However, this is one area in which the Sages, in their wisdom and insight, warn us to take extra care. Dangers lurk -- sometimes beneath only the thinnest veneer of propriety -- and caution must be constantly maintained.
Even with one's own wife the proper balance must be maintained. The husband-wife relationship must be predicated on an emotional closeness and a sharing of values, not on frivolity or physical lust. The underlying bond must be very clear to both husband and wife. We are not bound because we enjoy each other's company, because it provides us with a beneficial financial arrangement, or because we desire the physical pleasure. In fact, our marriage must not be predicated on any reason of a duration less than eternal, and likewise a truly meaningful marriage will weather all sorts of financial and medical challenges. If I am in a relationship because it is good for *me*, then when the cause of that goodness departs (or if I have more enjoyable "chatter" with the gals at the office) the marriage will be in serious trouble.
Rather, husband and wife must view themselves as bound by eternal covenant. Each partner must care for the other for the other's sake, and they must be united in the sacred mission of building a Jewish home and becoming a unified whole. Humor and lightheadedness are often in place in the husband-wife relationship; so is physical pleasure. In fact, any activity which brings husband and wife closer strengthens the sacred bond between them. But such things must never replace the true ideals and purpose of marriage. One serious and intense conversation between husband and wife -- about their goals, feelings and aspirations -- is worth a thousand empty and trivial conversations. Our marriages must primarily be spiritual and eternal. And likewise our speech and conversation must never wholly lose sight of the fact that between us rests the Divine Presence.
There is a general concept within Judaism that the greater a potential for good something has, the stronger the temptation to misuse it. Love and marriage are prime examples of this. Marriage gives man and woman the ability to build the ultimate relationship -- symbolic of man's relationship with G-d, as well as to create life. Each partner loves and provides for the other for the other's sake, yet realizes and appreciates that the other does for him or her for the very same reason. And as each partner does for the other, he or she grows closer to the other as well -- for we love those to whom we give. Eventually, a couple merges -- into a complete and unified whole.
However, anything which has such potential for good can as well be corrupted into a means of perpetrating the most terrible of evils. And this is the manner in which the world works, for the "dark side of the force" (we can call it Satan, but the idea is quite the same) will not allow such potential for goodness to go unchecked and unchallenged. "This opposite that made the L-rd" (Koheles / Ecclesiastes 7:14). Just as the most heinous of crimes are committed in the name of religion, the worst acts of selfishness can be perpetrated under the guise of "marriage". Rather than marriage being used for selflessness, giving and bonding, it can be used for selfishness and abusiveness. Men and women are different by nature (if any of you haven't noticed). If they merge, their natures will complement one another and they will become a united whole. If, however, one uses the marriage relationship solely for his or her own sake -- to take from the other, to dominate or abuse, or to give himself an illusory sense of importance by putting the other down, he is involved in the most selfish and crushing relationship possible. The very closeness and intimacy of marriage gives each spouse the ability to crush and hurt the other in a manner not possible in any other sort of relationship. And sadly, we all know how ugly, painful and devastating unhealthy relationships can be, and how slowly the scars heal.
The sex drive is another example of this concept. Marital relations, at their highest level, are a form of giving and sharing, and are potentially an act of creation. (There is also a Kabbalistic concept that sex is a physical manifestation of our ultimate spiritual relationship with God -- one reason the Prophets so often berate Israel for going "a whoring" after idolatry. (Thought heard from R. Motty Berger, www.aish.com.)) However, precisely because it can be used for such good, there is no other drive which man is so tempted to misuse and to vulgarize, to pervert from an act of holiness into one of selfishness, hedonism and animalism.
For all of the above reasons, Judaism has always placed paramount importance on the separation of the sexes, in such areas as synagogue service, schooling and general social interaction. This does not stem from a sense of inequality between men and women, and certainly not from any kind of notion that sex and marriage are in any way "sinful". To the contrary, God says, "It is not proper for Adam to live alone" (i.e., unmarried) (Genesis 2:18), and the Torah sets this as a precedent for all future generations: "Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife" (2:24).
Rather, knowing the unique quality of the husband-wife relationship, the Rabbis took every precaution that such potential for good and beauty not be compromised. The more we spread ourselves out -- the more we enjoy interaction and good chemistry with other members of the opposite sex -- the less special and unique will our relationship be with our spouses.
Thus, our mishna exhorts us: Do not become overly light and frivolous, not with your own wife and certainly not with another man's. We are quite literally dealing with fire: with human passions and with the most delicate and precious of human emotions. And only with the most caring and sensitive nurturing can man and woman, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- their differences, merge into a sacred and sanctified whole.