Commandment #7: Why too much choice is a bad thing

Monogamy: the practice or state of having a sexual relationship with only one partner. Okay…here’s the question I’d like to think about with you today: Does being monogamous — does limiting yourself to one partner — actually make you happier? 

Now, I want to be really clear about what I am asking. I understand that exclusive and faithful relationships — and marriages, in particular — can be particularly useful in promoting a strong family unit.

From the vantage point of a religion or a society seeking to build and sustain community, committed relationships make a lot of sense. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I’m curious on an individual, not a societal level. 

Does limiting your sexual expression to one relationship, to one person, make you qualitatively more happy, or more unhappy?

To explore that question, we’re going to explore the seventh of the Ten Commandments: Lo tinaf, most often translated as “do not commit adultery.”

Now, what specifically is included within this commandment isn’t perfectly clear from the text itself. I mean, the whole commandment is only two words. 

Most commentators agree that, on a very basic level, the commandment refers to sex between a man and a woman who is married to another man. 

But others — like the 16th-century Italian commentator, philosopher, and physician, Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno — extend “lo tinaf” well beyond that. And practically, for our times, they include any sex that occurs outside of the context of marriage, outside of a singular, committed relationship. 

(And even though back in the day some men did have more than one wife, for over a thousand years now, that has not been the case, for the very reason I hope will become clear.)

Now, let me just pull the brakes here and make an important caveat. I am not a rabbi, or a spiritual authority of any sort. I’m not interested in making any moralistic, fire-and-brimstone pronouncements about what any of you should or shouldn’t do. 

Instead, I’m more interested in plumbing the depths of my own tradition — these Ten Commandments — to see if there’s a foundational principle I can glean for my own life and relationships. And to take you on that journey with me.

So, let me tell you about the Paradox of Choice. Here’s something that happens to me all of the time. I decide that I need to buy some item, let’s say, a new kitchen knife.

So I go to Amazon to do a quick search, whereupon I find tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of kitchen knives in the results. Every conceivable color, shape, design, and feature. Japanese-made, and American-made, and Swiss-made.

So I go to Consumer Reports to look at reviews and I find one that is the clear winner. Okay. Good. Some clarity. But then, just for safety, I go to the Wirecutter and see that it’s only the third choice according to them.

Now it’s 45 minutes since this search began and somehow, inexplicably, I am further away from owning a kitchen knife than when I started…and deeply frustrated. 

And to make matters worse, often when I do pull the trigger and order that knife, when I unbox it and hold it in my hands, I’m just…suddenly…not so sure. Did I make the right choice after all? 

You see, we don’t just have more choice when it comes to kitchen knives. We have more choice about, like, every conceivable thing on the planet. Flavors of Ketchup, albums on Spotify to listen to, colors and configurations of iPhones to own. We are bombarded daily with almost unlimited optionality.

What is the impact of all of that optionality on our wellbeing? Logic would seem to dictate that the more choice I have, the happier I should be. More choice equals more opportunities to have my exact, particular desires met, right? 

But as it turns out, that’s often not the case. Just the opposite, in fact. One of my favorite books ever is called “The Paradox of Choice,” written by the American psychologist Barry Schwartz. 

Schwartz points out something truly fascinating and counter-intuitive. He says, “Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.” 

Schwartz, using a whole host of studies and research, demonstrates that in many cases, specifically reducing choices creates more satisfaction for people. 

Now, there are several reasons that Schwartz gives for this, and I encourage you to read the book or watch his Ted Talk. But one of the reasons that so much choice can be detrimental for us is because, in his words, “unconstrained freedom leads to paralysis.”

In other words, having too much choice is almost like having no choice at all. We can get so hellbent on maximizing every conceivable option that we never get around to actually, you know, going with one of those choices. Or, we make the choice, but we’re sort of half in and half out, wondering about all of the others we could have chosen. Either way, we’re not throwing our full selves behind the choice we’ve made. 

Again, there’s this funny little paradox at play. It’s through limiting our own freedom of choice and leaning into a commitment toward one of those choices that we allow for something richer to emerge and thereby increase our satisfaction.

When it comes to romantic, sexual relationships — that domain has been positively flooded with optionality. It can seem less and less appealing than ever to constrict and limit oneself when presented with all of that choice.

But in the face of that optionality, it’s important to remember that there is a trade-off happening here. Because some things only become possible when we close a bunch of possibilities to focus on one of them. Sharing the full gamut of experiences as they unfold over a lifetime. Building a mature, resilient trust over the long haul. Enduring painful moments and celebrating transcendent ones.

All of that comes after a choice to constrict ourselves, to limit our freedom, to commit to one possibility for the sake of what it might become. 

Schwartz writes: “Knowing that you’ve made a choice that you will not reverse allows you to pour your energy into improving the relationship that you have rather than constantly second-guessing it.”

Now, it is true that the Jewish tradition allows for divorce, because sometimes marriages really don’t work out. But I think Lo tinaf points to an ideal that makes intuitive sense — transcending the paradox of choice and having the courage to make the painful choice to close certain possibilities in service of something deeper and richer. 

One of my pieces of Jewish wisdom ever — like, ever ever — is a question asked in the Talmud: what is the most important verse in all of the Torah, the one that cuts to the core of what the entire Torah is about?

One rabbi, Ben Zoma, sort of predictably says it’s the Shema. “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One.” Makes sense. That’s a big one. I’d probably go with that one if you asked me.

Another rabbi, Ben Nanas says no, the most important verse is to “love your brother as yourself.” Okay. also a biggie. I get it. 

But then, yet another rabbi, Ben Pazi, chimes in, and he says, it’s the following verse. “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening.” 

And at first blush, that seems like sort of a crazy verse to choose. It’s a verse about, like, the standard, day-to-day sacrifices during Temple times that would be brought every day. So routine, so mundane

Until you realize: Oh. That was kind of his point, wasn’t it. There is beauty in routine. Excitement in focus. And certain life experiences that can only be accessed through the consistency it takes to stick with something. 

There are no shortcuts in life — and, seeing as relationships are a huge part of that life, there aren’t shortcuts in relationships either. 

Relationships can be the most fulfilling aspects of our lives. But relationships are hard work. You’ve got to show up to a relationship. Day in, day out. Through rain or shine, blood sweat and tears — you name the cliche, it’s perfectly appropriate here. 

And there’s a weird sort of alchemy at play here. It’s the “grind” of it all that actually elevates a relationship to something qualitatively different, qualitatively more sublime. But if you avoid the grind and instead opt to keep the options open in perpetuity, you’ll never get access to that higher state. 

Aristotle said, “To be a friend to someone you must eat a sack of salt together.” Or, as a buddy of mine says, “It’s only by going through hell together that we can go through heaven together.”

I think this is why Lo tinaf, Do not Commit Adultery, is one of the Big Ten Commandments. It is about adultery, but it’s also one of the guiding foundational principles that animate every meaningful endeavor in life: the courage to choose a path and be loyal to it.

I think it was pointing to the sublime states that we can get to, a truly rarified level of happiness, if only we’re brave enough to make a choice and find out for ourselves what’s waiting on the other side.

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