The Pence Rule and Yichud
Vice President Mike Pence married his wife Karen in 1985. They have 3 children.
I could write similar sentences about most other U.S. politicians.
However, he and his wife have a rule that makes them stand out and has become a lightening rod for criticism.
In March 2017 the Washington Post published an article about Karen Pence. The article mentioned in passing that Mike Pence will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife. Also, he does not attend events where alcohol is served unless his wife is present.
This was not a recent change for the Pence family. In fact, this Pence Rule has been publicly known since 2002.
However, Mike Pence is a much more public figure in 2017 than he was in 2002. Some people were outraged when they heard this news. I won’t quote their reactions in this post, but you can see some of them here.
The Billy Graham Rule
Some people have compared the Pence Rule to the Billy Graham Rule.
Billy Graham talks about it in his autobiography. I haven’t read his autobiography, but the relevant passages are quoted here.
In 1948 Graham was staying in Modesto, CA with some of his associates. They discussed problems that they had seen with other evangelists.
They came up with 4 rules they would follow as “a shared commitment to do all we could do to uphold the Bible’s standard of absolute integrity and purity for evangelists.”
Their second rule is about sexual immorality:
“We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”
Now let’s look a little bit at what Jewish law says about the Pence Rule and the Graham Rule.
Yosef and Potiphar’s Wife
In Parashat Vayeishev the Torah focuses on Yaakov’s son Yosef.
Yosef’s brothers conspire against him and he ends up as a slave in Egypt. Potiphar bought Yosef and eventually assigned him as overseer of the household.
However, Potiphar’s wife was physically attracted to Yosef and sought to have an affair with him.
Yosef resisted until one day. Here’s the relevant verses in Bereshit 39 (Artscroll translation):
12. that she caught hold of him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and he fled, and went outside.
As the Torah makes clear, there was no one else in the house at that time.
Potiphar’s wife took advantage of that fact to accuse Yosef of attempted rape. She presented Yosef’s garment as “proof” of her claim.
Even though the garment demonstrated Yosef’s character, she used it to slander him to the rest of the household and to her husband.
Because of her accusations Potiphar delivered Yosef into prison.
Being Alone With a Woman – Yichud in Halacha
Potiphar’s wife could accuse Yosef because no one else was present to tell Yosef’s side.
The concept of being alone with a woman is called “yichud.”
Let’s look at some of the laws of yichud. I’m quoting from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Chapter 152 “Prohibition Against Being Alone With Women” using the translation of Hyman Goldin.
Paragraph 1 presents the broad outlines of the prohibition.
Paragraphs 2 – 4 present some exceptions to the broad prohibition:
3. One woman may be alone with two virtuous men, but only in a town and in the daytime; but in the field or at night even in town, there must be at least three virtuous men. …
4. One need have no scruples to be alone with a woman whose husband is in town, because she is in fear of her husband.
The midrash tells us that no one was in the house that day because they had all gone to celebrate one of their idol’s holidays.
If we assume the temple was “in town” then Yosef could have been permitted to be alone with Potiphar’s wife.
However, my understanding of paragraph 4 is that it applies when it’s possible for the husband to arrive home at any time. If you know that the husband won’t be home until late, then it may not be permitted to be alone with the wife.
Pence Rule vs Yichud
It’s clear to me that Mike Pence is being more strict than what is required by Jewish law.
I don’t see anything in yichud that means a man could not have a lunch meeting with a woman in a public restaurant.
Also, a man may attend a gathering where alcohol is served so long as there is a crowd.
The Pence Rule provides him with an extra layer of protection against accidentally ending up in a compromising situation.
So far as I know, no one has accused Mike Pence of improper behavior. That’s a record that stands out in Washington these days. I commend Mike and Karen Pence for the example they set.