Many, many years ago, when I was in junior high school, I met Dolly, a sweet and very personable girl with whom I enjoyed spending time. She went to a different school and one day I invited her to visit my school, an institution in which I took great pride. Those were innocent years, and nothing seemed nefarious about my asking a girl that I knew to tour my school. In truth, the tour was excellent except for one small problem. A school janitor saw me in the building after hours with her and reported me to the principal to make him aware of my inappropriate behavior. The visit was innocent, but the next day I was summoned to the principal’s office where he lectured me about the appearance of impropriety. It was a speech that had a lasting impact and today I am grateful for it. I learned early on to be sensitive to how my actions might appear to others.
The appearance of impropriety is the catalyst for much of what happens in The Boxer, the story of Danny Flynn, a former Irish prizefighter who comes home to Belfast after serving 14 years in prison. There he reconnects with Maggie, an old girlfriend, now married to an imprisoned IRA man. A paramount value amongst the IRA is that wives remain loyal to their husbands even when they are sent to prison for long terms. The IRA fighters view with disdain the slightest impropriety. They know that if an IRA member were to feel that incarceration would lead to the breakup of his marriage as well as prison, it would become increasingly difficult to recruit members. Furthermore, for many it would be too high a price to pay for their rebellion against the English.
Against this background, Danny meets with Maggie, his old flame. They originally intended to marry, but life intervened. Danny went to prison as a convicted terrorist and Maggie reluctantly moved on, eventually marrying and having a child.
Their love for one another persists, however, in spite of the long separation. Seeing each other after so many years rekindles long suppressed feelings of love, and they reveal their innermost thoughts to one another. Their private talks, however, soon become public knowledge, and their destinies are changed. Once others become aware of their surreptitious encounters, nothing can remain the same.
In truth, nothing immoral occurs between them. They confess their mutual love, but do not consummate it any way, respecting the unwritten code of the IRA. However, the specter of adultery looms large. Eventually it becomes the excuse for Danny’s enemies to torpedo Danny’s plans to live in peace and open a non-sectarian boxing club, in which both Catholics and Protestants can participate. Violence erupts leaving innocents murdered and maimed. The future of peace between the Irish and English is jeopardized. Moreover, the suggestion of inappropriate behavior between Danny and Maggie motivates Liam, Maggie’s son, to burn down the town gymnasium where the boxers train.
Judaism has much to say about marit ayin/the appearance of impropriety. For example, the Torah tells us that if a woman is alone with a man other than her husband, the appearance of impropriety might trigger a crisis of trust between spouses, which might lead to the dissolution of the marriage.
The appearance of impropriety plays out in many life situations. Judaism encourages us to be sensitive to how our behavior looks to others. We may technically be innocent of crime, but our actions may give a different impression. It is wise at times to see our behavior through the eyes of others.