Jealousy is often confused with envy. Envy is coveting something someone else possesses. It is one of the deadliest corrosives on the human soul, as it suggests that we should not be content with what we have. Jealousy, in contrast, bespeaks a desire to hold on to what one has. Though often disparaged as a vice, jealousy guards many virtues and good practices. Jealousy can be excessively narrow and demanding, but a soul incapable of jealousy is likely to fail to maintain valuable human goods.
The God of Israel is “a jealous God” (Exod. 20:5), in that he protects and defends all that is precious to him, including his people above all. The jealousy of God the Father is the archetype of the jealousy that is proper to our family lives. Parents prefer their own children to other kids, even though other kids might be superior in some respects. Parents resent it when schools usurp their prerogatives in raising their children. A husband will be jealous if his wife seems interested in another man, or a wife if her husband seems interested in another woman. Such jealousy is a sign that parents would fulfill their duties themselves and that fidelity in marriage is treasured.
Sophisticated reformers see family jealousies as pretexts for oppressive mores and sexual inequality. Radicals oppose “family chauvinism” and suggest ways of breaking it down. They hope to transform a communal sense of love and responsibility into more fluid relations.