Friday, April 07, 2017

Mike Pence and Yichud

Vice President  Mike Pence and his wife  Karen
This may surprise many people that do not know me well but I am a big fan of the Hilchos Yichud. (Not that any Halacha needs me to be a fan.) Yichud is the prohibition against a man and a married women (or even 2 women) being secluded in the same room (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 22:5). While there are some exceptions to this Halacha (e.g. if the room is not locked and anyone can walk in at any time… or if it takes place in her home and her husband is in town and can walk in unannounced at any moment - then this there is no violation of this Halacha.)

I would extend this to any man and woman – married or not. Which is quite a reversal of the way I used to feel. I used to wonder what the big deal was. Why the need to be so strict? Meetings between 2 people happen all the time in the business world. Sometimes it is between a man and a married woman in the privacy of an office that is off limits to anyone but the 2 people meeting there. Are we to be suspicious of every such encounter?

The answer of course is no. Most of the time such meetings are exclusively about the business at hand. But ‘most of the time’ isn’t good enough. And business is not the only place where Yichud might take place. Unfortunetaly we now know of far too many instances where it was violated by supposedly religious people with devastating results.

There have been rabbis who counseled married women about personal issues with doors closed - that have ended up with those women accusing their rabbi them of hitting on them. Or worse.

Seminary heads that have taken sexual advantage of their female students; doctors that have taken advantage of female patients they were examining; dentists that have taken sexual advantage of female patients that were anesthetized.

And in one of more notorious cases of our time, a Chasidic ‘counselor’ had sexually abused a troubled young female client  for many years in the privacy of his office before getting caught. (He is now sitting in prison.)

There have been many other stories like that. Doctors, rabbis, seminary heads, spiritual gurus… if Hilchos Yichud would have been followed, none of this would have happened.  But Yichud was the furthest thing from their minds. By insisting that ‘privacy’ was supposedly for  the client’s benefit, the locked ‘door’ was instead ‘open’ for sex abuse. Their colleagues just looked the other way because - based on their reputations they believed them. Never suspecting abuse.

Not that I am accusing everyone that violates Hilchos Yichud to be doing it for nefarious purposes. Most times it doesn’t happen. But sometimes it does. Either in the form of abuse or with consent between the 2. Most of us have seen this movie. 2 attractive married  people (not to each other) are alone together discussing business suddenly there is an innocent touch. That leads to an embrace and then a kiss and… Art does imitate life! (…and vice versa).

What about self control? Shouldn’t that play a part? Of course it should. But why not do something that will help avoid the situation altogether? If you are in a position to be alone with a member of the opposite sex – as a student, a client, or a patient – make sure that someone else is in the room or in the room next to you and leave the door open a bit. And certainly NEVER lock the door. 

Why do I bring all this up now? Because of a wonderful story about our Vice President, Mike Pence. Now there is a man whose behavior in this regard we would do well to emulate. A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times quoted Washington Post reporter, Ashley Parker’s comments about him after her story about Mike Pence’s wife, Karen, was published: 
Ashley Parker, the reporter, noted that Vice President Mike Pence once had told The Hill, a political newspaper and website, that he never dines with women alone, nor does he attend functions without his wife if alcohol is being served. 
That comment generated a flood of responses. Many of them negative. Just to cite a couple of examples: 
Was this a sign of marital devotion and respect? Or a signal that the Pences don’t trust Mike Pence to be alone with a woman? Or perhaps don’t trust a woman to be alone with Mike Pence?
 “I believe this is gender discrimination,” said Kim Elsesser, 52, a UCLA lecturer on gender and psychology who founded a proprietary quantitative hedge fund at Morgan Stanley after graduating from Vassar and MIT. “If you don’t go out to dinner with a woman, it’s hard to have a woman be your campaign manager or your chief of staff or whoever you need to regularly meet with.” 
I hear the argument. But is there no other way for a member of one sex to serve a client of the opposite sex? Must there always be circumstances of seclusion?

True, dining with a married woman that is not your wife in a public place - is not seclusion. Yichud does not go that far. It is certainly permitted. I have personally been in that situation. But why must there be criticism of a man who is surely just trying to observe a higher standard of behavior in public? Does anyone really believe that Mike Pence is a misogynist? Or that he considers women to be second class citizens? He obviously loves his wife very much and wants to honor that relationship as much as he can. This is one way of doing that. And his wife surely respects him for that.

Is a pledge never to dine alone with another woman such a terrible sin? Has the egalitarian ideal gone so far off the rails that feminists are willing to tolerate opportunities to take sexual advantage of women as a legitimate price to pay in pursuit of that goal?

Of course they would respond by saying, ‘It’s the man’s responsibility to control himself’. I agree. But tell that to the victim who was taken advantage of in that situation. She might also say that the man that attacked her should have had self control. But how does that help her now? I have to wonder if any woman that was ever attacked by a man in the privacy of an office would not support a version of Hilchos Yichud. My guess is that all of them would, because they know that had the practice of Yichud been observed, they would never have been attacked.