Monday, December 11, 2017

Sexual Misconduct and Biblical Ethics

Time Magazine 'Person of the Year' - The Silence Breakers (MeToo)
A couple of weeks ago, I read an interesting - and apparently not so well known story about Shlomo Carlebach. I don’t know if it’s true or not. It is one of those ‘message’ stories that leave you with a doubt about whether it really happened.  

Briefly, it involves an impromptu visit by Carlebach to a Kosher restaurant. After entering and being recognized, he started enthusiastically shaking everyone’s hand.  One religious looking fellow refused to do it. After repeatedly insisting on it, he finally asked what the problem was. The fellow responded that a man that was guilty of the kind of awful conduct he had with women, he could not in good conscience shake his hand. 

Carlebach seemed to acknowledge his guilt and asked how he could make things right with this fellow. Teshuva was his answer. Carlebach agreed. He sat down and said  Vidui (a formal religious prayer of confession) and asked God for forgiveness.  After that, the fellow shook his hand and Carlebach left to catch a flight to a concert he was going to give. Later on that flight, he had a heart attack and passed away. I suppose the moral of the story is that Carlebach did Teshuva, and died soon after free of sin and that is how we should all look at our time on earth

While this sounds very spiritual, I tend to doubt this actually happened. Because forgiveness for a sin between a man and his fellow man must first be asked of the person to whom that sin was committed. It has been pretty well established that Carlebach had improper sexual contact with many women. To the best of my knowledge he never asked them for forgiveness. His ‘Teshuva’ was therefore insufficient. And so too the moral point that story tried to make.

Does that discredit his legacy? …a legacy of musical composition whose body of work is so huge that it is sung far and wide by Jews all denominations all over the world? …in many cases without realization of who the composer was - or what he did even if they do?

I don’t think there is a simple answer to that question – which was tackled by Laura Adkins in the Forward.

We are now in the midst of a national catharsis about sexual misconduct. A lot of people guilty of that are being expunged from any legacy they might otherwise have had.Will that prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future?

There are many pundits claiming that this is a pivotal moment in our country. Where women are finally able to speak up. And that this will end the harassment of women in our society. That so many prominent people have fallen should make people think twice before engaging in any improper sexual conduct. Women will no longer be quiet  - as they have in the past fearing the consequences of exposing it when it happens to them.

In the current climate of ‘MeToo’ - where women that have been sexually harassed, molested, or abused are finally telling their stories… stories that have destroyed the legacies of some very powerful men …men who have gotten away with it for decades while retaining their highly regarded reputations and the respect of their colleagues - I have to wonder though, if this is enough to change the way our culture treats interaction between the sexes. 

Frankly I’m not sure it will. I believe we need to examine why people – especially those with power take these liberties with women in the first place. I don’t think the answers are too far away. 

Last night I watched a drama on TV that had the following scene. An attractive couple were working together and suddenly the man grabbed his female partner and gave her a passionate kiss. It was clearly unsolicited. There was no warning. He just seized the moment and gave in to his passion. Fortunately for him, his female partner responded favorably to it. The scene ended there. Sounds pretty romantic, doesn’t it?

And yet if someone were to do that in the real world, it would most likely be seen as sexual harassment. Especially if the woman would not respond favorably to it.  And yet this kind of scene is a common occurrence in Hollywood films. It promotes a culture that glorifies scenes like that. Society learns how to behave from that. Life imitates art. Especially when it is by powerful people that in the past knew that nothing would happen to them if they were rebuffed.

It is true that sexual harassment, molestation, and abuse have been going on since the beginning of time. But is more than obvious to me that the culture in which we live exacerbates it. Especially one where designers of women’s clothing keep exposing more female flesh with every knew design. And the biggest names in Hollywood wear those clothes when the entire world is watching them on Oscar night.

So what can we do about it? How do we change the paradigm? I hope that powerful women in Hollywood start saying no to these designers and start covering up more. But leaving morality to the whims of show business (…think about what the term ‘show business’ means!) is probably not the best route to take. 

Does being a Frum (observant) Jew help? Shlomo Carlebach was Frum. So too were all the ‘Frum’ sexual harassers, molesters, and abusers that we constantly read about in the media. And yet, I believe that the Torah gives us good advice that if followed would prevent – or at least seriously reduce this kind of thing. These ‘Frum’ people did not follow it.

Daniel Ross Goodman makes this point quite well in the Weekly Standard. It is the fear of God.  As Daniel notes, the early chapters in the Torah have numerous sexual stories in them. All of them with a moral teaching attached. To put it the way Daniel does: 
The message of these stories is clear: Where there is no fear of God—when a society forgets that “God sees,” as the protagonist of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Alone” puts it—primal instincts go unchecked and powerless people are at risk of having sexual violence perpetrated upon them by powerful, unrestrained potentates…
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, an influential nineteenth century Lithuanian scholar, explains that the purpose of the Book of Genesis is to teach us uprightness [“yashrut”]—ethics, morality, proper values; in short, basic decency. In fact, in rabbinic literature, Genesis is often referred to as “Sefer ha-Yashar,” which translates to “The Book of the Upright.” 
There is not much Halacha in Bereishis (Genesis).  Which is one fifth of our Torah. Being observant means not only following Halacha. It means learning how to behave ethically and morally.

That said, in our day when there are conflicting messages about how the sexes should interact we need to be more proactive in living those ethics. Which brings me to something I've discussed before and worth repeating. The laws enacted by rabbis that minimize social contact between the sexes. Chief among them the laws of Yichud (seclusion). 

As this would apply to the secular world - there is not a doubt in my mind that a man and woman that do not have an existing consensual sexual relationship with each other - should never be secluded in a locked room alone together. Any meeting between a man and woman ought never take place in an area that is not accessible to others at any given moment. 

There are feminists that would protest this as giving an unfair advantage to men in business situations. Women could then not meet with a man privately to discuss sensitive business issues.  Perhaps. Although I doubt that this would be the case in any but the rarest of circumstances. But even if in theory it cold happen, is it worth the risk of being sexually harassed (or worse)  by a powerful man without witnesses? Is relying on a man’s ethical responsibility to restrain his impulses enough?

I was never a fan of Evangelist preacher Reverend Dr. Billy Graham. But there is one thing about him I admired. He refused to ever be secluded in a room with another woman without his wife being present. Vice President Mike Pence has a similar approach. Billy Graham never was... and Mike Pence probably never will be accused of any sexual misconduct. These 2 men had (have) religious values that led them to these kinds of preventive measures. It would be a far better world if the rest of us did too.