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Harvey Weinstein and Mayim Bialik: Connecting modest behavior with sexual assault

Stop scrutinizing victims; pay attention instead to the power imbalances that can lead to abuse

A few weeks ago, journalists revealed that Harvey Weinstein, a very powerful Hollywood film producer, was accused of many acts of sexual assault.  In response, Orthodox Jewish actress Mayim Bialik wrote an op-ed last week in the New York Times highlighting her own modest attire and behavior as protective measures against assault.  She wrote, “I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy.” Quickly, her article was criticized as it was interpreted as an exercise in victim-blaming, calling out the women as being partly to blame for not dressing modestly. She responded that this was not her intent. Avital Chizhik wrote an article in Forward magazine about how the restrictions on yichud, on secluding oneself with someone from the opposite gender, can potentially also help protect one from certain situations that can lead to sexual assault.

These articles raise the following question.  Should we connect these halachic discussions of modesty and yichud in the context of these types of assaults?  Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, a colleague of mine, noted that our Sages actually do this. The Talmud Yerushalmi connects Dina’s rape with the fact that she intermingled with the people of Shechem and a midrash connects the rape of Shlomit bat Divri to her friendliness toward an Egyptian slavedriver. Was it appropriate for Chazal to do this and is it appropriate for us to do this in 2017?

I think the answer is twofold. First of all, in Biblical times, providential cause and effect were much clearer. If something bad happened to someone, often the assumption was that it resulted directly from some sin as the relationship between God and man was more intense. Now, however, that is not the case. We have no power of prophecy nowadays so we have absolutely no way of connecting specific behavior to specific spiritual punishment.

On the other hand, asserting that behaving in a certain inappropriate manner can lead to a bad result can be an effective way to motivate someone to behave in an appropriate manner. If I tell you that if you commit a certain sin then something bad will likely happen, then you may not engage in that behavior. But once again, while this form of scare tactics may have worked in the Mishnaic and Talmudic era to motivate good behavior, doing so today would likely have a very different effect. Nowadays, the claim that observing the laws of modesty and yichud will prevent sexual assault is not only false in so many instances, but it can have a damaging effect on victims as well. Implying that the victims of sexual assault may be in part to blame for the crime committed against them needlessly compounds their suffering and it likely prevents other victims from speaking out.

Why then do we have a tendency to want to point fingers at anyone other than the perpetrators of these awful acts? Why do we sometimes find ourselves trying to find some amount of responsibility in the victim? One reason we may do that is to disassociate ourselves from the victim. We separate ourselves from him or her, telling ourselves that we are not like the victim and are therefore not at risk. Secondly, assigning “blame” to the victim gives us a sense of control. By convincing ourselves that we understand what the victim did to bring on the assault, we reassure ourselves that by choosing different behaviors we can prevent the same assault from happening to us. These assumptions are faulty, but they provide an erroneous sense of security when we feel most desperate for one. Finally, some of us may feel a need to connect with the tragedy and find some meaning in it. We want to glean some reassuring lesson from the story, and in this case, we tell ourselves that this tragedy underscores the importance of modesty and yichud. We may hope that by discussing these sensitive topics, others will see the wisdom of these laws and will be motivated to follow a Torah oriented lifestyle.

To those individuals I say — this is simply not the time. There may be a place for more conversations about modesty and about yichud in our community, but not in the context of sexual assault. When faced with people who have been victimized, our response must be empathy, and not blame. Rather than disassociate from the victims, we must realize that we, too, are vulnerable. Additionally, if we want to take control and try to understand where blame truly lies, why should we only focus on the victim? Why don’t we try to understand why perpetrators commit these heinous acts? Let us take an honest look at the dynamics that lead to an abuse of power, such as that one that occurred between a powerful Hollywood producer and his subordinates. Let us reflect and ask ourselves, are we in power situations at work or at home? Are we sometimes guilty of not being sensitive enough to this fact?

After conducting a classroom observation in my school where I work, I told a new teacher who seemed a bit nervous not to be intimidated by the students. He responded, “I’m not intimidated by them. I’m intimidated by you.” Until that moment, it didn’t dawn on me that I was in a power position and that maybe I needed to be more sensitive about what messages I was sending to him. Hopefully, we can utilize this simply horrific news story to consider the power imbalances we witness in our own lives and conduct ourselves more sensitively.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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