Breaking Bad: A Spiritual Perspective on Sexual Harassment

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Before Moshe’s experience at the burning bush, when he has his first encounter with God, and before we see Moshe become Israel’s greatest prophet, through whom our Torah is given, we are introduced to the personality of Moshe through three dramatic stories.

In the first story, Moshe sees a fellow Jew being beaten mercilessly by an Egyptian officer. He stands up for the Jew and kills the Egyptian. In the second incident, Moshe sees two Jews fighting and says to the offending party: why do you strike your fellow? (Exodus 2:13). Finally, after he escapes to Midian, Moshe comes across the daughters of Yitro who are at the well drawing water for their father’s flock. A group of shepherds come and begin to harass them, driving them away. Moshe sees this injustice and rises to their defense, chasing the men away and watering the women’s flock.

In each situation, we see Moshe saving the victim from an oppressor, but as the great scholar Nechama Leibowitz explained, these incidents are not simply three random experiences but a progression: from intervening in a clash between a non-Jew and a Jew, to a conflict between two Jews and then to an incident between two non-Jews. Had we been only told of the first clash, we might have thought Moshe was motivated by solidarity with his own people rather than by justice, and had we been presented only with the second incident, we would still have our doubts since that incident was between two Jews. However, the third incident — where both the attacker and victim were not Jewish, shows how Moshe was motivated by a pure sense of justice for all victimized people.

The Torah is making a powerful point: even before Moshe could receive revelation from God at the burning bush and before he could become the prophet through whom the Torah would be given, he had to first have a sense of empathy for others. A sense of justice for the victim of oppression. This is the first thing the Torah wishes us to learn from Judaism’s greatest prophet: to cultivate a sensitivity for those in vulnerable positions, for those who are weaker and who are being taken advantage of by those in positions of power because of that weakness or vulnerability. Whether this abuse takes place in the workplace or on a date, the Torah wishes us to learn from Moshe and become sensitive to this kind of abuse.

We saw this just a few Torah portions ago, when Joseph was a young and handsome but vulnerable servant in the house of Potifar. Joseph becomes the object of Potifar’s wife relentless sexual advances. Although Yosef heroically refuses these advances, because of his weaker position, he is thrown into jail. As you can see, sexual harassment in the workplace has been going on for a long time, but in the last few years, we have seen a real pushback. People in more vulnerable positions have been speaking up, jeopardizing their status in order to protect themselves or others and ultimately to promote a greater sense of justice in the workplace and elsewhere.

MJE has a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and we are leading by example. Like in most companies today, our entire staff has been through sexual harassment training and we are in the process of joining the SRE (Safety, Respect Equity) Coalition, a Jewish group which addresses sexual harassment and gender discrimination. But just as important is what happens here in our program space at MJE, the steps we take to create a safe environment here in our spiritual home. We have had a few instances in which participants have approached staff members and expressed they have been made to feel uncomfortable,
and in some cases unsafe. We have taken these complaints seriously, conducted thorough investigations and in some cases have had to exclude and ban some individuals from MJE.

While we cannot control people’s behavior, we have spent months creating a special code of conduct, which from now on must be adhered to by all participants who attend any MJE program on or off-site.

The first line of our new code of conduct starts with the words: “MJE is committed to creating an environment that exemplifies Jewish values such a Kavod Habriyot (Human dignity) and the Talmud’s teaching of Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Bazeh – “All Israel is responsible for one another”. Those two Jewish concepts, along with the example of Moshe Rabbeinu, should inspire us to first ensure we all act in a manner consistent with these values. Second, if something happens to you or to someone else, please bring the matter to our attention. I would encourage you to do the same in other environments, even if it means calling out a colleague, which can often place you in a more difficult position. We see Moshe doing exactly this, also in this week’s Parsha. In each progressive situation, it actually gets harder for Moshe to intervene. When he kills the Egyptian, he is at least a citizen of that country. He has some standing, having grown up in the house of Pharoh and it is a clear a cut situation with a villain and a victim. The second situation is a bit more murky – you have two people fighting – who is right who is wrong? It is a “he said, she said” situation. And in the third instance, Moshe’s really out on a limb. He’s living in Midian as a refugee, having fled Egypt, and therefore has no standing when he confronts the shepherds harassing the Midianite women. There’s literally a bounty on his head, and so the last thing Moshe wants to do is get involved in a fight, but he does.

No one wants to be the whistleblower, but it is vital to say something when we see something, whether it is in the workplace or it’s right here on Shabbat at the kiddush following services. The very dignity and sanctity of our community is at stake and on the individual level it goes even deeper.

On the emotional and psychological level, I don’t have to tell you how detrimental these abuses of power can impact our basic sense of self – on how we look at ourselves. Victims of sexual abuse and even harassment can be scarred for life. On the existential and spiritual level, the damage is no less severe. We are all endowed with the tzelem Elokim – the divine spark which our Sages teach is extraordinarily sensitive to breaches in our tzniut, to our sense of modesty and sexual propriety.

This area gets very complicated when the breach in sexuality takes place between two consenting adults in a relationship or adults exploring a relationship. I have been called in on a number of such situations and have tried to help, first by ensuring that the complaining party is safe, and second, by impressing upon the other party that no means no, even if there’s a relationship.

I would be remiss as a rabbi though if I didn’t also share the Torah’s unique approach to dating, the kinds of boundaries the Torah sets up, which are not easy to observe in modernity, but can be helpful in avoiding some of these situations. There are two halachot (Jewish laws), both of which may sound archaic and outdated, but make a lot of sense practically and which on a spiritual level help maintain the holiness and integrity of our relationships. The first halacha is referred to as Yichud: the prohibition of an unmarried couple to be enclosed in a locked room. Some of us have heard of the “Yichud room”, the special room designated for the bride and groom immediately after the Chupah wedding ceremony. The couple spend their first few minutes of marriage alone in an enclosed room, to demonstrate they are now husband and wife since they can now finally be alone in an enclosed room. The second area of halacha, commonly referred to as being Shomer Negiah, proscribes physical contact between men and women before marriage. The main idea behind these two areas of halacha, to be followed by men and women alike, is to dial down the physical until a total commitment has been made through marriage. Physical attraction is an important element for marriage but abstaining from physical contact prior to marriage allows the courting couple to focus on the other’s personality. This helps the couple maintain clarity on whether the other is a suitable mate and also helps ensure they relates to each other in the most dignified manner.

To be sure, this sensitivity continues after the couple is married. The tendency we have as sexual beings to look at each other in purely physical terms, does not end when one gets married. This is why the Torah has a whole system of law called Taharat Hamishpacha (the laws of Family Purity), which are intended to elevate the sexual intimacy for the married couple. This again helps the couple relate to each other as more than just physical beings. Please do not misunderstand. Judaism does not deny the physical or sexual. Quite the contrary. Judaism, through these traditions, aims to elevate and sanctify the sexual urge, utilizing it to deepen the commitment between husband and wife.

I realize that in our society, as people remain single longer, the halchot of Yichud and Shomer Negiah seem less realistic to observe. However, they remain an integral part of Jewish tradition which I believe can serve as a preventative for some of the harassment situations arising today. Not all, but some. In addition, and as you’ve all heard me say many times, Judaism is not an all or nothing proposition. Even if one chooses not to follow these halachot, either because one finds them too difficult or unrealistic, one would be well advised to incorporate some of these laws and attitudes into ones dating life. To think twice before allowing the door to be locked; to be more careful about whom we choose to be with and how soon in the relationship we allow things to get physical. Also, to be mindful of how much alcohol gets consumed, because as I’ve seen, that often exacerbates some of these situations.

I want to be clear on two things. First, these traditions are not the responsibility of women alone, but equally binding and important for men and women alike. Second, this is not about blaming the victim, God forbid. I share these halachot because they are from our Torah and I strongly believe that to whatever degree we can incorporate them into our dating life, they will help us create healthy boundaries and a more positive and uplifting environment in which we can all operate more freely. Finally, the laws of Yichud and Negiah apply not just to people who date but to all of our interactions between men and women, for example to our work colleagues and friends. We must learn to relate to all members of the opposite sex with respect, dignity and sanctity.

In our prayers each morning we recite the famous line from the Torah: “How good are your tents O’Jacob, your dwelling place O’Israel” (Numbers 24:5). This beautiful verse was uttered by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam as he stood over the Jewish camp in the wilderness, attempting to curse it. Our Sages teach that when Bilam noticed that the opening of each Jewish tent never faced the opening of another, he was impressed and inspired by the respect and modesty which he saw in the Jewish community. Let’s reclaim that sanctity for our community and follow the example of Moses our teacher, as we together confront harassment and the abuse of power by affirming the dignity and holiness of every individual.

Shabbat Shalom.

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials' Rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) in 1998. Since then, he has become one of America’s most inspirational and dynamic Jewish educators. Rabbi Wildes holds a BA in Psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and was ordained from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Mark & his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.
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