Not only feminists, but all morally conscious people are outraged at media reports of harassment and abuse by high profile men in positions of power. After decades of increasingly liberal attitudes to sex and sexuality, and brazen use of femininity for marketing, the conversation needs an intellectual framework.
What are appropriate responses by society and by women who find themselves in these situations? Should the men concerned be granted any opportunity for remorse and restitution, or have they terminated their reputation and careers forever? Should it make any difference in what era these acts were committed, or not? What changes in corporate culture need to be introduced and how? Should women be expected to make any adjustments at all, or only men? Do Angela Lansbury’s comments in Fortune Magazine this week that while men are clearly the culprits in these cases and women should not have to be prepared for such behavior, still there “are two sides to this coin,” have any validity at all, or are they as outrageous as Social Media responses suggest? Despite the fears of being labeled feminist or sexist, honest conversation should happen and solutions that bring about sustainable and meaningful change should be found. This is why an intellectual framework in which to have the conversation, is so important. This week’s parsha powerfully records the first known case of sexual abuse and in doing so provides the basics of such a framework.
Dinah, daughter of Ya’acov and sister of the fathers of Israel’s tribes, ventures out to explore the social life of the young girls of the land (see Targum Yonattan.) Prince Shechem rapes her, falls in love with her, seduces her and then proposes to her through his father Chamor. This is the precise sequence of their “relationship” as detailed in Bereishit 34:1-4. It is this very sequence which intensifies the abhorrence of Shechem’s behavior.
Had Shechem first admired Dinah and fell in love with her, then “spoken to her heart” and later married her, the story would have been somewhat romantic even if halachically out of bounds. Instead, the story starts with his unbridled urges knowing no bounds. He is motivated only by the satiation of his own desires not by admiration for Dinah. She is a pawn for him, an object to serve his desires, a plaything of his power and a conquest for his ego. This, more than anything, makes it a story of violent abuse of strength and power and the objectification of women.
In many of the cases currently exposed in the media, the abuse of power and the objectification of women underpins the stories. These episodes of harassment and abuse are more serious than the corporations in which they occurred or even the industries in which these corporations operate. These episodes are symptomatic of a society that has encouraged people to objectify women for decades, especially in the media, entertainment and advertising industries. One wonders how society, so steeped in objectifying femininity, can turn around. Dinah’s brothers wipe out the entire community not only as a punishment and warning but because they cannot see redemption or a future for a society for whom the abuse of women is an accepted norm.
While in these cases men should take the full weight of blame, Angela Lansbury has a point in that women are not always one hundred percent passive. Even in the case of Dinah, Shechem and his community who witnessed the event and failed to intervene, deservedly bear fatal consequence for their dastardly actions. However, Chazal (Rabbinic literature) do not consider Dinah to have been entirely passive in this story. She went out “dressed to kill” (Midrash Rabbah 80:1-2) and according to some actually fell for Shechem’s seductive technique. Clearly then, Dinah could have prevented the episode from occurring by not straying away from Yaacov’s home or at least going out appropriately dressed (whatever that meant at that time and for that family). Nevertheless, even though she could have prevented the event, he, not she, is fully responsible. Her part in the story in no way exonerates Shechem and his community nor even does it diminish their culpability. Women should not need to fear that their fashion, however unacceptable to some, is an excuse for abuse.
In the current events the same framework should apply. It could perhaps be true that in some cases the women might have prevented the events from happening. Still, it was the men who overstepped the bounds. The men abused the women, not the other way around. These men used women as trophies of conquest rather than as equal partners in the development of God’s world.
Severe consequences for the men concerned is one part of the response. Introducing into corporate life some of the norms of the laws of yichud that provide structure to inter-gender activity without denigration of either gender, would also help. But most important of all for the long term, we should be vigilant about the message we as educators, thought leaders, entertainers and media personalities are projecting about how our society sees women. Blotting women out of history and text books (as some extreme communities are doing) is almost as abusive as objectifying them. We need to be innovative within Halachic principles and frameworks to enable women to take their places in orthodox society and in the general community, that they are worthy of. With deep humility and without condescension, men should recognize the accomplishments of women especially (but of course not only) in recent times. This includes their accomplishments in Jewish learning and teaching, their brilliance in countless areas of endeavor and their crucial roles in nurturing the future of our people.
Without adulterating the polarity of gender difference and the energy this polarity generates, we must find ways for women to be seen in the fullness of who they are and in the majesty radiating outward from their deeply developed interiorities. כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה “All the honor of a princess flows from her interiority” – Tehillim 4:14. Our women are the princesses of our nation. They carry their title with honor and they command authority. They are deserving of our admiration, respect and where appropriate, our love.