Just when we thought we’d had enough sex-mania among high-powered men, we got hit this summer with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. John Edwards disappeared into legal limbo after admitting that he fathered a child outside his marriage. Anthony Weiner vanished into a rehab program after confessing that he had placed lewd photos of himself online. But L’affaire DSK, as the French call it, continues to make headlines.
I must admit I felt kind of sorry for Strauss-Kahn at first, moved by the tragedy of someone so high falling so low. But those feelings passed, especially after the case against him began crumbling. The man is a sleaze, and if not guilty of raping the hotel maid, he is guilty of the same kind of grandiosity as are Edwards and Weiner, a sense that he is above the law. As one of the world’s most prominent men, DSK also has the sense that he has a free pass on promiscuous and predatory behavior.
Many women easily understand men like DSK. Holly Golightly, in Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” categorized them all as rats or super rats.
Harder to understand is the reaction in France. The French may rightly criticize our law enforcement officials and our media for condemning too quickly, but why do so many of them dismiss DSK’s philandering as nothing to get worked up about? I wonder, especially, what message young French women take away from an episode like this. Does it make them feel that in spite of all the changes women have experienced, in the end they need simply accept the idea that “men will be men,” as their parents seem to?
I think frequently these days about young women’s responses to such situations, because of my almost teen-age granddaughter. She and her friends take so much for granted about women’s lives that earlier generations fought to achieve. Does it ever occur to them that some old attitudes toward the sexes run so deep they need to be challenged time and again?
Last month I attended a presentation my granddaughter gave as part of a school project. The subject was the study of Torah, and she delved into early sources to show its importance. When she spoke about how fathers need to teach their sons Torah, my heart sank. Instead of the literal “fathers and sons” in the Talmudic texts, I thought, why doesn’t she speak about “parents and children” as many of us do to include mothers and daughters in our ancient teachings? I needn’t have worried. When she finished all the “fathers and sons” material, she stopped for a moment. “I also wanted to know what the texts say about teaching daughters Torah,” she said. She then presented the divergent views of Ben Azzai, who obligated parents to have their daughters study Torah, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who equated teaching Torah to a daughter with teaching her obscenity.
With that outlook, Rabbi Eliezer became a symbol to my generation of our anger at the basic inequalities between the sexes and of all that we wanted changed in Judaism. My granddaughter showed no anger. “I go to the Solomon Schechter School,” she said with confidence. “Girls study Torah along with boys, and girls and boys perform the mitzvot equally.” Rabbi Eliezer’s statement was simply “another opinion,” immaterial to her life.
I marveled, as always, at how much has changed over the decades. Girls study Torah throughout the Jewish world, not only in the liberal communities. And many other issues that engaged us in the early days of the Jewish women’s movement have slid away into history. Yet here’s the rub: As confident as they are, young women today need to remain on guard to hold onto the gains that now seem so secure. For what has been achieved may also be rolled back.
I’m thinking of abortion rights still under siege in the United States. I’m thinking of Turkey, where growing numbers of women wear headscarves because of Islamist pressure. I’m thinking of Israel, with its constantly increasing haredi demands. Who ever heard of segregated buses years ago? Now there is a network of them, with men sitting in front and women in back. When were men and women ever separated in the plaza outside the Western Wall? Now there is a push for such separation in addition to the segregated Wall itself. And I’m thinking of France, where in this day and age, a man who still regards women as objects to be conquered is spoken of as a possible candidate for president of the country.
I love young women’s confidence in themselves. I just want them to be aware that in every generation some version of Rabbi Eliezer, secular or religious, hangs around to thwart them. They need to be alert.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”