The #Me Too movement exposed serious systemic flaws in how some people conduct themselves in relation to others in the workplace and elsewhere. There appears to be no ready cure for genuine predators, who prey on the defenseless. However, what about the rest of us? What are appropriate rules of engagement that will allow men and women to work together, without artificial barriers? Indeed, it may be asked after #Me Too, what next? Is there some ancient wisdom that can shed light on a possible solution?
The Bible, in this week’s Torah reading[i], records an otherwise unimaginable #Me Too incident involving Joseph and his patron Potiphar’s wife, Zulycah[ii]. Joseph, also known as, Joseph the Saint[iii], is a towering figure in the Bible. He is the quintessential immigrant, who overcame the most daunting of challenges to become a superstar in ancient Egyptian society.
As a young man, Joseph was shanghaied from his comfortable and familiar surroundings at home, in parochial Shechem, to the land of Egypt. It was a center of trade, culture and sophistication in the ancient world and one of the superpowers of the period. Joseph’s unceremonious entry into Egypt was as a slave. He was sold to the house of Potiphar, a governmental official in the court of the Pharaoh. A handsome, talented, charming and brilliant young man, he was quickly promoted and then put in charge of Potiphar’s business affairs[iv]. For a time, everything seemed to be going extremely well, but then Joseph was confronted with the harsh reality of the precariousness of his position.
Zulycah cast her eyes on him and his good looks[v] struck her fancy. As the mistress of the house of Potiphar, she was an imposing and powerful political figure. She demanded Joseph submit to an illicit relationship with her in exchange for job security. The fact that the Biblical narrative reverses the typical roles, in this dramatic presentation, makes the story even more poignant. At first, Joseph rebuffed Zulycah’s seductive advances. He buried himself in his work and tried vainly to avoid being alone with her. She, nevertheless, continued aggressively to harass him. When her direct approach failed, she requested he merely lie with her, without any sexual contact[vi] or be near her[vii]. She urged him just to talk to her in private[viii].
The Ramban[ix] notes that Joseph was powerless and had no apparent recourse. The Talmud[x] records Joseph had reason to fear Zulycah. She didn’t just try to sweet talk him. She used her power and position to threaten him with harm. She also lavished gifts of money on him. However, Joseph refused, because his faith and trust in G-d transcended his fear of what she might do to him. Nevertheless, he was not free just to leave; he had no choice but to carry on. It is an all too familiar refrain in our contemporary society.
The climactic scene occurs on a festival day[xi]. Joseph came to the office to work, like any other day. However, this day was special, because the rest of the members of the staff were absent. They were celebrating outside the office. Joseph was left alone with Zulycah. She proceeded to grab at his clothing and demanded that he service her. He demurred and tried to leave. She, however, did not release her grip on his clothing and they were ripped off. Joseph did not attempt to retrieve the clothing; he just walked away.
However, the story doesn’t end there. Zulycah sought proactively to defend her honor and unscrupulously accused Joseph of being the aggressor. What a case of workplace sexual harassment? It has all the ingredients of the more modern version that headlines the news media. There are issues of due process, lack of corroborating witnesses, inconclusive forensic evidence and credibility. The Midrash[xii] reports the priestly court examining the matter wondered why, if Joseph was the aggressor and Zulycah the victim, was only Joseph’s garment torn. Rabbeinu Bachya[xiii] even insinuates that Joseph could have done more to avoid the situation. He notes that Joseph did pay excessive attention to his outward appearance. He also began to live it up, forgetting his roots and that he had a father in the old country mourning his disappearance.
Yet, given the disparity of their positions, Zulycah was presumed to be telling the truth and Joseph was summarily incarcerated. It all sounds so familiar. Interestingly, Potiphar did have his doubts and he, therefore, placed Joseph in the special prison reserved for royals[xiv].
The story is graphic and gritty; there’s no easy way to tell it. But why was it necessary to tell it at all? Indeed, what is the point of the Biblical narrative? Isn’t it just another tawdry tale of the notoriously permissive society of ancient Egypt? Why sully the otherwise impeccable reputation of Joseph, whose saintly behavior earned him the title Tzaddik[xv]? Like most stories in the Bible, there has got to be a lesson for the ages or there is no reason to record it. But what is the lesson and does it apply to our self-proclaimed more enlightened modern society?
It appears that human nature and the challenges of the workplace have not really changed that much since ancient Egypt. The Biblical narrative is as fresh and vital today as it was then. How many more examples do we need of bad behavior by politicians, movie figures, television personalities, news people and other public figures, before we recognize these basic truths? This is not just an isolated problem. It appears to be a pervasive problem in the workplace, on campuses and elsewhere. Do we need more headlines or breaking news to wake up and recognize the obvious that there is a problem?
All forms of harassment cannot be tolerated, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. The problem is not a new one; human nature hasn’t changed since the very beginning. The Biblical lessons of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Zulycah are compelling and cogent. Demanding that people act like angels may sound pious; but it doesn’t work in practice. Moralizing has its place; but the solution to this problem requires more than mere words. Assumptions about invincibility are flawed. Active measures are required, including setting up discrete safeguards and boundaries. It was true in the time of the Talmud and it’s true today. This means education and training so that young and old are conditioned[xvi] not to sexually harass anyone. This also means establishing clear and definitive work rules, which are designed to militate against the opportunity for inappropriate conduct or relationships.
The Talmud[xvii] identifies arrogance as one the character traits, which is intimately associated with this type of offensive conduct. In essence, there is a sense of entitlement, which derives from people considering themselves all too precious[xviii]. It is this arrogance and corresponding sense of entitlement, which leads a person to stumble. The Malbim notes the high and mighty, such as politically powerful individuals, are particularly susceptible, for this reason[xix].
The Bible vividly describes how Zulycah’s sense of entitlement was triggered when she casts her eyes on her prey, Joseph, a beautiful and desirable individual. The context of the unequal power relationship between Joseph and her was enabling. The opportunity for Zulycah to act on her whims was presented when the two were secluded in private, away from the preying eyes or possible intervention of others.
Even saintly individuals can have a lapse of judgment, make mistakes and stumble. As the Talmud[xx] notes, no one is immune. The fact is we just can’t deny our natural traits and instincts. Regulating personal conduct is not just about recognizing the weaknesses and foibles inherent in human nature. More is required, including establishing boundaries and other discrete safeguards to avoid problems. Just as important, though, is regularly practicing good habits so that they become inculcated as habitual behavior. Proclaiming the need for higher standards of conduct, without taking affirmative actions to deal with the matter, serves no practical purpose. This is because mere words can’t change the fact that natural urges and desires are a fundamental part of the human condition.
Indeed, the Talmud relates how the Sages made vain attempts to change human nature. It reports[xxi] that the Sages prayed mankind’s prurient desire be eliminated, entirely. The problem they encountered was the world could not function without this basic human instinct. Instead, they fashioned a set of rules, which established boundaries. The intent was to avoid the kind of situations that even esteemed individuals are sometimes trapped in; when their rational facility inevitably fails them.
#Me Three is not only intended as a symbolic pledge to join in the solution to the underlying problem that engendered the #Me Too movement. It also represents a three pronged practical program designed to prevent another outbreak. It consists of three broad categories directed at affirmatively changing existing patterns of behavior, as follows:
- Education and training (including continuing education) designed to habituate everyone, from a young age and beyond, to know what is inappropriate behavior. Knowing and practicing sexual harassment avoidance techniques is critical. It should be an essential part of any sex education curriculum. This includes developing scenarios and role- playing to sensitize and accustom students to recognize and deal with the problem. In this regard, it would also be helpful to incorporate such Talmudic concepts as reining in the harmful attitude of arrogance[xxii] and by extension entitlement, as noted above.
- Creating a transparent working environment, including no locks on interior office doors, interior window walls for private offices and an open door policy. The concept is to avoid absolute seclusion of the sort that empowered Zulycah to take advantage of Joseph, consistent with the approach of the Talmud[xxiii] and some earlier[xxiv] and latter day Halachic authorities[xxv]. In addition, security or other personnel might make it a practice to tour the office at night. When I worked, as a senior member of a firm, I used to make a point of walking around the office saying good-bye to everyone before I left the office for the night. Often I was one of the last to leave. It may be that some may have been uncomfortable knowing I might walk into their office at any time; but most took comfort in knowing I was there and cared, as I made my rounds.
- Establishing boundaries, boundaries and more boundaries[xxvi]. Rules are important. I don’t mean the ones that are only honored in the breach. It is all about formulating practical and useful rules that achieve sign-on by most. In this regard, it’s not just about prohibiting offensive conduct, because morality can’t be legislated. It’s about installing speed bumps so that a person slows down and even stops for a moment to contemplate the next step. It might begin with limiting use of the workplace to business purposes only and not permitting parties or other social activities on premises. Drinking or other substance abuse at work should also be prohibited. Maimonides[xxvii] counsels against excessive drinking and levity. Alcohol and drugs can break down inhibitions and impair judgment. How complicated is that? Indeed how about, not going out with co-workers to drink alcohol or do drugs, period? These are common sense rules designed to avoid lapses in judgment.
The #Me Three program does not seek to deny basic human nature. Rather, it embraces it and employs a functional approach designed to channel it and avoid the opportunity for inappropriate conduct. The rules apply both to men and women and in line with traditional Halachic sources[xxviii] they are not gender specific.
Although the proposed program draws on traditional conceptual approaches to the matter in the Halacha, it should not be presumed to bear any Halachic authority. It does suggest, however, that peremptorily discarding all of the many centuries of thought about these matters, because they are ancient and assumed to be obsolete, may be ill advised. A better approach might be truly to understand them and to adapt them to the modern workplace.
The Torah and Sages recognized human frailty and instituted rules and established boundaries, designed to sublimate our baser instincts to serve a higher purpose[xxix]. It is not about the peccadilloes of a few people, which have become the salacious fare of the news media. The moralizing in the media rings hollow. It also appears that some who disparage others are themselves not above reproach. Is there really a question about whether it is acceptable to come to work in underwear or is that only in Congress? Must co-workers really visit each other’s hotel rooms for a nightcap on a business trip? This is not a matter of men vs. women; it is about basic human nature. It is also not about the presumed character and quality of the individual. As the Talmud[xxx] teaches, no one is immune and the greater a person, the stronger his or her desire to sin.
We should not delude ourselves into believing we all have some super-human ability to say no. Insisting on a false sense of higher morality doesn’t change basic human nature. Human beings are just not built that way. As the popular saying goes, an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The workplace is not a social club. After-hours clubbing and drinking by co-workers cannot be an obligation, nor is it an ideal. This is not just a matter of circumscribing male and female interaction; it should apply to everyone. This will also help negate the perception that it is somehow advantageous to drink and go out and have a good time with the boss, a particularly noxious excuse for misbehavior. Success in the workplace should be about productivity and commitment to work. There’s a difference between being a good team player, in furtherance of work related goals, during the workday and after-hours socializing. There’s also so much more to life than dining, drinking and carousing with co-workers after work. How about going home to be with family? What about charitable activities? We can all use more time for study, exercise and quiet contemplation.
Let’s get back to basics. This means boundaries designed to avoid both indiscretions and abuses. Any less might cause confusion. In this regard, it is important to cultivate an environment of professional demeanor in the workplace, which requires a certain level of formality. This applies to mode of dress, as well, which traditionally was more formal than the casual attire appropriate in a social setting. Consider, a gentleman wearing a three-piece suit with braces cannot easily remove his trousers. It requires a series of most deliberate acts. It doesn’t prevent indiscretion; but it certainly transforms a casual act into a more serious one. Even addressing each other by titles and surnames, rather than personal names, creates some distance. It’s not a complete solution; but business attire, re-injecting formality into business relationships and other such devices are designed to differentiate the workplace and business discussions from other venues and social intercourse.
The authentic traditions of classical Judaism are an invaluable resource. The system of educational training and boundaries promulgated by the Sages has worked well in practice for so many over the millennia. The approach can and should be genuinely understood and adapted to meet the challenges of the present, as well.
[i] Genesis, Chapter 39.
[ii] Her name is set forth in the description of the incident in Sefer HaYashar, Genesis, Vayeshev 17-20.
[iii] In Hebrew, Yosef HaTzaddick.
[iv] See Ibn Ezra commentary on Genesis 39:11.
[v] See Genesis 39:7 and the Sforno commentary thereon.
[vi] See Bereishit Rabbah 87:6 and Rashi commentary on Genesis 39:10.
[vii] Ibn Ezra commentary on Genesis 39:10.
[ix] In his commentary on Genesis 39:8.
[x] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 35b.
[xi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 36b. See also Rashi in his commentary on Genesis 39:11.
[xii] Sefer HaYahar, Genesis, Vayeshev 19.
[xiii] Ibid, in his commentary on the verse.
[xiv] See Genesis 39:20 and Ralbag commentary thereon, as well as, most interesting analysis by the Chizkuni and in Sefer HaYashar, Genesis, Vayeshev 19 (of the exculpatory evidence in favor of Yosef’s innocence). See also Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 39:20. Cf. Radak, on Genesis 39:20.
[xv] Hebrew word for saint.
[xvi] See Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Forbidden Intercourse 22:20, Tur, Even HaEzer 25 and Chida, Berkei Yosef, Even HaEzer 25:1.
[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Horayot, at page 10b. The Talmud links the phrase ‘casting eyes on someone’, as used in the Biblical text of Genesis 39:7, with Proverbs 6:26. The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota (at page 4b) separately interprets the foregoing verse in Proverbs to derive arrogance as the psychological source for this particular type of misbehavior.
[xviii] Citing Proverbs 6:26.
[xix] Malbim, in his commentary on Proverbs 6:26.
[xx] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 81a-b.
[xxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Sanhedrin, at page 64a and Yoma, at page 69a.
[xxii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at pages 19b-20a.
[xxiii] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 81a.
[xxiv] See, for example, Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Forbidden Intercourse 22:9 and Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 22:9.
[xxv] See, for example, Binyan Tzion 138 (the Responsa of Rav Yaakov Etlinger, a 19th Century Halachic authority and author of the Aruch LaNer).
[xxvi] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud Tractates Kiddushin (pages 80b and 82a), Sanhedrin (page 21a), Sanhedrin (page 36b) and Megillah (page 14a).
[xxvii] Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Forbidden Intercourse 22:21.
[xxviii] See, for example, Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, 24:1, as well as, the Ba’Ch commentary thereon.
[xxix] See, for example, Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Hilchot Deot, Chapter 1.
[xxx] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Succah, at page 52a.