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‘What do women want?’ Wrong question

Objectification, even when born of the best intentions, violates the commandment to love our neighbor

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, best-selling author and ubiquitous relationship expert, claims that his new book answers the “one question that no one can answer: What is it that a woman wants?” His argument is based on his “deep attachment to his feminine side.” In response, ToI’s Jordan Hoffman simply exclaims, “wow!” There is no doubt that Boteach’s book, “Kosher Lust,” will sell many copies and that it will be generally well-received.

Mr. Cliven Bundy, cattle rancher and “sovereign citizen” activist, claims inside knowledge regarding “The Negro.” His argument is based on both personal experience and close observation, from the WATTS riots to driving by a public-housing project in Las Vegas. In response, he has been vilified and scorned by the entire media. At this point, the best-case scenario has Bundy going to prison without loss of innocent life.

Boteach and Bundy have very little in common besides the first letters of their last names. Yet they do share a disturbing sense of entitlement that allows them to speak about particular subsets of humanity whose life experiences and perspective they do not share. Boteach does not actually know what it is like to be a woman, and Bundy does not know what it is like to be a black American. In fact, they are both white men, privileged and respected in their respective social circles.

What is worse, both Boteach and Bundy generalize, collapsing millions of people into tropes. Boteach, in particular, is surely intelligent enough to know asserting that “women want” any one thing is reductive to the point of being useless, if not simply insulting. By reducing women and black people to featureless abstractions, what both Boteach and Bundy are really doing is telling us what they think is best for “those people.”

A rabbi wishing to craft a sermon this weekend might note that the key phrase from this week’s parasha, “v’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha (love your neighbor as thyself),” contains two interesting grammatical features. First, it is cast in the singular, despite the fact that most of the commandments in the section are addressed to the collective, as in “speak to the entire assembly of Israel and tell them to be holy (kedoshim t’hiyu).” Second, as many commentators, beginning but not limited to Ramban, have noted, the lamed prefix, in l’rei’akha, a preposition that usually means “to” or “towards,” seems misplaced. A standard phrasing would have read “v’ahavta et rei’akha kamokha, using the direct object.

Perhaps the first point is to remind us to see other people in the full richness and breadth of their individuality as opposed to collapsing them into abstractions. Bundy should realize that the people he observed in the housing project or the WATTS riots got there through their own particular experiences and challenges, and do not tell him anything concrete about “The Negro.” Similarly, each couple that comes to Boteach for relationship counseling has its own unique story, history, and issues that do not speak to generalities about “Women.”

In the same vein, the second point may remind us that, as much as we try to empathize with or help others, we need to understand that we do not necessarily see the world the same way that they do. It borders on projection to tell someone with a vastly different life experience how he or she feels about something, and it is downright condescending to tell that person how he or she should feel or react.

I do believe that Boteach writes from a genuine desire to help as many people as possible live fulfilling and satisfying lives. He is not a sexist, in the sense of thinking women are inherently inferior to men. I also believe that, in contrast, Bundy speaks from little more than a desire to reinforce his own hateful feelings of superiority. He is indeed a racist.

As we reject Bundy, we should do more than denounce the hateful way he referred to various ethnic or racial groups. He should be taken as an object lesson in objectification, helping the rest of us recalibrate our perspectives as we interact productively and empathetically in a pluralist, open society.

The Golden Rule is best applied when it has us relate to each other as independent human beings with perspectives, greivances, and aspirations that are the product of our own culture, choices, and experiences – just as we know that we would want to be seen by others.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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