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Paternalism, sex abuse, and the eternally unchanging Torah

The Orthodox world today safeguard's this truth: the Torah’s meaning is eternal, unchanging, and decided by men
Illustrative. Israel's chief rabbis convene an emergency meeting with religious Zionist rabbis, against a proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate/File)
Illustrative. Israel's chief rabbis convene an emergency meeting with religious Zionist rabbis, against a proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018. (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate/File)

What do paternalism and clemency for sex abusers have in common? The answer seems obvious: a worldview that values male dominance does not wish to shine light on the fact that a certain percentage of men take advantage of their position to sexually abuse women over whom they have power.

In a religious society such as Orthodox Judaism, this goes double for calling out rabbis who abuse those under their care. Such abuse runs the gamut from lewd talk with women they are counseling to forcing themselves on their seminary students. It is not that Orthodox society condones such behavior — it does not — but that when confronted with it, there is a tendency to try and keep it quiet, or minimize it, in order to “protect” the Torah.

It is worth unpacking this point: What is being protected here exactly? If halakha forbids such behavior (it does), and Orthodox Jewish society condemns it (it does), and every so often a rabbi or educator is caught having engaged in it (which happens), what is stopping us from simply supporting the victim and condemning the perpetrator? How does minimizing the offense or keeping it quiet help the Torah? It doesn’t. But it does help the male dominated power in the Orthodox world that functions as the gatekeeper for the Torah and halakha.

To be clear, I do not believe this is a conscious process. There is no secret WhatsApp group of cover-up rabbis discussing how they need to defend another perpetrator. The process is more subtle and is related to the “mystique” of Torah.

Among the more conservative elements of Orthodox Judaism, there exists a popular myth: the eternal Torah has always been more or less what it is now. The Torah is not a product of a given time period but an eternal set of rules and beliefs that remains constant even as the world changes.

This belief can be challenged on many fronts, but a particularly difficult one for those who wish to maintain it relates to women’s issues. As Jewish law has its roots in pre-modern society, a core assumption is that the purveyors of its truths, the enforcers of its rules, and the participants in its institutions, are men. This means that the Torah’s meaning is decided by men, and the status of someone’s Judaism or marriage is determined by men.

A modern person might push back and say that Judaism is thousands of years old, and certainly much of what it takes for granted is based upon outdated assumptions. When the rabbis discuss medicine, for example, it is clear they do not know what the heart or liver does, that blood circulates, or that germs are what cause illness. They do not know that the earth revolves around the sun, or that the solar system is just a small part of a galaxy in an infinitely more immense universe.

Along the same lines, a critical thinking person could argue, the rabbis believed that women were inferior to men in their mental and emotional make up, just as the ancient societies in which they lived did. In such a context, the paternalism of the halakhic system makes a certain amount of intuitive sense.

Nowadays, however, just as we have revamped our understanding of medicine and science and adjusted our behaviors and laws accordingly, so too we must do the same with regard to the place of women in halakhic Judaism. Now that we know the old premise to be false, women should be full participants in its power structures.

To this challenge, some Orthodox rabbinic leaders have responded, “No, halakha’s paternalism is not based on a pre-modern understanding of the nature of women, but on the mysterious will of the divine creator.” Sometimes, apologetic explanations are offered, “women are more spiritual,” “men need more rules and responsibilities than women,” etc. With or without these, however, the take-home message remains the same: halakhic Judaism is fine as it is, and needs to make no adjustments to accommodate modern life.

Of course, any scholar of Modern Judaism can see that Orthodox Judaism has shifted in response to the modern notions of women’s equality. This began in the early 20th century, with the Beis Yaakov school system, when women started receiving formal Jewish education. It continued with religious women in Israel accepting the right to vote (this was controversial in its time), and today, in some streams of Orthodox Judaism, women are to’anot (a kind of lawyer) in religious courts, teachers in religious schools, and even spiritual leaders in synagogues. But there is also push-back.

As noted above, the idea of a pristine religious tradition that stays the same no matter the circumstances is a myth. Like all social movements, religion is a moving target. While certain elements of Orthodox Judaism have been slowly accommodating the modern notions of women’s equality, others, such as the hadarat nashim movement, have been moving in the opposite direction.

In these circles, not only is it a problem for women to be in positions of authority (especially over men), it is now forbidden for them to ride on the same part of the bus or even have their pictures in a magazine. Putting aside whatever halakhic rationalizations are put forward to defend this conservative position, the bottom line is that it is a reaction to the inroads women have been making in the Orthodox world.

Though this is not her argument, this, I believe, is at the core of the insight in Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll’s blog post, “Something’s Rotten in the State of Orthodoxy,” in which she shows the correlation between the kid gloves used on sex abusers (mostly men) and the increasing strictures on women.

Some rabbinic detractors have responded to Keats Jaskoll by saying that she is simply “complaining.” This reaction was almost a necessity. Those who wish to “defend the Torah,” meaning, the male dominated social structure halakha has had built in for millennia, need to push the view that it is a cardinal and eternal principle of the Torah that women cannot have power or publicity. For whatever reason, the divine creator has mandated that power is best left to men.

This brings us back to the cover up of sex abuse. The more we admit that rabbis — the male leaders the Torah ostensibly mandates based on hidden divine wisdom — are just people, and that some of them have used their status to obtain forbidden sexual pleasures at the expense of their flock, then it may have the “unfortunate” consequence of making the flock question the divine wisdom of male-only power structures.

As such, the natural, if subconscious, calculation is made: better to sacrifice the sexual safety of a small percentage of women than to open the floodgates to women’s equal participation in halakhic society. When the former occurs, it is a “minor” tragedy but if the latter were to occur, what would happen to our eternally unchanging Torah?

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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