Mayim Bialik’s now-famous New York Times piece apparently linking immodesty to sexual assault, for which she subsequently apologized, has generated endless controversy over the past two weeks. The animated discourse inadvertently has also underscored a separate, but crucial, point: the conversation overwhelmingly featured only women’s voices. As with the larger discussion precipitated by the despicable revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein (and now many others), some important exceptions notwithstanding, including among my rabbinic colleagues, men have been relatively silent on the matter. Of course, it was only natural that the #metoo campaign would give voice to countless women who have experienced outrageously inappropriate advances, but one would hope to see more public soul-searching and action items on the part of their male counterparts.
Indeed, it is critically important that men pay close attention to the stories women are telling, and ask ourselves tough questions in response. True, there is a wider set of societal trends that we need to confront squarely, men and women together, if we wish to take meaningful strides in toward fashioning a less hypersexualized society. First, though, men need to acknowledge their devil within and act far more aggressively to curb their own desires. “Locker room talk,” cynically downplayed by some, is deadly serious and contemptible. We must rededicate ourselves to raising a generation of men committed to self-awareness, self-discipline and respect.
Strikingly, the Talmud makes precisely this point. Berakhot 24a, a locus classicus regarding laws of modesty, elaborates at length the laws concerning the recitation of Shema in front of nakedness. A man who gazes at even a woman’s pinkie finger with the intention of deriving benefit, the Talmud adds, is treated as severely one who gazes at sexual organs. Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Illicit Relations chap. 21) and R. Yosef Karo (Even Haezer 1), two of the great codifiers of Jewish law, do much the same: they place the onus first and foremost on men to distance themselves from illicit sexual attraction, and only then on the female to comport herself in a dignified fashion.
This Talmudic emphasis is particularly illuminating in light of contemporary discussions of sexuality. Much of the conversation in today’s Orthodox community centers on women’s apparel. Truthfully, as difficult as it may be for many moderns, the Talmud does insist on certain standards of women’s dress and comportment. Crucially, though, this is not the rabbis’ primary message. Instead, the codes spill far more ink detailing the many laws governing male self-restraint.
What is more, the rabbis acknowledged a basic truth: while the evil inclination spares neither gender, on the whole, men tend to be more swayed by sexual desire. The rabbis’ response: men must be held to a higher standard than their female counterparts. As an example, this differentiation plays itself out regarding the laws of nidda, ritual impurity. To guard against biblical violations of the purity laws, rabbinic legislation proscribes a series of physical interactions between spouses while a woman is ritually impure. While these laws generally govern men and women equally, there are a few small, but telling, distinctions between men and women. For instance, the laws governing making one another’s beds, sharing leftover food, and caring for an ill spouse are somewhat stricter for men than for women. In general, the rabbis were acutely aware of the overwhelmingly magnetic pull of sexual attraction, and placed significant demands upon both genders. Tellingly, though, the bar is set even higher for men.
If we seek to combat male abuse of power and sexual mistreatment of women, first and foremost, men must speak up and accept responsibility. We must redouble our commitment to educate our boys that women are to be respected as full equals. We must stress the rabbis’ wisdom, as evidenced in myriad texts that ought to be given greater prominence, in holding men to particularly high standards in this realm. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the current situation is unrelated to the general sexual promiscuity rife in our society. It is dangerously naive and counterproductive to pretend otherwise. But that’s not the place to start. The first thing is for more men to speak up, and to take responsibility for their own.
Only once we sincerely undertake that arduous journey, using rabbinic candor and strictures as a prod to conversation and action, can we begin a healthier, if painful, response to #metoo.