The actions of Israel's ex-President, convicted on several counts of rape and sexual harassment, are truly disturbing, especially in light of the fact that he considers himself to be a 'religious' person. What can Judaism teach men in powerful positions about how to treat the women who work for them, before one gets to a place of criminality?
According to traditional Judaism, a truly religious person aspires to spiritual and moral excellence in all of the spheres of religious human endeavor: interpersonal ethics, ritual practice, spiritual experience, self-awareness and worldly involvement.A punctilious practitioner of religious ritual who identifies as a member of a religious community but who fails miserably at basic human ethics and commits crimes of violence and immorality clearly cannot be said to be truly religious.Worse, when seemingly pious religious practice accompanies impious repugnant behavior, then God’s name, i.e., the reputation of religion as a force for good in the world, is profaned through the taint of hypocrisy.
Judaism has long warned its leaders that they need to serve as community exemplars and that they will be judged at a higher standard given their position.Moshe (Moses), for example, wasn’t allowed to bring the Children of Israel into the Land of Israel because of a relatively small infraction when he failed at religious leadership at the “Waters of Contention” (Numbers 20:7-14).How much more horrible the desecration when leaders fail their people, themselves and God, through major transgression!The rabbis recognized that temptation grows with power and prestige, teaching: “the greater the man, the greater his evil inclination” (BT Sukkah 52a). Indeed, positions of power and influence can lead a person to think of himself above the law (think kings Saul, David and Solomon), especially in areas of sexual indiscretion (think King David and any number of contemporary political figures).
Judaism celebrates, and even obligates, sexuality in a committed, sanctified relationship.On the other hand, the rabbis often warn against the allure of illicit sexuality.This is only heightened when a sense of infallibility and invulnerability that may accompany power and prestige lures a person toward corruption. The rabbis did not deny the near omnipresence of human sexual awareness.Recognizing that people are thoroughly sexual beings, the rabbis formulated a number of laws governing interpersonal relations between the sexes at the workplace and elsewhere.Unmarried men and women may not be secluded.Suggestive banter and flirtatious talk that in today workplace could and should constitute sexual harassment were long ago proscribed by the rabbis.Men, who are said to be easily visually stimulated, are enjoined to wear holy fringes to remind them of the commandments and are warned not to “follow your heart and your eyes in lustful urge” (Numbers 15:39).Leaders and people occupying positions of power and influence are to remind themselves that all are equal under the law and should aspire toward humility as a personal, spiritual practice.According to many interpreters, the sole Talmudic tractate devoted to ethics, Pirkei Avot, was composed precisely for study by judges and other leaders who are in positions of power over others.
This most recent debacle of the moral failing of a political leader, the sex-crimes conviction of the self-identified religious ex-president of the Jewish State, is yet once again a sobering reminder of the corrupting influence of power, the strength of sexual temptation, and the injury of such public failings to the Jewish national morale.And while we all share a moment of righteous indignation, let us not forget the immediate victims to these crimes of violence, the young women who presumably were so proud to serve their country in the President’s office, only to be sexually assaulted and morally disillusioned. As a popular saying about the victims of rape teaches, “the perpetrator may receive a sentence of x number of years, but the victim is usually sentenced for life.”
By the wording of your question, you appreciate that there is a difference between what Judaism teaches (what you call TRUE Judaism) and how Jews behave. The case in point is but one example of how even observant Jews do not live up to the standards expected of them. There seems to be a “disconnect” between the noble principles of the Torah – broadly understood – and the Jews who are commanded to observe them. Sometimes, this is a result of “compartmentalization,” that is the conscious or subconscious decision to relegate Jewish values to only one area of life. This explains how some Jews will be dishonest in business but still insist on a strictly kosher diet. The ritual area of Judaism is paramount while other areas are not. More subtly, there are those who uphold ethics in business but argue that applies only to Jews.
The first thing necessary to overcome this is the realization that Judaism is an all-encompassing way of life and that observing one area but not another is not just inconsistent, but hypocritical. This requires considerable courage, particularly if the community of which one is a part acts differently.
The second thing necessary is training. Sexual urges are, as we have learned from the study of psychology, very powerful. And if they are to be curbed and controlled, it requires considerable discipline. Not all Jews can be like Joseph who, at age seventeen, was able to steadfastly resist the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. To overcome these urges required discipline. Perhaps surprisingly, that is one of the purposes of kashrut observance. If one can say ‘No’ to certain albeit tempting foods despite the urge to eat them, then one can say ‘No’ to anything. (And the urge to eat is at least as powerful as the urge for sexual gratification.)
The third thing needed is a full understanding of Judaism that requires “kavod ha-briot,” that is, a full respect for all people. Rape, we are told, is less about sex and more about power. To respect all people means ceding power over them. Tolerance, as an example of respect, means accepting others as they are rather than as you want them to be. That requires abandoning the notion that you can somehow “make” others submit to your view. The same is true in other kinds of human relations.
Unfortunately, the Jewish education system has devoted lots of time to the study of texts (as important as they are) and almost no time in teaching the values that emerge from those texts. Perhaps when this deficiency is corrected, further such episodes will be avoidable.
The conviction of ex-President Moshe Katzav has been widely reported around the world. While some might wish that this negative news had not received such notice, I believe we ought to commend the court that convicted him. They did not allow their eyes to be blinded by his political position. They did not favor the power of the office over the rights of the women who were abused. Justice worked in the State of Israel, and that is a powerful endorsement of the democratic nature of the State.
There are numerous teachings within our tradition condemning such behavior, including “thou shall not covet.” The most basic teaching which should preclude such abusive behavior comes from the very moment of Creation – every person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. If you look and see the person opposite you as the image of God, how can you then treat them in dehumanizing ways!
The question, however, is less about teachings that proscribe such behavior, of which there are many, and more about the ways a community can dissuade and prevent people in powerful positions from abusing those who are under their control. There are three principles that could be powerful tools in this effort, if used justly.
1) Hocheach Tocheach, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor…” (Leviticus 19:17). If everyone in a community understands that it is a religious obligation to intervene and interrupt abusive behavior, then the burden of proof is eased off of the shoulders of the victim and shared by a broader community. The perpetrator needs to know that they are not acting out of sight of the community, but that there exist people who are not willing to stand idly by the blood of their kin. (Leviticus 19:16). A university level course at the University of Massachusetts teaches that the best way to prevent racist, sexist or antisemitic behavior is to interrupt it. You may not prevent a person from having unacceptable thoughts, but a public condemnation may prevent them from turning their thoughts into action.
2) Tzelem Elohim, Every person is in the image of God. Too often we take this teaching for granted. Even though it is echoed in the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and in the teaching of the sage Hillel, ““That which is distasteful to you do not do to another.” (B. Shabbat 31a), it is a challenge to put into practice. If every school, business and government office actively promoted this ethic through in-service training and policy statements, it may deter those who think they are immune from such proscriptions. In recent years many businesses have established policies forbidding harassment of employees, whether out of principle or as a response to the threat of legal action. Certainly we can find a way to enact these most basic principles of our tradition.
3) Lo tateh mishpat, Do not show partiality in judgment (Deuteronomy 16:19). If the powerful among us know that they will be held to a strict standard of justice, it may deter them from such abhorrent behavior. If they know that neither high office nor great wealth will exempt them from fair judgment, perhaps they will be careful to restrain their actions. Police departments, courts and other enforcement agencies need to hold everyone to the same standard of behavior.
While we hope that individuals will assimilate the lessons of our tradition into their lives, it remains important that the community exercise its own power to enforce standards of justice and decency and to see that the rights of every individual are protected.
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