Sexual Harassment is a Sin
In my head, I’m already calling the last few days “The Week of #metoo.” My social media feeds – and probably yours too – have been filled with women standing up to say that they, like the victims of Harvey Weinstein, have suffered harassment, assault, or rape.
With trepidation, I posted my own brief message in solidarity. Unlike many other brave people, I didn’t detail my own experiences with harassment. Despite their relatively minor nature, I felt shook up merely remembering these episodes.
I had previously heard too many of my friends’ stories of sexual harassment, assault, and rape to have been surprised by the Weinstein scandal or the sheer numbers of women (and men) who have experienced these traumas.
And I wasn’t entirely surprised by the backlash. The same misogynist ideas (held by men and women) that guide these attackers and lead others to enable them are rampant and will continue to be until we change our culture.
What surprised and disturbed me was this: many purportedly Orthodox people minimized the suffering of those who posted #metoo. To me, it showed a clear lack of education in the pertinent halachos (Jewish laws). Sexual harassment, assault, and rape are all clearly against halachah.
This is the gist of most of these backlash posts: I understand that people who are assaulted and raped are upset. But a woman should expect catcalls! She should know some men are jerks. Boys will be boys. Ladies, just get over yourselves.
Again and again, I have seen the sin – yes, sin – of sexual harassment minimized in the words of people who claim to be frum (religious).
Paradise is the place where humans harness nature
In last week’s Torah portion, we read of Adam and Chava, placed by God in the Garden of Eden. Rabbinic literature also refers to a celestial Garden of Eden, where righteous souls reside after death. You might ask yourself, “Why is paradise a garden?”
A garden is a place where nature is controlled in perfect, gorgeous harmony. Perfection isn’t found in nature, nor is perfection found in the hands of humans. It is found where humans harness nature to serve God.
When a Jew says, “Boys will be boys,” or “Men can’t control themselves,” they are offering an excuse that doesn’t exist in the Jewish worldview.
Nature is just the starting place. It is our jobs as human beings to mold and shape nature in service of the Almighty.
In fact, the Vilna Gaon says, “The prime purpose of man’s life is to constantly strive to break his bad traits. Otherwise, what is life for?” (Even Sheleimah 1:2, English translation by Yaakov Singer and Chaim Dovid Ackerman)
Humans have murdered each other almost since the beginning of history. They have stolen, committed infanticide, and killed the infirm and elderly with great frequency.
If we applied the “Boys will be boys,” argument here, we would just allow people to murder and steal. Just as those dubious, long-standing “traditions” aren’t tolerated, sexual harassment doesn’t have to be tolerated either.
Words can be murder
Any non-constructive (and this is narrowly defined) words that hurt a person’s feelings or embarrass them are considered onaas hadevarim. The prohibition against hurtful speech appears in Vayikra 25:17.
The Chofetz Chaim makes it clear that the person who determines whether the speech was hurtful is not the speaker, but the party spoken to.
If a man tells a woman, “Get over here b****,” he has spoken onaas devarim. If he discusses her sex life or breasts in public, he has spoken onaas devarim. The same is true if the sexes of the speaker and the recipient are reversed.
The shaming aspect of sexual harassment is a separate sin. It appears in Vayikra 19:17 and the Gemara in Bava Metzia 59a has particularly harsh words for the person who embarrasses someone by calling them an unwanted name. “[O]ne who humiliates another in public has no share in the World-to-Come.”
Not only that, but Rabbeinu Yonah says, “‘The dust of blood-spilling’ is shaming one so that his face turns white…in this respect, the offense is similar to murder…What is more, the pain of shame is more bitter than death. Therefore, our Sages of blessed memory have said, ‘Let a man throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his neighbor in public.'” (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:139-141).
When a woman (or man) says, “I should be spoken to with respect,” halachah concurs. We should not belittle their humiliation or discount their tears when addressed in a demeaning way. And those who have participated in hurtful speech must do teshuvah (repentance).
Unwanted advances are forbidden
Repeatedly propositioning an employee, neighbor, student, or classmate who has said, “No” is not merely an annoyance. The Gemara in Chagiga 5a quotes Koheles (12:14): “For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing,” and explains that we are at fault for even seemingly small, unintentional actions which disgust others. Unwanted, repeated sexual advances certainly qualify.
In addition, many of the #metoo posts I have seen have reported these sexual overtures, even though the woman receiving them was married. While under halachah a Jewish man is prohibited from coveting, sexually touching, or being alone with a married woman, having sexual relations with a married woman is prohibited even to non-Jews. (It is one of the Noachide laws.)
It astonishes me that this type of “mere harassment” is being dismissed by anyone who calls him or herself frum.
Cruelty is not allowed
The Rambam states, (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3), that it is a Torah requirement for every individual to cry out and search his ways at a time of national calamity, for God allows such calamities to happen in order to motivate each Jew to repent. Moreover, the Rambam calls it “cruel” to simply accept the tragic events and say they happened for no reason.
He might not be Orthodox, but Harvey Weinstein is a Jew. And so is Anthony Weiner. And so is Woody Allen. And there have been plenty of similar scandals, unfortunately, in the Orthodox community. Barry Freundel is just the most notable case in the U.S. This is a worldwide scourge.
I’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of Jewish women crying out this week, sharing the shame, anger, and frustration they have felt due to sexual harassment. God saw their private struggles long before that, and He will certainly bring judgment. But it is our job to consider how we got into this mess.
Denying the harm done to those who have been harassed just compounds the sin. It is time our community do a cheshbon, a serious accounting of our actions. Surely, most frum men and women would not sexually harass another person.
But do they promote a culture where this is acceptable? Do they intervene when they witness it occurring? Do they let their colleagues, classmates, and so on know that they find such talk and behavior unacceptable?
As I see it, #metoo is just the beginning, and I urge all Jews to continue that fight with action. It’s our duty as frum Jews.