A Teachable Moment On Sexual Responsibility


Anywhere there is desecration of the Lord’s name, one does not need to show respect to the teacher” (BT Sanhedrin 82a see also Maimonides, “Laws of Torah Study” 5:3, Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 242:11). Teachers, mentors, public figures have to earn our respect. When they break codes of conduct, we don’t need to respect them.  Sexual harassment compromises respect. Allow me to make two crucial and subtle distinctions: respect for talent versus respect for person, and public anger versus private introspection.

Don’t expect talented athletes, politicians, musicians, writers or artists to be moral exemplars. Human rights activists can fight for justice and still lack self-control. We know too much history to think otherwise. You can be outstanding in your field with a moral compass that is haplessly broken. If we didn’t compartmentalize, we’d be shattered all the time. Tiger Woods can teach me a thing or two about golf. I would never ask him a relationship question. Best to assign a narrow role when it comes to modeling.

In this spirit, it’s been a rough week for public Jewish figures. I want to deny reports, pretend they do not exist, suggest that they are mistaken.  But denial is what got us here. Dozens of actresses minimized the significance of innuendo and groping with a cavalier wave. “That’s just the way things are” or “That’s just the way he is” or, worse yet, “Everyone knows.” Would you say that to your daughter?

It’s been a rough week for me because I’m not sure what to say to my daughter. She asked me why this seems to be happening everywhere and all the time. Ugly stories of decades past keep surfacing. I don’t want her 16-year-old self to think that all boys are potentially suspect, that all men have histories. That relationships with men will eventually disappoint. That men simply can’t keep their zippers up. That she must walk through life vigilant and careful at all times. That she must sacrifice trust.

I don’t feel sorry for the men who are outed. I feel saddened and disappointed and angry. I feel sorry for their victims, for their families, for their legacies and for the utterly human stain on character that sexual harassment leaves. These men should feel the full press of both shame and the law. Is it redeemable? Repentance is a seminal Jewish belief. Until the very last moment of your life, writes Maimonides, you have a chance to change. But when you are a public figure, an ethical smirch will always appear in your biography, your obituary and, dare I say, your Wikipedia page. Sometimes it’s safer to live under the radar, where expectations of character aren’t measured on Twitter accounts.

By the time I was my daughter’s age, I could tell similar stories of men — religious men, married men — who said wildly inappropriate things, who tried to kiss me when no one else was in a room, who used power and authority to try to corrupt my innocence. How laughable it was to be reminded, by some of these same men, that a woman’s place was in some way spiritually inferior to that of a man.

I know I am not alone. If we were to create a confidential public space for Jewish women to come forward with their harassment claims, thousands and thousands of stories would come tumbling out of broken hearts. Let’s not create that public space. Here’s why. Public outing leads to public apologies. They don’t repair the damage; they just give the person in question a pass to keep going. Some stories may not be true and ruin a person’s reputation. But mostly, because public witch hunts can create the impression that all men cannot be trusted, that none are faithful, loving and true, that none are decent and monogamous. How can we raise daughters that way? How can we raise sons that way? It would be crippling.

I am proud of women who come forward. It’s courageous. It’s hard, harder than you think. I’ve done it myself. I know. Women should get professional counsel and counseling to heal from these deep, inner wounds. That’s a private activity. Our public focus can diminish from the critical and necessary private introspection that every boy or man must undertake in light of public sexual harassment claims. If we shine the spotlight on offenders and the offenses alone, we may miss a defining teaching moment of sexual responsibility that needs to take place privately, between parents and children, college students and roommates, teachers and students.

For me, it’s healing to believe that boys and men may ask themselves some difficult questions to reshape society:

n How have I objectified women or a woman?

n Do I use overly sexualized language?

n Do I look at or share photos or images that compromise females?

n Does what I say or said compromise a woman’s body, mind or dignity?

n Have I taken precautions in my professional/student life not to be alone with a woman in a way that can be misconstrued or lead to inappropriate behavior?

n Have I taken responsibility for inappropriate jokes or comments and committed not to say or repeat them?

Women, of course, are not exempt from their own introspection and the ways they may objectify men. But for this moment, let’s focus on one reality: respecting women, which means, at the very least, not objectifying them, is basic to achieving true gender equality. It’s foundational to our belief that everyone is created in God’s image. As women, we are not the sum total of what is done to us. We are God’s beautiful creatures. We will protect ourselves. We will stand up for ourselves. We will rise. 

Erica Brown, whose column appears the first week of the month, runs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University. Her new book is “Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet” (Koren/OU).