Thursday, October 23, 2014

How a mikvah scandal could happen: a thought

I hope you enjoyed your Yom Tov. For me - right before Simchat Torah, I found out about the mikvah scandal in Washington DC. That pretty much killed it for me.

In brief, for those who don't know: a veteran "Modern Orthodox" synagogue rabbi is accused of placing a hidden camera in his synagogue's mikvah, and committing related obscene abuses of his position. I spent Simchat Torah reeling at the multifarious horrific ramifications. [I omit his name not to protect him, but because seeing it makes me ill. If you need to know more, feel free to use Google.]

I can't understand this; I find this base betrayal of a community by its 25-year leader as incomprehensible as it is revolting. But I will venture the following thought, without claiming to mind-read the villain in this particular scandal: this sort of crime is enabled when people allow themselves to see others not as human beings, with feelings and emotions, but as objects which happen to populate their world. Ignoring people's feelings allows someone to say, "They won't find out, so where's the harm?"

Our weekly Torah portion, telling the story of the biblical Flood, speaks strongly against this objectification:
  • First, Bereishit 6:2 says G-d decided to destroy the world when powerful men "saw that the daughters were good, and took women from any they chose." The women were merely objects.
  • Second, this may be why G-d chooses to place all of the animals in the direct care of Noach's family for a year, rather than take care of them miraculously. Caring for others, immersing themselves in anticipating and meeting their needs, trains Noach's family to see others as feeling creatures.
  • And third, after the Flood, when Noach's son Cham displays no empathy in humiliating his intoxicated father (Bereishit 9), he is cursed for his insensitivity.
At the other end of the spectrum, one of the Torah's chief paragons of empathy is Moshe Rabbeinu. As a teenager, Moshe endangers his own life to save a Jew who is being beaten – and when he flees the country and arrives, friendless and impoverished in a new place, his very first act is to endanger himself to save Midianite women from harassment at a well. Moshe is worthy to give us the Torah, to be the first Rabbi – the empath who sees kinsmen and strangers, Jewish and non-Jewish, as human beings deserving of selfless friendship and protection.

May we eradicate the objectification of human beings that enables abuse. May we emulate Moshe's activist empathy. And may we teach our children this empathy, making ourselves worthy of the Torah that Moshe brought us, with which we danced last week, on Simchat Torah.


  1. No doubt, this was a difficult post for you to write.

    1. Yes; I left quite a bit on the cutting room floor...

  2. Nice piece. If I may add, such objectification and insensitivity don't happen overnight. It's "avanim shechaku mayim" in the pejorative. I believe that someone can in fact "care" about other people or be a generally sensitive person. At some point however, someone who continuously feeds their evolving addiction will find it impacting every part of their life even those they never imagined it would. It's just the natural progression of addiction. Painting someone as a pure villain makes the dangers to each individual who can pat themselves on the back knowing that her or she IS sensitive make the dangers seem more remote whereas understanding that the yetzer harah works in gradations, can give us all a little mussar haskel. Al taamin b'atzmicha ad yom moshcha" That is not to say that we are all vulnerable to extreme sexual immorality necessarily but just as a generalization applicable to any middah.

  3. Having grown up as a Jewish boy in New Yawk, I used to swallow these liberal truisms whole. As I get deeper into middle age, these quasi-intellectual bromides don't soothe my stomach the way they used to.
    "Objectification" was a dirty word back then, seeing a woman as a "sex object" a crime punishable by shunning from progressive humans, causing a loss of self-esteem and a lack of invitations to cocktail parties thrown by the Beautiful People.
    While of course I've never objectified any female of the species personally, I've heard from many males that such behavior is a large part of the human experience. Perhaps even the Rebbitzen's husband descends from his perch of profound respect for her sterling qualities & objectifies her for a few moments, if only to be able to propagate the species or relieve frustration. Yet, this momentary transformation of their relationship may not feel like they're being whipsawed emotionally. It may actually seem a seamless part of their multi-faceted relationship.
    Over-objectification may be worse than under-objectification, especially if you lose sight of the Godliness & humanity of the objectified party.
    Without knowing this notable community leader, I have no way of knowing whether this was about power, sex, money, danger, superiority, curiosity or overcoming fear. For all I know, it started with trying to catch someone stealing towels from the mikvah.

    It seems clear that sexual deviancy cuts across religious, socio-economic, personality & nationality lines. Sexuality is a force meant to cause us to do actions we might ordinarily avoid so as to continue the species. If we push back too much or too little against this creative force, we run the risk of losing control and damaging ourselves or others...

    1. Anonymous 2:34 PM-
      Thanks for writing, but I'm not clear on why you limit objectification to sexuality. In my experience, objectification is a far broader concept, in which people fail to take the emotions of others into account. Sexuality may be a strong drive that encourages this, but it happens in realms having nothing to do with sexuality.