Thursday, October 19, 2017

Weinstein, Mayim Bialik and the Perils of Religious Instruction

I wrote the following for my Beit Midrash's weekly email, and on reflection I'd like to get feedback from a broader population, so I'm reproducing it here:

Two weeks ago, journalists revealed that Harvey Weinstein, a very influential Hollywood film producer, stands accused of many acts of sexual harassment and assault. The story has been given top coverage on every major news website.

Commenting on Hollywood's abusive culture, Orthodox Jewish actress Mayim Bialik wrote an apparently well-intentioned essay for the New York Times last week, describing her own experiences. Toward the end of the article, she stated, "I still make choices every day as a 41-year-old actress that I think of as self-protecting and wise. I have decided that my sexual self is best reserved for private situations with those I am most intimate with. I dress modestly. I don’t act flirtatiously with men as a policy."

Ms. Bialik also wrote very clearly, "Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses men for assaulting or abusing women." Nonetheless, she has been attacked by numerous victims of sexual abuse, who claim that she is blaming the victim. Ms. Bialik's message of 'I help protect myself by acting modestly' is understood as alleging that victims must not have acted modestly.

This is not what Ms. Bialik meant, as she has responded. However, I think the fact that people read her comments this way is important. As the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) explains, we are guilty of ona'at devarim [verbal abuse] if we convey to sufferers that they are responsible for their own pain, even if we don't mean that.

I think if we are to be honest, we must admit that ideas expressed in Torah can be seen as blaming the victims. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 2:6) associates Dinah's rape with the fact that she mixed among the people of Shechem. A well-known midrash (Psikta Zutrita to Shemot 2:12) links the rape of Shlomit bat Divri to her friendliness toward an Egyptian slavedriver. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21a) states that the sages reacted to the rape of Tamar, daughter of King David, by prohibiting seclusion of men with unmarried women. To my mind, these comments of our sages are meant to educate about hazards, not to claim that victims of abuse must have put themselves at risk. But if they are cited without context, or to a sensitive audience, or without complete explanation, these sources come across as indictments of rape victims.

We do need to learn and teach Torah, and halachic sexuality is certainly worth promoting. At the same time, we who learn/teach these texts are obligated to be very careful with our words. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) quotes King David, "One who commits adultery receives capital punishment, but he enters the next world. One who causes another person to blanch [in shame] in public has no share in the next world." May we learn from the events of the past two weeks; when addressing sensitive matters, even [or especially] when quoting Torah, let us choose our words with extra care.


  1. true but istm that some issues are such that no matter how carefully one phrases their words, they will be seen through a filter that allows for no deviation from the party line
    joel rich

    1. Which is why I suggest that public fora aren't places to address sensitive issues

  2. When I park in a rural area with a low crime rate, I might skip locking my car. And yet when parking in Manhattan, I double-check the door after locking to make sure.

    Did I just tell everyone who got their car stolen in Manhattan that it's their fault? Did I blame the victim? What if I add "Nothing — absolutely nothing — excuses theives for stealing cars"?

    Autonomy in dress is a cultural hot-button issue. Religion is another. So, the left was bound to hear Mayim Bialik's parallel statement as saying something she didn't intend.

    She's the victim of bias. Perhaps she shouldn't have published what she did, since the outcome could have been predicted. But to say she's at fault for saying it is also blaming the victim.

    On the issue itself...

    A cause of the Holocaust was the centralization of so many Jews in a single part of the globe.

    That's true, no?

    Is it blaming the victim?

    No, because there are other causes. Some causes have moral weight, some don't. Identifying real causes does not mean one is declaring them blameworthy.

    Except in the eyes of those predisposed to see any traditional religious perspective as oppressive. The post-modernist bias: Once one trades the notion of objective truth for "his truth" and "her truth", anyone who has the gall to suggest that there might be an actual objectively more correct position is oppressive. They are imposing "their truth" on me.

    Dr Bialik didn't even say her way of doing things is objectively better. But since she advocated the traditional Jewish position, that's what they heard.

    And with those ears, they not only hear her identifying a cause, but they hear her as talking about a blameworthy cause. Even when the article outright says she isn't.

    Next on this tirade... Post-Modernism and the rise in dropout rate among college students and 20-something millennials.

    1. As I said to R' Joel - I don't think sensitive issues can be addressed meaningfully and productively in a public forum. These issues need back-and-forth and dialogue.

  3. Are aspiring actors and actresses so clueless about what awaits them in Hollywood or in the the show world in general? Do they need warning labels or something to help them access the common knowledge of many decades? This is not the best line of work for a moral person and never has been.

  4. R Torczyner: First, thought-provoking post. Second, if these issues are not addressed publicly, how can they be resolved? Third, and most importantly, you write that while you do not think this is what Hazal meant, the Hazalic statements you cite can be read as blaming the victim. But how can you present such material sensitively, especially if you are one who reads Hazal as doing precisely that based on the plain meaning of the words, which, as you note, they never qualify (one major reason these Hazalic statements always made me cringe)?

    1. Hi Joseph,
      Writing briefly:
      1. I think sexual abuse must be discussed publicly. But I think strategies for dealing with it must be discussed in a setting where dialogue can take place. A give-and-take is necessary, precisely to enable people to express their problems with what is being said, and to enable the speaker to respond.
      2. I don't see why one cannot present the statements of Chazal sensitively, even when the original source was not written sensitively. One must not change the message of the text (a la ziyuf hatorah), but I think this can be done, and it's what I try to do.