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.