Every single incident of sexual harassment within the Jewish community is one too many. From the wide-angle perspective of Jewish history, sexual harassment in the context of an abuse of the power balance is particularly obnoxious. Not only have Jews so often been at the weaker end of the power balance in history, but the entire Torah from beginning to end is a sustained polemic against the abuse of power.
Even the greatest kings of Israel are openly rebuked for abusing their positions of authority. So, to utilise a position of power to inflict any form of harassment on another individual undermines the very essence of what it means to be a Jew.
As we know all too well, cases like these can and do occur right across society, and the Jewish community is sadly no exception. But perhaps the current global attention on sexual harassment provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on our own community, and look for specific things we can do to prevent such incidents occurring in future. Here are two suggestions for building a future culture, based on Jewish tradition itself, that could make a real difference.
The first of these involves education around respecting personal space. We educate our children from a young age to respect others, value diversity and embrace their heritage. Now is the time for secondary schools to emphasise these elements through an integrated Jewish studies curriculum with a mature perspective on the Torah’s teachings about respecting personal space. Any semblance of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards another individual crosses clearly defined red lines in the Torah, and nowhere is this more so than in the context of non-consensual sexual advances or inappropriate comments. Both in schools and beyond, we can, and should, teach the moral underpinning and rationale of these halachic boundaries.
The second involves integrating a culture of chaperones in communal settings based upon the laws of Yichud, or seclusion. These laws require unrelated individuals to take steps, for their own benefit, to ensure that they are never completely secluded. In a recent interview, American film critic Nell Minow, described how reassured she felt when interviewing actor David Schwimmer in 2011, simply because he had offered her a chaperone in advance. “This wasn’t just about his being a good guy who would not have tried anything,” Minow remarked. “He understood what it is like to have to be constantly on the alert and he wanted to make sure I understood I was safe.” Judaism puts rules in place which, if followed correctly, prevent the integrity of either party being compromised, however remote it may seem.
Outrageous behaviours of the types described in recent days cross boundaries that must never be crossed. For too long, these incidents have been dismissed too lightly, perhaps as par for the course in the context of the sexual freedom granted by modern society. The truth is that we cannot tolerate harassment in any form. It ruins lives. And as a community we have a responsibility to do everything we can to eradicate it.
Yoni Birnbaum is the Rabbi at Hadley Wood Synagogue