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Jewish sexual ethics for the 21st century

Understanding the Torah can help us find a contemporary code of sexual ethics

    The #MeToo campaign has encouraged women to reveal their experiences of sexual harassment (Getty)
    The #MeToo campaign has encouraged women to reveal their experiences of sexual harassment (Getty)

    Sexual harassment has been in the news in the past few weeks, and the #MeToo campaign in social media has revealed just how widespread it is. Of course, it’s not just a contemporary problem. The Hebrew Bible is full of similar stories of predatory male sexual behaviour, from the rape of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob by Shechem the son of Hamor (Genesis 34), to the rape of Tamar, daughter of King David by her half-brother, Amnon (II Samuel).

    But there is an important difference between then and now — or there should be. The recent exposé of sexual harassment and abuse has concerned so-called advanced, democratic societies that have seen huge advances in gender equality in the past 50 years. But similar advances have not been made, it seems, in sexual ethics. 

    The gender equality revolution has its roots in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. And therein may lie the problem. Although, ostensibly, the sexual revolution liberated the genders on an equal basis, in practice, sexual freedom was a licence for males to have liberal access to females. It took the advent of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s before an incisive critique of male power and privilege emerged that unmasked the sexual harassment and exploitation of females that passed for “freedom”. 

    So, what has Jewish teaching got to say about sexual ethics? The short answer is: not a lot. Traditional Jewish teaching on sexuality starts from the premise of male power. Fathers and husbands are the pre-eminent actors and the emphasis is less on ethical behaviour than on the regulation of relationships. In the first extensive treatment of sex set out in the Torah, in Acharei Mot and Kedoshim (Leviticus chapters 18 and 20), the focus is on prohibited sexual acts — those between family members; a man and his neighbour’s wife; a man and a menstruating woman; two men; a man or woman and an animal.
    In all these cases, with the exception of bestiality, where initiation of the act by a woman is conceived, the individual male is the subject; the individual female is the object.  

    Interestingly, a chapter with a very different agenda is sandwiched between Leviticus 18 and 20. Leviticus 19 focuses on ethical behaviour towards the needy, vulnerable and marginal — the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and the stranger — and also towards one’s neighbour. 

    In my view, the juxtaposition of the chapters is not accidental.  Rather, it suggests that the sex rules should be understood in the context of the ethical regulation of social relationships. And yet, to this day, halachah (Jewish law) has failed to consider the implications of this juxtaposition for sexual ethics. 

    None of the various laws relating to sexual behaviour in Leviticus say anything about love. At the heart of Leviticus 19, by contrast, lies the famous dictum: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.  I am the Eternal” (19:18).  The Hebrew word translated as neighbour, rei’a, also means “friend” or “companion”. 

    Loving your sexual companion as you love yourself transforms sex from a series of acts perpetrated by one party on the body of another, into a relationship characterised by equality and reciprocity; an expression of love in which two people, regardless of sexuality or gender, are active subjects, peers, equals. 

    So what happens when we apply the criteria of love, equality and reciprocity to the sexual prohibitions outlined in Leviticus 18 and 20? The expression gillui ervah, “uncovering nakedness”, used repeatedly in these chapters, suggests not only sexual intimacy, but vulnerability and danger, and the potential for exploitation. 

    Clearly, all sexual conduct in which the inequality of the parties is an inherent feature, for example, sexual acts inflicted by adults on minors, is abusive. Similarly, all non-reciprocal sexual behaviours, designed to intimidate, including, leering and touching. “Uncovering nakedness” can be literal, it can also be figurative: lewd and obscene remarks objectify and humiliate. 

    Interestingly, the expression “uncovering nakedness” is not used in Leviticus 18 and 20 in connection with adultery, sex between men and bestiality.  In these cases, the more neutral term “lying down” is employed. In the verses concerning two men lying down together (Leviticus. 18:22 and 20:13), there may be an implicit assumption that the independent adult male subject is not in a position to exploit his equal — another adult male.  

    But, at a deeper level, “uncovering nakedness” refers not only to who is involved, but to what is involved. Even if the parties involved are equals, any sexual behaviour which is imposed on another without their consent, or entails exposing and exploiting another person’s vulnerability, is “uncovering nakedness”.  

    The practice of a code of sexual ethics rooted in love, equality and reciprocity is the only antidote to sexual harassment and abuse. 

    Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah is rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue. For a fuller treatment of Jewish sexual ethics, see chapter eight of her book Trouble-Making Judaism