Torah's take on sexual abuse

November 24, 2016 23:12

In the immediate aftermath of the publication of the now infamous obscene Trump videotape, Canadian writer Kelly Oxford decided to ask women to tweet their "first experiences of sexual assault", under the hashtag #notokay. She described the results as "harrowing". For 14 hours straight, she received a minimum of 50 tweets per minute, each recording a separate instance of assault. Two days later, she was still receiving tweets "every second".

Sadly, it would be wishful thinking to expect that the results would be any better in this country. According to the national Coalition to End Violence Against Women, a woman is raped in Britain every six minutes, and sexual bullying and harassment are "routine" in UK schools.

In conjunction with International Women's Day on March 8, a YouGov survey asked 889 women in the UK whether they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in public places, such as inappropriate comments or unwanted advances from strangers. Shockingly, two-thirds (64 per cent) of the women questioned said they had experienced such unwanted behaviour. More than 63 per cent admitted that they generally felt unsafe in public places.

The Coalition's co-director Sarah Green demanded that society "hold up a mirror" to this behaviour and challenge it. According to Green, "girls and young women are growing up in the UK today being exposed to unwanted sexual attention, harassment and assault." As a result, she argues that, "we need to really question any idea that this behaviour is trivial or in any way acceptable given what we can see about its impact."

It is no secret that many struggle with reconciling the laws in the Torah and halachic literature which regulate sexual relationships with the modern world. Some see them as overly prudish and outdated in a world in which sexual liberty appears to be a most basic, elementary value.

Detailed restrictions are in Jewish law for a reason

Yet, in his acclaimed work on modern moral philosophy, After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre argues that modern society has consistently struggled to identify an alternative secular basis for morality to that of traditional sources. The "fragments of a conceptual [moral] scheme survive" in the modern world, writes MacIntyre, but "lack the contexts from which their significance derived".

We may wish that basic morality, without the need for an external strict moral code, was automatically built into human nature. But the sad and overwhelming evidence of Kelly Oxford's Twitter campaign reveals that the opposite may be true.

In listing the laws regulating forbidden sexual relationships - a passage read in shul on the afternoon of Yom Kippur - the Torah repeats several times the phrase "lo tikrevu", meaning, "you shall not draw near". This is understood by the Talmud to imply a far wider prohibition than the illicit physical relationship itself. Any semblance of inappropriate sexual behaviour crosses clearly defined red lines.

And surely nowhere is this more the case than in the context of non-consensual abusive sexual advances or comments made by a stranger, something that occurs countless times on the streets every day and in every major city throughout the world.

I believe that these detailed restrictions exist in Jewish law for an essential reason. Through them, Jewish tradition teaches the importance of understanding that no behaviour in this area should ever be trivialised. As the YouGov survey demonstrates, it is often the seemingly small inappropriate comments or actions which have a potentially devastating long-lasting impact on the recipients of this unwanted attention.

Abusive actions stem from abusive attitudes, a perspective that it is "okay" to wolf whistle or make a suggestive sexual comment about a stranger. But, to borrow Ms Oxford's hashtag, such actions are "not okay" at all. And they also happen to be in clear breach of the most ancient moral code of all, the Torah.

Campaigners to end violence against women agree that the first crucial step in attempting to remove this scourge from society is by placing the issue at the very centre of public discourse. Through criminalising and prosecuting even the most seemingly innocuous instances of so-called "street" or online harassment, perhaps there is a chance that new behaviours can eventually be learnt in generations to come.

And perhaps it might finally be time for society to respect and revisit those ancient traditional Jewish sources after all.

November 24, 2016 23:12

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