In an uncharacteristic, and laudable move, yesterday Hillel International cancelled Ari Shavit’s book tour of US college campuses after accusations of sexual harassment against Danielle Berrin were made public.
Hillel and other major Jewish organizations, have not always been as quick on the draw. In lower profile sexual harassment cases on individual campuses, and organizations women have been shamed into silence, discouraged from speaking out, and discouraged from coming forward. And each time this has happened, the Jewish soul of the organizations have died, just a little bit.
Which raises the question: has the visibility of the Access Hollywood tape with Trump’s claims of sexual assault created such blowback that we’ve reached a cultural tipping point? Has it suddenly become socially unacceptable to deny women’s experiences of assault and harassment in Jewish – or any - professional contexts? And if this is the case, is Hillel International simply responding to PR concerns about Shavit, rather than acting from a place of Jewish values? It would be comforting to believe that’s not the case, but for Jewish organizations to remain Jewish not merely in name but in spirit, they need to be acting not merely from a fear of liability and bad press but from a commitment to b’tzelem elohim – believing that all of us, regardless of power, visibility or gender and are made in the image of God, holy, and deserving of dignity, agency, and the right to do with our own bodies as we wish.
In the Talmud, there’s a frequently repeated statement regarding illicit sexual relationships: “lo tikrevu” – you shall not draw near. It applies to whole categories of interaction, and is alluded to in Jewish marriage ceremonies, where the bride is officially declared forbidden to others – which protects married women (because of their status as belonging to their husbands).
But what of unmarried women? Outside of marital vows, Rabbinic Judaism has clear guidelines about what is appropriate and inappropriate with regards to women and sex. Turns out, sexual assault and harassment are an age old problem. Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 21 states:
A person must stay very far from women. He is forbidden to signal with his hands or his feet, or to hint with his eyes… He is forbidden to be playful with her, to be frivolous in front of her, or to look upon her beauty. Even to smell the perfume upon her is forbidden. He is forbidden to gaze at women doing laundry. He is forbidden to gaze at the colorful garments of a woman whom he recognizes, even if she is not wearing them, lest he come to have [forbidden] thoughts about her. If one encounters a woman in the marketplace, he is forbidden to walk behind her, but rather [must] run so that she is beside or behind him…”
And so on. The text (in Siman 22) then goes on to require modesty of women – that they keep their hair covered – but, what’s notable here is that, as Rabbi Ahuva Zaches points out: “The text places the burden on men to not behave like predators, rather than making it a woman’s job to avoid rape.” In Ketubot 39, the Talmud even requires that, if a woman is raped, she must be paid compensation for her pain.
In fact, in Rabbinic law, women aren’t held responsible for being assaulted, nor are they instructed to stay silent about assaults if they happen. Rather, the law would seem to prioritize protecting women in the first place, so that they are not assaulted, harassed, or forced to stay silent. Perhaps, at long last, Jewish organizations are catching up with ancient - and wise - Jewish values and laws.
Jordie Gerson works as a full-time rabbi for Adventure Rabbi, in Boulder, Colorado. She is a public speaker and a writer with a blog at The Huffington Post. To read more of her articles, sermons and talks, find her on Facebook.