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Jewish Education Must Include Sexual Ethics

The Jewish Theological Seminary, one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism, recently dismissed a Title IX sexual assault complaint on the grounds that the student’s misconduct happened before he was a student there.

It may be that the Title IX process does not cover the sexual assault in this case. But JTS’s responsibility to address sexual assault does not end with the Title IX process. Even though legal and institutional channels frequently do not hold assailants accountable or help victims gain justice, Jewish organizations dedicated to Jewish values can and should teach their members and hold them accountable to Jewish ethical values.

Jewish organizations cannot rely on their generalized commitment to Torah or Jewish continuity to communicate these values. They must engage community members — students, faculty, staff, and others — in the skills of applied ethics.

Applied ethics is different from the halakhic reasoning that JTS and other institutions already teach. The goal of halakhic reasoning is to determine what behavior is correct according to Jewish law, and to establish the legal reasoning behind this finding. But as the Title IX situation demonstrates, legal reasoning is not sufficient to address the sexual assault crisis in our society. Legal reasoning establishes boundaries around what actions must be taken, and leaves aside other ways of achieving justice.

Halakhic precedents may not even exist for the situations we need ethical discussion about because over the centuries, the categories of halakhic thought have been so maledominated. The right questions for halakhic discussion may not even be askable.

Many of the questions of sexual ethics that we are wrestling with today arise from the experiences of women, who are routinely not believed, dismissed, and gaslighted. Halakhah protects abusers, and in some cases binds victims to them. Even though feminist halakhists now exist, they are by no means the majority.

In an applied ethics context, questions arise in a broader way, starting from empirical facts. For example, we know that sexual assault perpetrators routinely get away with their crimes and that many women have been harmed by sexual assault and harassment. What, if anything, should we do about this? We’re not asking what Jewish law requires. We’re asking a bigger question. The questions you ask in part determine the answers you get.

An answer to the applied-ethics question I raise above is that JTS and other Jewish organizations could require all their community members to take an applied ethics course — not the kind of online trainings that human resources departments frequently require to demonstrate that they have trained employees not to harass one another, but the kind of course in which an expert guides students in practicing the skills of applied ethics, whether using only Jewish ethical approaches or a comparison of Jewish and other approaches.

While ethical discussions undoubtedly take place within existing curricula at Jewish educational institutions, it takes at least a full semester to develop the skills of applied ethics, which include gathering relevant information about ethical problems — sexual assault, climate change, and violence, for example; identifying how these situations affect specific people; recognizing the sometimes-conflicting values that pertain to the situation; and examining how the possible solutions, all of which are necessarily imperfect, affect each of them.

Doing applied ethics also requires us to confront our own personal stake in each of the ethical problems we examine. This level of engagement and recognition is necessary to address sexual assault and harassment because these problems are not simply legal problems but are embedded across our society.

Because these attitudes are already so deeply embedded in our society, we need ethical skills education at all levels, from childhood through all phases of adulthood. Jewish educational institutions need to start teaching sexual ethics at all levels.

A few Jewish educational approaches to sexual ethics exist, notably Sacred Choices by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, Moving Traditions, and Life Values and Intimacy Education by Dr. Yocheved Debow. Unfortunately, they are not not taught in a systematic way. When they are taught, it’s often in high school, when harmful attitudes have already been formed to a large degree.

Counteracting these harmful attitudes requires a lifelong approach. The Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ’s sexual ethics program, Our Whole Lives, is the gold standard for this kind of approach. OWL is available for students from kindergarten through adult and is taught on a regular basis at many UU and UCC congregations and other institutions throughout the United States.

What I am advocating for is a multi-pronged approach to treating sexual assault and misogyny. One approach (like Title IX) is not going to do any good when misogyny is embedded in our society across all sectors. We need to teach adults, children, students, and workers, that our responsibility to recognize human dignity extends to all humans.

Applied ethics is a skillset that needs to be taught and practiced. It’s a skillset that allows us to be more fully who we are and live out our values more effectively and consciously. It’s obviously important for legal remedies to be pursued, and for laws to be improved. It’s at least as important for communities that purport to hold shared values at some level to teach their members and hold members accountable to those values. We simply aren’t doing a good enough job of that yet.

Dr. Jennifer A. Thompson is an Associate Professor of Applied Jewish Ethics and Civic Engagement at California State University, Northridge


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