Several sexual assault scandals within Charedi society, and specifically the Walder affair that left the community shellshocked, have led many to think we are now entering a “Charedi MeToo” era. On social media, at the very least, everyone seems to be bracing himself to see who will be outed next as a predator. The framing of the course correction on sexual assault as a “Charedi MeToo” may seem to be just trendy terminology; yet, words certainly matter, and they go a distance toward determining actual communal policy.
In the present article, I will argue that this vogue framing misaligns with core beliefs of Charedi society about sexuality and public discourse. The result is harmful to efforts at correcting the most sensitive of injustices.
The MeToo Era
The MeToo movement is a feminist social movement interested in changing how men and women interact with one another in western society. It emerged from within a broader ideological framework centered on human rights, especially the right to equality. The MeToo movement seeks to write a new, more egalitarian contract governing the social treatment of men and women, and, more specifically, how men treat women.
As part of forming this new contract, movement activists publicize harmful behavior by men toward women, with the aim of enlisting the subsequent public uproar to establish new norms of sexual interactions. The movement’s activists are aware that mob responses to these exposés sometimes lead to other kinds of injustices, such as trials in the public square that harm accused parties without sufficient evidence, or which punish them excessively given the nature of the offenses. These, however, are justified as an unfortunate but probably inevitable side-effect of pursuing a worthy cause.
Moreover, supporters of the movement claim that supplementing the formal, stringent procedures of criminal trials with the tools of popular protest is essential for promoting the just cause of women. Such procedures are simply too gradual and demanding, and what’s needed is broader social change right now. In addition, when it comes to harassment, it’s often hard to obtain testimony that is admissible in court. And who says criminal justice is the only species of justice out there? Social justice matters, too, and the process of improving norms includes changing behavioral patterns for which the criminal justice system is not the appropriate tool.
The MeToo movement has met with many successes in recent years, as well as occasional backlashes. It has led to a lively public discussion of sexual assault and the proper relations between the sexes, and its reach has now extended even to the relatively cloistered Charedi community. Charedi “social activists” have taken it upon themselves to be the bearers of the “Charedi MeToo” message and change attitudes towards sexuality in Charedi society.
The Charedi MeToo
Within the context of the MeToo movement, the attitude of the Charedi community towards sexual assault is seen as problematic. The Charedi public doesn’t talk about sexual matters much in general, and, the argument goes, even when sexual assault is exposed, the matter is hushed up and “dealt with” within the community, denying victims justice. The Charedi community is therefore seen as uninterested in dealing with sexual assault, preferring to hide its head in the sand and think that this phenomenon isn’t widespread. Another more serious argument is that when powerful people are the perpetrators, the Charedi system of communal authority is enlisted to help them, rather than their victims.
These arguments are raised by internal and external critics, who have a great deal of presence on social media. These critics argue that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and favor ending the secretive, discreet approach to dealing with the issue favored by Charedi leaders. Unsurprisingly, calls for greater transparency and external involvement in addressing sexual assault are coupled with attempts to undermine traditional authorities. Our present leaders, the critics believe, have simply failed at their basic responsibility to protect the vulnerable and redress the grievances of victims.
The critics of the current Charedi approach demand two main changes. First, the issue should be a matter of discussion by the usually fastidious Charedi public. Handling harm under the radar, critics claim, allowed for scandals to be covered up––and, perhaps, for others not to be discovered in the first place. From now on, these matters should be aired in public. In addition, critics seek to change how accused parties are treated. If until now things were often just “cleared up” by Charedi leaders with an offender, now there’s a demand for legal authorities to become involved, for the offender’s actions to be strongly, publicly condemned, and for the community to sanction offenders more seriously.
Dialogue of the Deaf
Heightened awareness about the need to deal with sexual assault is a great blessing. It contributes both to rendering justice to victims and preventing future abuse. However, today’s discourse is unfortunately characterized by superficiality and binary thinking, and Charedim jumping on the MeToo bandwagon can fall victim to assumptions of which they are unaware and which could undermine their own way of life.
The way in which society treats sexual injustices derives from prior assumptions about sexuality’s place in human life. The secular public handles sexual assault as it does because of the enormous place that sexuality plays in human life. The increased interest in sexual harassment in western society is but only one aspect of sexuality’s centrality to western life, which is expressed in education, cinema, literature, and music. A person’s “sexual identity” is seen as one of the core characteristics of their personality. Indeed, the very concept of “sexual identity” expresses this new status of sexuality: sexuality becomes “identity,” something that defines a person’s essence.
To think about how the Charedi community should better deal with sexual assault, we need a firmer grasp of our own communal philosophy regarding sexuality. Unawareness of the assumptions underlying our policy towards assault leads to the injection of foreign views into the Charedi community, albeit out of a well-intentioned desire for justice. A dialogue of the deaf results. On the one hand, we find activists leading a charge for mending our mishandling of assault cases, often driven by an enormous sense of urgency. On the other hand is the broader Charedi community, which does not always understand what all the fuss is about. The latter is worthy of condemnation in the eyes of the former for its indifference and ostrich-like behavior, while the former group is often seen as a “pursuer” (rodef) in the eyes of the latter, with its zeal for condemning Charedi society as negligent at best and abusive at worst.
I do not claim here that Charedi handling of sexual assault is ideal. Far from it. Certainly, there is ample room for improving the handling of assault and our approach to sexuality in general. But however we settle those important practical questions, we surely need to be aware of the sources from which present Charedi conduct derives.
Authenticity and Sexuality in the Secular World
Oftentimes, the intense occupation with sexuality in western culture is presented, certainly in our education system, as light-headed and licentious. From the perspective of Torah values, there is a great deal of truth to this. “How can we converse with them?” the Chazon Ish once lamented according to a famous anecdote. “After all, what they call love, we call kares.” The Charedi individual looks at the very conception of secular sexuality as a moral perversion.
Secular westerners view their own approach to sexuality as deadly serious. If the Torah world considers liberated sexuality as the domain of the “evil inclination,” a great deal of western energy is invested in promoting and satisfying just such desires. For the western secularist, sexuality is something that cannot be compromised; it is an area of one’s life that justifies striving for maximal realization and fulfillment. Personal neglect towards one’s sexuality is seen as an offense against an essential aspect of one’s life.
In western secular thinking, a person’s sexuality is one of the most significant expressions of “authenticity.” To clarify what I mean, I will quote the late sociologist Peter Berger’s article dealing with modernity’s changes to the concept of “honor.” Berger distinguished between the pre-modern world, in which “honor” in the social sense was the foundation of man’s conception of his value, and the modern world, in which another conception of honor arose, which we know as “human dignity”:
[I]n a world of honor, the individual is the social symbol emblazoned on his escutcheon. The true self of the knight is revealed as he rides out to do battle in the full regalia of his role; by comparison, the naked man in bed with a woman represents a lesser reality of the self. In a world of dignity, in the modern sense, the social symbolism governing the interaction of men is a disguise. The escutcheons hide the true self. It is precisely the naked man […] who represents himself more truthfully.
Berger is pointing out a deep difference between the premodern and modern sense of selfhood, embodied most profoundly in a person’s attitude towards his own sexuality. In the pre-modern era, a person’s sense of value derived from his social role: knight, king, head of household, subject, slave, child. In our language, we would say that what gives him importance and meaning is his lineage and his society-defiled role. The different contexts in which a person is placed, his family and blood ties, his communal, religious, and national ties, as well as his position in the social fabric create his identity, the way in which he conceives of himself, and therefore also how he appears in his relationships with others. In this conception, a person is never an isolated individual charging himself with meaning from within. The isolated individual, indeed, lacks identity or meaning in this sense.
Modern man, by contrast, believes his value to be internal and intrinsic. The idea of “human dignity” means a person’s value lies within, detached from social contexts. Modern man thus aims not to be defined by social frameworks, which he sees as external and artificial. The familial roles and contexts are not what he considers part of his internal essence, and therefore cannot constitute his “true” identity. Society strives to create conditions in which every individual bases his or her identity on individuality and uniqueness. There is nothing necessarily wrong with social affiliations, but they cannot form an identity––especially if they’re unchosen. On the contrary, those who identify themselves exclusively with their social roles will be considered inauthentic. The phrase “social construction,” serving today to justify the dismantling of traditions and accepted customs, clearly reflects the deep disdain secular man has towards any purported source of meaning not supplied by a person’s internal self.
In western, secular society, a man whose life is filled and shaped by adapting to the norms of his family and whose success is constituted by forming a family as part of a community is engaging in self-denial for the sake of external social conventions. However, from the pre-modern perspective, which remains the situation even today for much of Charedi society, those conventions are part of what shapes a person’s “self.” Consideration of such matters is not a “sacrifice” for an external value and is obviously not a denial of our “self.” On the contrary, a person who leaves behind family and community norms in favor of an “inner authenticity” is considered a failure. The Charedi individual forms his sense of selfhood through affiliation with the community (among other things), an affiliation involving specific patterns of behavior and ways of life.
The Role of Sexuality: Between Need and Self-Fulfillment
These differences have direct consequences on our attitude toward sexuality, as Berger himself notes. In a world where social honor is central to the important foundation of the “self,” sexuality is considered marginal, if not inferior. Social honor does not necessarily require a negative attitude towards sex (which Charedim, depending on group belonging, sometimes have—a subject for discussion elsewhere), but it does require a reduction in its centrality relative to the secular, western view. Sexuality is placed relatively low on the list of basic elements that make a person’s life meaningful, since as such it only belongs to one of man’s social roles—that of a relationship with a spouse.
By contrast, in the view of modern society, where a person’s sense of his own value derives from a unique and internal individual sense of selfhood, sexuality is among the most important spheres of self-formation. In all other fields of activity, a person takes on various garbs and masks in the form of his different roles, but these serve merely as a cover for his basic self—his true, internal identity. Sexuality, by contrast, is seen as an expression of independent selfhood. In this sense, sexuality also becomes a symbol: a symbol of human passion, of breaching boundaries, of beauty, of the depths that bubble up in the heart of every human being.
As such, we find a great deal of attention paid in popular culture to the idea of “sexual awareness,” “improving sex lives,” and the like—not to mention the modern-day extent of sex education (which has provoked the so-called “don’t say gay” Florida bill for early elementary schoolers). Workshops in this spirit have made an entry into Charedi society, bringing in their wake the modern attitude that sexuality is a meaningful and important element in human life, worthy of cultivation and cherishing.
Perhaps it is only natural that this should happen, as Charedi society modernizes and shifts; and perhaps it is not a bad thing. My point, however, is that it was certainly not true of Charedi society in the past.
Attitudes to Sexual Assault
The attitude to sexual assault is a product of how sexuality is perceived. When it comes to liberal western society’s attitude to sexual assault, four main points are worthy of mention:
- The severity of the problem: There is a consensus that this is the most serious problem around, and that sexual assault, even when not amounting to rape, involves unbearable emotional harm with long-term consequences.
- The definition of the problem: The scope of what counts as sexual assault is constantly being expanded. Today people even speak of “retroactive” harm, an experience of harm that arises when the situation is reconstructed at some later date.
- Level of containment: Sexual assault is considered a crime that cannot be contained. Any means necessary must be deployed against offenders to prevent them from causing future harm, including harming their livelihood, name, and family. A sex offender receives the least forgiveness and empathy of any criminal, even murderers.
- Intensity of the struggle: In light of the above, the common approach is that an uncompromising war must be fought against sexual crimes, even at high costs. The morality against sex crimes is a morality of war that justifies such collateral casualties as family members, mistaken identification, and so on.
We can quibble about the precise nature of each of these statements, but we can likely agree about the general character and the clear difference between this approach to sexual assault and that of Charedi society—a point that emerges every time a sexual scandal erupts within Charedi society, and which leaves many non-Charedi observers baffled. For our purposes, cultural difference is key.
In a world in which sexuality expresses a person’s sense of selfhood, sexual assault and harassment, even if relatively light in its severity, is not just an insult or pain but harms the victim’s very being. Subsequently, the level of sensitivity is infinitely high. A crude comment to a woman is no longer simply vulgar social conduct but an assault on her sense of selfhood. As such, the character of the struggle against sexual assault becomes aggressive and justifies the payment of public and personal costs. This is an existential struggle for human dignity, not just the enforcement of puritanical morals.
But while this struggle makes perfect sense within the western liberal framework, this is far from the case within the Charedi mindset. The Charedi conception of personhood, and therefore its conception of sexuality, is much closer to the premodern approach described by Peter Berger. Of course, the Charedi world is not a detached bubble. It interacts a great deal with the modern world, and there are elements within Charedi communities that are deeply modernizing. Yet, to make a broad generalization, there remain profound gaps concerning basic assumptions about what is more central to human living and what is less.
The Charedi individual is largely a product of his environment: a member of his community, family, nation, and of course the covenant with God. Virtue in Charedi eyes is first and foremost loyalty to God and His Torah, represented by the observant Jewish community. The Charedi sense of selfhood is not based on the revelation of an individual’s internal authenticity but rather largely through a commitment to his various communal contexts. He finds his sense of selfhood primarily within the social-religious fabric, and less so in the personal, internal sphere.
This gap in self-conception is a deep one with many consequences. In the present context, the one I wish to highlight is the place of sexuality in a person’s self-conception of value. In the Charedi world, sexuality does not play the same role as it does in the secular space. Within Charedi society, sexuality is not the more central and important part of a person’s sense of his value, to say the least. It is true that most communities attribute importance to healthy and positive sexuality within marriage. But while awareness of the importance of sexual health has significantly increased in recent years, there is still broad agreement that sexuality is not one of the formative factors in a person’s life.
Halachic requirements alone require concealment of sexuality and its restriction to very limited times and places. For a person living a life of holiness and purity, following all rules and strictures of halacha, sexuality will necessarily occupy a limited part of his life. Sexuality is thus seen as something that should not be neglected, but not as critical to a person’s basic personality. As noted, this is not due to a neglect of the “good life” but rather a different understanding of personhood, in which sexuality occupies a much less important place in the formation of the self.
The attitude toward sexual assault in the Charedi space derives from the Charedi approach to sexuality outlined above. I do not deny that there are shameful coverups and improperly handled cases, and these need addressing. But it is essential, even in considering how to address the severe issues that require attention, to understand the underlying attitude, which derives from the fact that sexuality lacks a formative role in shaping us. Even sexual crimes are not seen as something special. I believe this is why sexual crimes are not seen as being more heinous than other severe injustices, and why dealing with them is not considered a top social priority.
The existing consensus in the west regarding the severity, the urgency, and the importance of handling sexual assault does not exist among Charedim. This is not because Charedim don’t care about women or are insensitive to the suffering of the weak, but because sexuality has traditionally been somewhere on the spectrum between a “human necessity” and a “low and base necessity.” For this reason, sexual injustice is not special among injustices. As such, sexual assault is not considered a special attack on human dignity but is instead akin to other forms of cruelty. In light of this, we can appreciate the different attitudes of Charedi society regarding the costs that can and should be paid for a more open discourse or using more stringent approaches toward suspected offenders.
The different conception of the severity of sexual assault leads to a relative diminishment of the sanctions applied to perpetrators. Charedim do not view sexual crimes as uniquely reprehensible, and so are not willing to pay uniquely high costs to redress them. In the struggle against sexual assault, broader considerations are made of the costs of punishing offenders (innocent accused parties are likely to be caught up), of preventing future harm (trusting relationships are harder to form if people are taught to see themselves foremost as potential victims), of sex education (which can undermine accepted modesty standards), and so on. Moreover, sexual assault is not automatically considered justification for destroying a person’s public standing.
For many liberal outsiders of Charedi society, all of this is anathema. But for those on the inside, especially those who are older and less familiar with modern values, it is almost obvious.
And What of Victims?
But what of the victims? If we are a good society, how can we be so uncaring toward the suffering of victims of sexual assault?
While I do not take this question lightly, and it is more than possible that some internal-Charedi reform is in order, I want to raise—with requisite caution—the following thought. It is possible that the centrality of sexual identity in liberal society raises the likelihood that victims will see themselves as defined by the experience of sexual assault. This, in turn, will also impact the level of pain and suffering, especially for cases of assault and harassment far from the extreme side of the spectrum, and will make the process of rehabilitation that much harder.
We are used to the statement whereby “we are more aware today of the deep and unrepairable damage of sexual assault,” and there is room to ask: Is this only because of heightened awareness and sensitivity that our ancestors did not possess, or does our newly-found knowledge also derive from the modern emphasis on sexuality as defining to selfhood? If sexuality is the deepest expression of my own identity, it stands to reason that sexual assault strikes at the heart of our very being.
Charedi society offers a far richer array of values that define selfhood. It may be that the Charedi community’s broad, social conception of the self makes it easier for victims to live meaningful and healthy lives. If less value is placed on sexuality, then less of a person’s inner self is perceived as having been injured by sexual assault, and the process of rehabilitation becomes, perhaps, somewhat less arduous.
The secular approach to sexuality is not without merit. We can certainly appreciate the contribution of heightened sexual awareness to happy marital lives. Yet, the merit comes with a price tag, and some of the sexual distortions we know of liberal society today seem to be inevitable consequences of its general approach to sexuality. I also don’t claim that the Charedi approach to sexuality is perfect and flawless. This article does not mean to deal with questions of good and bad, but rather to understand the roots of the different approaches.
The takeaway from this article is that collectively accusing an entire public of being deniers and insensitive is not beneficial and, more importantly, is incorrect. Moreover, adopting the language and form of liberal society’s handling of sexual assault involves the internalizing of western sexual mores and human self-conception, something which is not necessarily desirable within Charedi society.
Proper handling of the issue of sexual assault within the community should be done out of an awareness and understanding of the Charedi conception of sexuality. If we decide that we want to change our conception of sexuality itself, and accept the liberal understanding thereof, then we need to say so explicitly. If we respect the traditional Charedi approach and do not wish to dramatically change it, we need to accept that handling assault will be neither as totalizing nor as dramatic as it is among the general public.