Based on the theory advanced by Rabbi Winter in his article on sexual assault, the severity of sexual abuse depends on the cultural interpretation it receives. In his view, a Torah-Charedi worldview perceives sexuality as something relatively marginal in the big picture of life, which renders sexual assault an injustice no worse than other crimes between man and his fellow. As such, those who live in Charedi society will not experience sexual abuse or assault with the same intensity as those who lives in secular, western societies. In liberal societies, a person’s sexuality is an inseparable part of people’s core identity, so sexual abuse is defined as a destructive attack on their very essence. In Winter’s view, this is the reason (or one of the reasons) for the relatively less severe attitude towards sexual assault in Charedi society.
A position such as Rabbi Winter’s, even if less articulate, is far from uncommon in our community, and a Charedi platform aimed at in-depth discussion should not bury its head in the sand and ignore it
Predictably enough, this article led to many angry responses (some of which can be read in the comments section of the article), both by therapists and by ordinary people whose acquaintance with victims in Charedi society does not align with Winter’s description. Nir Stern’s article, of course, is a response that should be studied by rabbis, educators, and policymakers everywhere. Many went further and expressed outrage at the article even being published on this platform. I do not agree with the latter objection: A position such as Rabbi Winter’s, even if less articulate, is far from uncommon in our community, and a Charedi platform aimed at in-depth discussion should not bury its head in the sand and ignore it. It won’t help us deal with the issue, and we cannot refute arguments if we do not allow them to be made. Instead of attacking the publication of the article, we should welcome the discussion it creates and hope this leads to a course correction.
Either way, I certainly do not agree with Rabbi Winter’s approach, and below I will argue that the Torah approach to sexual abuse and assault is far from dismissive and sees it as an affront to human dignity. Following this, I will try and diagnose the real reason for the belittling attitude towards sexual abuse in our midst. Finally, I will directly analyze the claim that Charedim by and large play down sexuality and do not consider it important, which Winter believes leads to sexual abuse being less traumatic. I share neither part of this view.
An Abomination and A Disgrace: Sexual Abuse in the Sources
Winter’s deeper assertion, based on Peter Berger and others, is that in a pre-modern society—which is how he defines, at least to a certain degree, many of today’s Charedi communities—a person draws his sense of meaning and identity from social status rather than from individual self-fulfillment. Based on this assertion, he claims that sexuality in Charedi society is a relatively marginal matter since, in contrast with the individualistic environment of modern society, honor cultures do not find the same depth of meaning and identity in sexuality. Concurrently, he explains that sexual assault is potentially less severe in Charedi communities, in which social standing is the primary concern, than in Western society.
Yet, setting aside (for the moment) Winter’s sociological interpretation and focusing on Torah sources, it seems hard to substantiate the claim that affronts to a person’s honor are more severer than attacks on his personal. On the contrary, the Torah sees a person’s modesty as his very dignity. Our ability to control our sexuality, conceal it, and use it only within the framework of Jewish marriage is an inseparable part of the dignity afforded us as beings created in the Divine Image. It is not, as Rabbi Winter claims, an area that does not bear on a person’s social dignity. Far from it.
Our ability to control our sexuality, conceal it, and use it only within the framework of Jewish marriage is an inseparable part of the dignity afforded us as beings created in the Divine Image
Multiple Torah sources indicate that sexuality is a cornerstone of human dignity. When Shimon and Levi massacred the entire city of Shechem for the heinous crime of kidnapping and raping their sister Dina, they presented Yaakov Avinu with the simplest of justifications (which Yaakov did not challenge): “Will our daughter be made a whore?” (Bereishis 34:31) Targum Yerushalmi explains that nobody demands a harlot’s justice, and the Seforno adds that she is deemed “unworthy of having her offense brought to court.”
In other words, if the rape was the first assault, the lack of justice and punishment was the second, unforgivable humiliation. To paraphrase the Targum Yerushalmi, “Is our sister a whore, whose modesty is forfeit and whose victimizers can gloat in the knowledge that their actions will bear no consequences?” In the view of Shimon and Levi, this abomination—Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch compares it to a wilting flower, symbolic of Dina’s spiritual death—justified killing an entire city.
Similarly, a famous tale mentioned in Tractate Gittin describes how four hundred children, boys and girls, jumped to their deaths at sea rather than sin. The Gemara describes the purpose of their captivity with utmost simplicity: “They were captives for disgrace,” while Rashi elaborates that girls were taken to be mistresses and boys for sex slaves. This sexual assault was considered mortal harm to their human dignity—a “disgrace” that was independent of personal status within the community but was rather a fundamental onslaught against human dignity.
A woman who is forced to be with her husband is in no danger of having her social standing diminished—yet halacha forcefully protects her, because the Torah perspective on dignity is tightly bound with a person’s sexual autonomy
Finally, while western countries ended marital rape only in the second half of the twentieth century, halacha reached a similar conclusion many centuries earlier, enshrining that no woman can be coerced to engage in marital relations with her husband. “She is not a captive to copulate to her captor,” the Rambam explains in a renowned halachic ruling. The spirit of this legal ruling stands in stark contrast to the view that sexual coercion is not a fundamental part of human dignity. The odds of sexual coercion within marriage harming a woman’s social dignity are infinitesimally small. Other injuries can be made public, lead to dismissal or pity, and bring public humiliation to those involved. But nobody knows what happens in their neighbor’s bedroom. A woman who is forced to be with her husband is in no danger of having her social standing diminished—yet halacha forcefully protects her, because the Torah perspective on dignity is tightly bound with a person’s sexual autonomy. A woman must not become a captive in her own bedroom; such egregious injury to her personal dignity cannot be tolerated.
Some may nonetheless react: These sources relate to the most heinous of sexual abuse—specifically, to rape. What about lesser offenses? I would offer two responses. First, despite his caveat, the argument Winter used to explain the Charedi belittling of sexual assault can also be employed to justify the dismissal of outright rape. Sexual abuse on every level is committed in the concealment of the private sphere, and, based on Winter’s analysis, will therefore not involve the severity of those offenses that degrade a person’s social standing. Even Winter’s caveat concerning those cases of “ongoing abuse and exploitation” or “serious violence and abuse” does not necessarily exclude rape. Rape can be a one-time event and is not always “ongoing exploitation.” The use of severe violence and abuse are not necessarily characteristic of rape. A victim who seizes up (as so many do) will not experience such physical punishment. Given this, why should Winter’s mitigating arguments not apply to rape itself?
Second, although the Sages’ condemnation of sexual abuse is primarily occupied with rape, it includes a keen appreciation that lower-level abuse (forced sexual contact of one kind or another) is likely to ultimately lead to the severest kind of assault. This can be seen from restrictions and rules in innumerable places, including the story (noted in Tractate Sanhedrin) where the Sages forbade a woman even to stand behind a gate and talk (!) with a man suffering from acute lovesickness, though doctors warned he would die of it. One of the justifications given for this (the woman in question was single) was that “the women of Israel should not be promiscuous in matters of sexual license.” Rashi explains that women might be sent “to stand before men to be stared at and given over to be taken to bed.” In other words, a simple conversation in a sexual context is considered likely to lead to full intercourse.
I think it is thus safe to assume that the Sages did not see fit to find specific resolutions for varieties of sexual abuse because as far as they were concerned all roads lead to the same hell. During most of history, there was no reason to think that a man who allows himself to force contact on a woman will nevertheless want to feel that he “is not a rapist” or try to avoid leaving DNA evidence. One way or another, an internal logic that views personal modesty and free choice in the sexual realm as the basis of human dignity is certainly relevant for every sexual assault as such.
If the Torah position is not dismissive of sexual assault—as it clearly is not—from whence draws the belittling approach described by Winter? Why do large swathes of our community handwave away sexual abuse as ugly and unpleasant but unworthy of a public outcry that brings shame on the offender and perhaps some comfort to the victim? I think the reason for this is not “western winds that have penetrated our camp,” but rather Charedi cultural trimmings that are not necessarily Torah-true.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous Democracy in America, describes the differences between America and his own France concerning sexual abuse:
In the United States, lawmakers who have lessened the severity of nearly all positions of the penal code punish rape by death, and no crime is more relentlessly pursued by public opinion. There is an explanation for this: since Americans cannot imagine anything more precious than a women’s honor or more deserving of respect than her independence, they deem no punishment too severe for anyone who would deprive her of these things against her will.
In France, where the same crime incurs much milder punishments, it is often difficult to find a jury prepared to convict. Is this because of contempt for chastity or contempt for woman? I cannot help thinking that it is both.
Tocqueville explains that Europe, with all of its chivalry and gallantry towards women, is deeply derisive of women, even denying them some of the basic properties of humanity. By contrast, in America women are respected to the degree that a young, single woman can journey the length and breadth of the United States in the company of foreign men without concern for any harm. This is not because of the kind of women’s rights organizations that Tocqueville abhorred, but because of simple respect:
There are people in Europe who, confounding the various attributes of the sexes, claim to make man and woman into creatures not only equal but alike. […] They mix them in all things: work, pleasure, affairs […] the only thing that can ever come of such a crude mixture of nature’s works is weak men and disreputable women. This was not how Americans understood the kind of democratic equality that can be established between woman and man. […] Americans do not believe that man and woman have the duty or right to do the same things, but they hold both in the same esteem and regard them as beings of equal value but different destinies.
Reflecting on sexual abuse, Tocqueville argued that for a society to seriously deal with the issue it needs to view its victim as having equal standing with the perpetrator: not equal in social roles or spheres of responsibility, but equal in basic human value. In the Charedi community, unfortunately, this demand is not always met. Not all are chauvinists, of course, just as not all of us will yawn over a “not particularly violent” (to quote Winter) case of assault. Still, there is no denying that for not a few Charedim, women are not community members bearing full and equal rights. Nor, indeed, is a child. And since the majority of sexual abuse victims are women and children, it becomes hard to grant their injury sufficient weight to justify an exposure that will trigger social earthquakes and lead to harsh consequences for the perpetrator and his family.
When nineteenth-century French jurors refused to convict a rapist, it was not because they did not believe the woman, but, as Tocqueville noted, because they simply didn’t rape as a justification for smearing the man’s public dignity. A freeborn man had an inherent right to public dignity worthy of defense. A woman, by contrast, was considered an inferior being, worthy of flattery but not of dignity.
When nineteenth-century French jurors refused to convict a rapist, it was not because they did not believe the woman, but, as Tocqueville noted, because they didn’t see rape as a justification for smearing the man’s public dignity. […] A woman was considered an inferior being, worthy of flattery but not of dignity. Have we, in significant parts of Charedi society, adopted a similar position, God forbid?
The compassion of someone who holds such views tends to be directed towards the perpetrator before the victim. Why? Because social dignity is indeed important in our community. Important enough that it comes at the expense of the basic dignity integral to every human being born in the Divine image. Sadly, we defend external, social dignity even at the cost of defiling a person’s internal dignity. And the honor system, like it or not, revolves far more around men than around women or children: men get married to other men’s daughters, and women’s names are still omitted from wedding invitations. When nineteenth-century French jurors refused to convict a rapist, it was not because they did not believe the woman, but, as Tocqueville noted, because they didn’t see rape as a justification for smearing the man’s public dignity. A freeborn man had an inherent right to public dignity worthy of defense. A woman, by contrast, was considered an inferior being, worthy of flattery but not of dignity.
Have we, in significant parts of Charedi society, adopted a similar position, God forbid? Not consciously, one should hope. Yet, though they might be subconscious, such views are prevalent in many pockets of our own communities. We are albeit willing to endorse the concept of each person’s internal dignity—we know that the statement “beloved is man, for he was created in the Divine image” applies even to women—but social dignity will always win the day. We deeply identify more with the destruction and humiliation that public exposure brings to the perpetrator and his family, and less with the concealed, internal humiliation of the victims. If they but be silent, no one would know. If we internalize that their harm is “open to interpretation,” they could repress it properly. The wound to their internal dignity will continue to bleed? No matter. It bleeds in silence. What counts is that the social dignity of the perpetrator doesn’t bleed in public.
Sensitivity to Assault – Higher or Lower?
Winter, and many who subscribe to his worldview, assume (irrespective of Torah sources) that sexuality is a minor matter in Charedi society. Due to its marginality in everyday life, even sexual abuse is not as explosive as it is among the general public. But is this actually the case?
One of the phenomena I frequently encounter in circles of conservative Charedi women is the mammoth specter of sexual abuse. Nightmares of escalating degrees of sexual assault fill their minds the minute somebody at work tells them an innocent joke, asks what their husband does, or offers a cookie. In extreme cases, a Charedi woman may even quit her job due to such benign experiences. And such reactions are not limited to young women just starting out. Older women can be furious over a tired client (a man, to his misfortune) sitting on a chair in their (women-only) office, and others will do everything in their power to avoid visiting a male doctor, no matter his specialty. One such woman explained her refusal to go to a male gynecologist even accompanied by her husband, because “who says my husband will understand that I’m being sexually assaulted by the doctor?”
Nightmares of escalating degrees of sexual assault fill their minds the minute somebody at work tells them an innocent joke, asks what their husband does, or offers a cookie. In extreme cases, a Charedi woman may even quit her job due to such benign experiences
I should clarify my position here. A degree of this type of apprehension is normal and natural for those of us born girls. Women in all cultures and countries are trained to avoid dark and unknown places, suspect men who act unconventionally, and be on guard against harassment which they can, indeed, encounter everywhere, from the office to the clinic. Still, most women manage to live their lives without seeing every man as a powder keg ready to explode on them at any given moment. Moreover, documented cases in which women encounter aggressive or harassing behavior of a sexual nature generally involve behavior that women will interpret in this way. By contrast, many Charedi women feel a sense of threat even when the behavior is quite innocuous. A colleague who asks a pregnant worker “boy or girl?” may be an ignoramus in matters of Charedi social etiquette, but why should a woman of reasonable intelligence working in a standard Tel-Aviv company consider this deliberate harassment?
The answer is that contrary to Winter’s assertion, Charedi society is replete with sexuality: we’ve managed to shove it everywhere. Our desire to erect fences, encourage modesty, and prevent unrestrained behavior has cultivated an educational approach that emphasizes the sexual potential of every possible interaction between the two sexes (which, as an aside, makes real safety education that much more difficult). This educational approach does not suffice with remembering halacha or proper rules of conduct and engagement; it forces its interpretation on people who by all accounts did not receive this education. A boss offering his employee a coke thus turns into a potential threat, and a doctor inquiring about a patient’s wellbeing becomes a serial harasser.
What will happen to such women when they encounter actual harassment? A secular woman may be annoyed at being stared at, but the same situation can cause a Charedi woman to experience a real panic attack. When behavior crosses the line to the offensive by all accounts, in cases of explicit sexual advances or even physical contact, what basis do we have to assume that the Charedi woman, accustomed to seeing threats even when they are absent, will experience lesser distress than her non-Charedi counterpart? In her world, a strange man complimenting her clothes would leave her utterly humiliated; so why should she experiences actual cases of assault less traumatically than her non-Charedi peer?
We can, of course, argue that this very description strengthens Winter’s argument that sexual assault is culturally dependent. If Charedi society successfully cultivated a sense of injury among Charedi women over trivial affairs, can cultural influence not work in the reverse?
The answer is that indeed, when it comes to certain behaviors, belonging more to the sphere of harassment and less to assault (fuzzy as the boundaries between them may be), culture has an influence. For instance, adult women often attest that a statement by a colleague that today educe an energetic and rapid response by human resources would have been considered entirely acceptable and even flattering back in the day. To take a more extreme example, nudist communities where everyone sees everything don’t view such exposure with the humiliation that most do.
This, then, is the question: Can Charedi society create a culture in which statements and gestures of a sexual nature can be received with consummate ease, as in general society—as should it want to? We might be happy to correct the educational distortion that leads some women to see mountains in place of molehills, but what educational interest does the Torah community have to make them see real mountains as nothing more than shadows? An educational approach that infuses sexual menace into every mixed setting may be harmful, but its motive is pure and anchored in Torah principles. We can dispute the worthiness and effectiveness of the approach, but we cannot dispute the determined and clear purpose of avoiding sin and preventing license. The realization of this goal does not align with a cultural climate in which “just a touch” or “just a compliment” are marginal matters. Charedi hypersensitivity to any sexual reference (real or imagined) is, like it or not, a means to maintaining high modesty standards in our community. It would be absurd to separate between the sinful element of sexual abuse and the element of personal injury: the Charedi approach exacerbates both of them.
Winter is correct in his assumption that Charedi society does not wish to adopt the liberal approach to sexuality. Few are the issues that modern progressive thought has so deeply distorted as the essence of sex and sexuality, and we are certainly justified in fighting such distortion. Yet, this attitude has no bearing on the dilemma of dealing with sexual assault that we as a public face with greater intensity than ever. The responses to the uncomfortable questions we raise should be sought not in casting blame, as is our custom, on the outside world and its postmodern Sodom, but first and foremost on our internal failings as a community. Our detachment from original Torah values, our preference for social frameworks over the substantive values, our blindness to the problematic tendencies that our education sometimes magnifies—all these are worthy of discussion and handling long before the question of whether the efforts we devote should be called a Charedi MeToo, or simply acts of Teshuvah and mending our ways.
 The reference is to the many Hebrew-language responses to Winter’s original article; see https://iyun.org.il/article/what-they-call-love/.
Photo by Dave Lowe on Unsplash
4 thoughts on “Sexuality in the Torah: A Matter of Dignity”
I beg to disagree with your catchall inclusive comment that large parts of chareidy society mistakenly view the “sexual potential of every interaction”, – If you look at current research that is informed by an evolutionary approach to reproduction, you will see that they actually are more right then wrong. And most mainstream Haredim don’t emphasize this, it is super tznius fringe groups., and individuals who have phobias, It is always easy to turn individuals into a widespread phenomenon.
I agree that molehills are sometimes more than molehills, and we should be aware of that. At the same time, blaming every camamity on the (generally very modest) length of our wives’ and daughters’ skirts is problematic. And so is our tendency to protect social standing — no need to elaborate on the Charedi “what will the neibors say,” I’m sure it’s familiar — even at the expense of far more important matters. Are these the cause of sexual abuse? No. Can they exacerbate the issue? Yes.
Wonderful article, and especially important given the deep flaws of the original Winter piece. Thank you, Maayan!
The truth is that the Torah does create a hierarchy between men and women: men perform mitzvot, study Torah, can constitute a minyan, perform the act of marriage, are obligated to have children, and so on – and all of these are reserved for men. Isn’t that a hierarchy? And this is of course why men recite the blessing “shelo asani isha.”
Hierarchy does not mean disrespect. It is not disrespectful to the Yisrael that the Kohen is “above” him on the social ladder. It is just the way that the Torah prescribes. We should internalize this and not fight against it.
This article, while raising valid points, seems to adopt a large chunk of liberal culture, adopting some of the equality principles from the school of liberal thought. The article pretends to oppose the liberal ideals, but ends up endorsing some of them.