A Jewish Sex Ethic in a Disturbing Era
Rabbi Jonathan Klein
She somberly entered my office a month ago, the weight of her crushed spirit evident on her gloomy face. Seeing her suffering, yet not knowing its origins, I closed my door to little more than a crack to protect her privacy. I have to remember to get a real “do not disturb” sign for my door, as students and staff alike just don’t realize the real life tragedies that are discussed agonizingly behind my closed door. Barely able to hold back the tears, she reluctantly, yet therapeutically, raised the stretch pants she was wearing off her calves on a burning hot summer day, to wordlessly show me the assortment of blood-marked lines going every which way. I was struck by just how random a pattern she chose to etch into her skin with the scissors, a dancing blade marking out her orderless, broken universe. It was shocking: How could Jennifer (name changed), such a sweet, young, overachieving woman in the prime of her life, have committed such a cry of agony? Why should she fight so private a war? How could she be so crushed by the sudden withdrawal of affections from a guy? And why was she coming to me, a rabbi, not a therapist? One of my students, one of many victims since the semester began, of a fragile self-esteem, mixed with utter confusion on how to form healthy relationships, particularly with members of the opposite sex.
On the day that Jennifer believed that her world had come to a crashing end at the inexplicable loss of her quasi-boyfriend, she was inconsolable. After inducing her own vomiting in the throes of her agony, she cried and cut, cut and cried, a tapestry of pain. Meanwhile, her now ex has no idea of what happened.
Female agony and male insensitivity, or worse, seems to be the theme of my counseling these days. Since the beginning of this semester, I can count eleven cases, eleven separate cases of either female USC students exhibiting self-destructive behavior due to relationship dysfunction, or incidents of male sexual assault, including rape, usually both. Some have involved unwanted male homoerotic assaults, one which took a year before the student was able to talk about it and is now in therapy. Four young women told me of bulimia. Three described passing out, only to wake up to their undergarments disheveled, evidence of rape, or in two instances, they explained the horror of finding men directly on top of them. In one situation, a student told me of his neighbor having blacked out and needing help up the stairs of his dorm, at which point another student stepped in to aid their drunken neighbor, only to then violate this woman. The male student who recounted the incident feels guilty of not taking responsibility for the girl, asking me if he owes her an apology and needs to do t’shuvah, acts of repentance for letting this happen. Of course, I said “no” when he asked me, but perhaps he, along with all of us, should say “yes.” Yes, we collectively need an “al cheit” for not stopping the emotional and physical violence which plagues our campus community.
One non-Jewish student who shared her experiences with me turned my thoughts to discussing this on Kol Nidrei. Discussing her understanding of Jews and Judaism, she matter-of-factly told me of her own experience of rape. She then continued to describe her tendency to give her various paramours whatever they want, emotionally as well as physically. Her inability to say no, coupled with what I realize is a history of emotional neglect from her parents, stunned me. We are facing a pandemic, of epic proportions. Students across this campus are plagued daily with questions of the boundaries of their sexual ethic. Students perceive a high price in virginity, in inexperience. To be inexperienced implies social awkwardness, prudishness, potentially being socially ostracized. By breaking through the barrier of certain physical experiences, somehow males in particular but females as well believe that they join the largest club on the planet, and that somehow such membership holds the key to nirvana. You are regularly sold this bill of goods, putting a constant source of pressure on you to perform, to demonstrate prowess, to place sex above love…and ultimately when the pressures finally give way to experience, so many of you, perhaps even the majority, simply feel in some ways empty.
When speaking to groups about the work I do, I explain that my job is to help college students define three i’s in their lives: Identity, independence, and intimacy. I ask students where their Identity as Jews fits into their overall sense of self. With freshmen in particular, but others as well, questions of Independence constantly arise. How often do you call home? How do you make decisions for yourself? And yet more than these two, my counseling constantly turns to questions of intimacy. Sexual and platonic, active and passive friendships. Some of the most consistent Hillel participants wonder why so much of my work turns to questions of intimacy. If they only heard what I hear...
My comments this evening are not intended to condemn all males for lack of control, nor all females as inherently weak. This is certainly NOT the case. Most male students I know do not in their essence cut themselves off emotionally from women, or objectify them continually. They struggle with societal pressures, and most essentially believe in honoring and respecting all people. Similarly, there is nothing inherently broken in women that turn them to low self esteem or an inability to present effective boundaries, and most of the students I know seem to honor these aspects of their lives. Nevertheless, the immense societal pressures felt by all, the mixed messages in our media, the personal growth which college years promote…all these outside forces lead to nearly unpredictable encounters and inner conflicts.
Today is Yom Kippur. Tonight requires us to afflict ourselves with discomfort, including fasting, not putting on perfume, refraining from sexual intercourse with our loved ones, avoiding leather shoes, and even remaining unbathed. These five prohibitions are meant to focus our thoughts on the spiritual rather than the material, to consider acts of t’shuvah in order to remove our failings.
For some of us, this Yom Kippur is a Day of Atonement. These five prohibitions become spiritual tools to make us seem like the dead, who neither eat, drink, wear shoes, bathe, or otherwise participate in the physical universe. It is a humbling experience in the context of our arrogance that led us to hurt others, intentionally or unintentionally. We need Atonement, release from the moral failings we have perpetrated.
For others among us, those hurt in one way or another, this Yom Kippur is a Day of At-One-ment. It is a time to ask that our victimhood created by miseries inflicted upon us not consume our daily lives and moral fabric. Yom Kippur’s five prohibitions and the tradition of wearing white serves to remind those in this category that we are practically equivalent to angels, who do not eat, drink, wear shoes, bathe or otherwise participate in the physical universe. A loss of self-esteem consumes those who suffer due to the perpetrators among us, leading them to believe that the wrongs done to them were only what they deserve. They have begun to believe, perhaps subconsciously, that their lives will be marked by continued suffering. They need At-One-Ment, an ability to claim, or reclaim, inner peace and to redefine the critical boundaries with others that allow them to experience healthy intimacy once again.
A Day of Atonement, a Day of At-One-Ment, Yom Kippur is probably both for all of us gathered here. We seek forgiveness for the ways we have hurt others, and we seek healing for the ways others have hurt us.
This day weighs heavily upon those who take self-improvement seriously, but perhaps for others among us, it is a day devoid of any sense of personal responsibility for the ways we have hurt others. It is particularly for the latter that our prayers are called up. We recite “al Cheit shechatanu,” “for the sin that WE have sinned,” not “for the sin that I have sinned. Our prayer book reminds us that we are not always cognizant of our need to do t’shuvah for our moral lapses. Yet, by reciting these failings communally, we pray that when we are spiritually dead to our shortcomings, we will awaken a true desire to change our lives.
This is a year for me to fight two moral failures running rampant in our very own community. Male students at USC have sinned against G-d by not listening to visual, verbal, physical and emotional cues from those demanding respect. Female students at USC have sinned against G-d by falsely measuring their self-worth through the eyes of others.
Discussing this with a male and with a female student, each separately and unequivocally concluded that their opposite gender is at greater fault. The male student sees a malaise on this campus, of women with low self-esteem offering mixed messages and playing mind games, making their intentions unclear and caving in to a social order that pushes them to flirt and play “the game.” He and others, while not politically correct, still seem to have a point regarding the provocative dress of women at parties on campus, the social acceptability and almost requirement to “hook up,” and the continuous talk about sex by males and females alike; this leaves male students, in the prime of their sex drives and sometimes lacking both experience and positive role models, dumbfounded and out of control.
In contrast, the female student hears of case after case of sexual assault and says that, ultimately, males are the perpetrators, insensitive to their victims, callously bullying and overwhelming them physically in compromising situations. Date rape, in which men assume that their attendance at a greek invite affords them permission to minimally “hook up” with whomever they can, is ultimately the fault of the assailant. Just as it is practically crystal-clear that one driver who rear-ends another is the guilty party, women will argue that a man who manipulates a woman sexually or as often happens, who controls her emotional life by sudden withdrawal of affection, is dead wrong, guilty as charged.
It is time we move away from a blame paradigm and replace it with ownership of our own shortcomings, whether male or female. While this semester has overall presented me with overwhelming depressing data on how my gender treats the objects of their affection, usually but not exclusively females, I plea to the women here to take stock of what has led you at times to measure your self-worth through the eyes of others rather than your own. I equally plea to the men here to wake up! Consider whether your actions have irreparably injured women along the way.
Let us allow our machzors to speak to this issue. The first line of the “Al cheit” prayer, p. 282 says “Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha b’ones," “for the wrong we did before You under coercion,”. Women have been coerced sexually. “Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha b’imutz halev,” “For the wrong we did before You by hardening our hearts.” We continue to believe that unwanted sexual advances have little or no impact on the victims. We take a blind eye to the violations running rampant on this campus. We think, It’s what happens! Boys will be boys….girls will be girls…. Hillel boys are not as bad…. Yet, when student after student describe to me how they have turned to self-destructive behaviors, including bulimia, cutting themselves, even suicide attempts, we must take note. And in several instances, breaking my heart, I have learned of Hillel students being just as guilty as anyone on the row or elsewhere. Jews are not immune to hardening their heart, or else it wouldn’t be in OUR prayerbook. Two students I spoke with even described their attempts to end everything, once and for all, life more painful than death. And yet we harden our hearts.
“Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha biv’li da’at,” For the wrong we did before You without knowledge.” Men and women who have received unwanted advances usually do not report or even castigate those who have hurt them. We cannot blame those afraid for keeping quiet, yet tragically this leaves those who cop a feel of a passed-out woman, or who cause someone to suddenly turn emotionally frigid, prepared to hurt others. All of us have, on one level or another, hurt others unintentionally, and when it involves emotional or physical intimacy, the damage sometimes goes well beyond ending trust. “Hocheiach Tochiach,” “you shall surely reprove one who commits a crime.” If we don’t, then when will they learn? What is preventing their errant ways from turning more violent?
Our tradition teaches that people are guilty both for intentional sins, b’meizid, and unintentional sins, b’shogeg. Whether you know how you hurt someone or not, today is a day to seek t’shuvah. Be on the safe side and confront those skeletons in your closet. Be a mensch, go overboard in ensuring that you have not hurt someone by checking in on them, and LISTEN to their words, body language, eye contact, to find the answer.
Our al cheits continue with example after example of moral failings in the realm of intimacy. “For the wrong we did before You by using sex exploitatively.” “For the wrong we did before You by promiscuity.” So many of the female victims now have hyperactive sex lives, quick to have sex b/c that is how, they learned, to keep a man’s attention. Of course, eventually this leads, if they are fortunate, to merely dysfunctional relationships; if not so lucky, to a deepened sense of hopelessness and even unwanted pregnancies and STDs. One of my dear students described her journey; pregnant after her momentary lover without warning removed a condom at the last moment, she turned to crystal meth as an escape from her anxieties created by the pregnancy. Ultimately, she miscarried, due to damage her body incurred years earlier, likely from a violent sexual assault she suffered then. “For the wrong we did before You by unbridled passion.”
“V’al Kulam, E-oa slichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.”
For all these things, G of forgiveness, forgive us, cleanse us, give us Atonement.
Why do we hear this refrain after every twenty or so transgressions? Perhaps if we truly listen to our words as we strike our chests, the sheer burden of so much sin is enough to crush us, so we separate out our faults in digestable chunks, recalling that we have support through G-d to help us recover from our failings. The pandemic of disrespect shown by men toward women, and by women toward themselves, is curable if we first pay attention to all the ways we have fallen short, and caused harm, and then ask for help to change our reality. Ours is an “E-oha slichot,” a G-d of forgiveness. Not all is lost for the student who chose to juggle two women, suddenly dumping one causing the discarded to break down emotionally. That is, if such a student does t’shuvah and pledges never again to crush the spirits of another and wakes up to his capacity to inflict pain.
Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha b’ma’achal uv’mishteh, “For the wrong we did before You in the foods we eat and the amount we drink.” The Daily Trojan (9/18/06) recently included an opinion piece titled “’Blacking Out’ reaches Epidemic Rates.” The writer argues “Alcohol has always been used to relax and drop inhibitions; but somewhere along the line, we've jumped from loosening up to losing consciousness…. Whatever the reason behind USC's blackout epidemic, there's no question that it's on the rise - and that it's more socially acceptable, and even desirable, than ever before.”
Nearly every incident of sexual assault that I uncovered this year either directly or indirectly involved alcohol or drugs. Either one or both people were significantly intoxicated, in some instances blacking out and waking up to the damage. A student just told me of a guy who would not take no for an answer, the intoxicating influence of alcohol still on his breath, as he violently violated her. “For the wrong we did before You by plotting against others.” “And for the wrong we did before You by tormenting others.”
“V’al Kulam, E-oa slichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.”
For all these things, G of forgiveness, forgive us, cleanse us, give us Atonement.
This university is filled with great resources. Center for Women and Men (http://www.usc.edu/student-affairs/cwm/home.html) is dedicated to these issues. Their mission statement states the following:
“The Center for Women & Men serves as a haven for students, staff and faculty. The center fosters an environment that enriches the USC experience across lines of gender, race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation by:
- Providing educational programs that help prevent sexual violence and create healthy relationships.
- Offering a safe, confidential space for survivors of sexual assault and other gender-based harm to receive counseling.
- Advocating on behalf of survivors of sexual assault and other gender-based harm and providing resource referrals.
- Supporting student groups committed to addressing gender-related issues.
Their website might be a direction that you can turn if you carry with you the burden of your own struggle with being a victim or a victimizer. Again, it is not to say that everyone is one or the other. However, these are resources that we should continuously consider, if not for ourselves then for others.The annual Take Back the Night march and demonstration offers hope to those who have suffered sexual exploitation. Men Creating Attitudes for Rape-free Environments, or Men CARE, is attempting to redefine the way men understand their relationship with women on this campus. I have served somewhat noncommittally this past year as a mentor for them. And yet despite my involvement, this year has opened my eyes to the horror that easily gets overlooked. My new years resolution includes reprioritizing Men CARE, as a professional duty while serving students on this campus. Every student in this congregation would benefit from at least becoming minimally knowledgeable of all that the Center for Women and Men has to offer.
Beyond the immediate secular resources available at USC, and perhaps more profoundly, there is a Jewish sex ethic. It is guided by the simple notion that all people are created in the image of G-d and that they are endowed with infinite worth. That means that no matter who you are, with or without self esteem, with a sense of power or of powerlessness, you deserve no less than the respect of all. Judaism teaches that entering a relationship demands the closest attention to both your own feelings and the feelings of your partner, BEFORE and while entering anything close to a physically intimate dynamic. Hooking up without any regard for the other is entirely contrary to Jewish teachings. The Torah reading on Yom Kippur afternoon lists several prohibited sexual relations, mostly but not exclusively incestuous, to remind us that physical intimacy demands forethought, and specifically that blacking out at a party can lead to complete and utter moral failure, whether one is conscious for it or not. A Jewish sex ethic teaches that women have undisputable rights, that marital rape is contrary to basic moral decency, and that by extension, consent is sacrosanct. But it goes beyond sex: A Jewish sex ethic teaches that any potentially romantic interaction requires sincerity and emotional generosity. More generosity than non-romantic interactions, contrary to our secular culture’s attitude regarding “hookups.”
Yom Kippur is a time of Cheshbon HaNefesh, personal accounting of our actions. We seek forgiveness of those we have wronged in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, but even after the holiday grinds to a close and the break the fast bagels are inhaled frantically tomorrow, ours is a tradition that is always open to t’shuvah, repentance. Our daily prayerbook says “forgive us, Avinu, for we have missed the mark.” What so many of the young women would give, for an apology from those who may have forever damaged their sense of self-worth and their lifelong understanding of healthy intimacy…
The Mikveh has amazing healing powers. I have taken students to this ritual bath many times, for many purposes. Immersing into this small indoor pool and exiting refreshed is a rebirth. Students carrying the scars of eating disorders, debilitating guilt, suicide attempts, unwanted pregnancies resulting in unwanted abortions, and survivors of sexual harassment, well deserve to be reborn, and my Facebook page lists the nicest mikveh’s phone number for anyone wishing to remain anonymous but wanting to heal. For those ready to confront these scars, I want to talk. With the strictest of confidentiality, let us begin your exploration of ways to heal your broken spirits and to seek the guidance that you may well need, be it a referral to a therapist or the creation of a Jewish support group for students who are searching for friends.
On this Yom Kippur, a day which requires abstention, I ask each of you, Are you fully innocent with regard to these issues? Have you ever allowed yourself to be used, hoping that love and warmth would follow? Have you ever taken advantage of the moment, hooking up with someone out of selfish desire but blind to the impact on the Other person? Do you have any idea of the damage that you might have inflicted on that person? Are you too detached emotionally that you cannot allow yourself to acknowledge your shortcomings? Our tradition teaches, One who Saves a single life is as if she or he has saved the entire world, and one who destroys a single life is as if he or she has destroyed the entire world: Have you saved any lives? Have you destroyed them? Have you allowed your life to be as if it is destroyed, unwilling or scared to take the steps necessary to ensure that you are respected as the metaphorical “world” that your life is, a being created in the image of G-d, of infinite worth?
The only possible conclusion to this sermon is not to be found in My words, but rather in Your action. And as Hillel the Elder once said, “If not now, when?”