A friend of mine recently posted a link to this blog post about a screening of an Israeli film titled Six Acts. I found the post profoundly disturbing, not only because the facilitator of the discussion whose point was to reduce rape, apparently had very little awareness of the facts of sexual violence, or even because of the comments made by organizers and audience members. I felt disturbed as well because we see such a great deal of sexual violence in our society and we are inclined to write it off in various ways.
As a human being, and as a citizen, it should be enough to disturb me. But as a Jew, I feel that there is a great deal more to be said, and I fear that we are not having these conversations in our community at least in part because in the Jewish community, we struggle with modernity in more than one way:
First, because many liberal Jews wear our “Jewish lenses”—our framing of the world in Jewish terms- too lightly, and we don’t take seriously the idea of sex as a form of intimacy and holiness, whose performance echoes the divine unification of God. And we do not teach sexuality as a sacred act, which is private and precious, rather than an act which is “for fun.”
And second, we also struggle with the reality that in Jewish culture itself, there is a deep inequality between men and women built into our halachic (legal) system. Even though we in the liberal Jewish communities give lip service to egalitarianism, in reality we have not achieved it, neither in our institutions, nor in our personal lives. A cursory examination of the leadership of our institutions (overwhelmingly male at the top) inequality of pay among not only clergy but also the extreme levels of low pay for traditionally female jobs (including regular airing of news stories in various iterations of Jewish press showing preschool teachers and social workers on welfare).
While these items don’t even begin to match the horror of the situation described in the blog post, they are reflections both of our schizophrenic attitudes towards women, and of the unresolved tensions in our two cultures in dealing with women.
Certainly, the secular culture, too, is deeply invested in not examining its attitudes towards sex and sexuality and women. However, as a Jew and a rabbi, I believe that we are failing our communities in not speaking—yes, explicitly speaking—about sex, violence, and sexism, and about how Jewish tradition talks about all of these matter—both for good and in ways that we should find disturbing- and in what ways Jewish tradition can offer a better way.
**In the DC area, the excellent organization JCADA offers resources for victims of domestic violence. Jewish family services also often offer counseling services. The (secular) organization RAINN can help the victims of sexual violence find a variety of support services, and all RAINN affiliates offer 24 hour crisis hotlines. If you or someone you love has been a victim of sexual or domestic violence, please contact someone who can help you.
The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is everywhere. I saw a woman reading it the subway last week and another at the pool. This book, which started as an e-book and gained a following because women could read it in secret, has come out of the closet. Women are reading it out in the open everywhere. Magazine articles and blog posts are calling it the “Summer of Grey.”
I like that the book is helping some women get in touch with their sexuality. Judaism has always seen sex with in a committed relationship as a positive act. The Talmud dictates how often a man is to please his wife by having relations with her: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in 30 days; and for sailors, once in six months. Having sex on Friday night during the Sabbath is even referred to as a “double mitzvah.” If this book is helping some couples come together then that is a good thing.
However, I find the threat of violence which hangs over the entire story to be chilling and dangerous. The book hooks readers by keeping them wondering if Ana the female character will submit to Christian’s “Red Room of Pain” and allow him to dominate her. This commingling of sex and violence is abhorrent to me as a woman and a Jew.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day. Young women, low-income women, and some minorities are disproportionately victims of domestic violence and rape. Women ages 20-24 are at greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence, and women age 24 and under suffer from the highest rates of rape. The Justice Department estimates that one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, and that less than five percent of these rapes will be reported.( Statistics can be found here. )
I fear that this book sends the message that violent acts as part of sexual play is okay. I know that in the story Ana has to consent to everything. However from the start, she and Christian are not on an even playing field. He holds the power. He has more money, knowledge, and experience than her. She is in the under-24-years-old demographic. I fear that many women will be hurt physically and emotionally by putting themselves in the hands of men who don’t know when to stop, who will push the pain element too far, who will not hear the safeword.
There is no grey area here. Sex and violence do not go together. One is an act of love; the other is an act of hate. Millions of women suffer each year at the hands of abusive men. This is not sexy or alluring.
I wish I could quote a text from Jewish tradition which clearly says “Thou shalt not hit your lover.” But nothing is that clear. Jewish law however has built in many statues to safeguard vulnerable women from others’ abuses. Widows must be taken care of, and male family members are admonished not to have sex with female relatives. In addition, the stories of the rape of Dina and Tamar make it clear that raping a woman is a punishable act. Unlike the Christian tradition, Judaism does not see sex itself as shameful. But many structures are put in place so that sex is a pleasurable act between consenting adults, not a violent one.
If you enjoyed reading Shades of Grey, please take a moment to think about what you enjoyed about the book. And reflect on some of the messages it sends, particularly to young women who may not have the wherewithal to stand up to a dominating man. As women, we need to talk about the interplay between sex and violence so that we can protect ourselves. If this book helps to open up that conversation then I am glad that it has come out of the closet.