Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Over the last several days, all of social media has been overtaken by a flood of posts: “#MeToo.” One article commenting on it had noted that the count was at 12 million “me too” posts. I’m sure that’s not even close, as the flood of posts continues, and that was yesterday, by the time this is posted, maybe a couple of days. I’ve seen several men noting that nearly every woman they knew had posted. My own feeds are full, and I continue to see friends posting, sometimes their stories, sometimes just the bare words, “Me, too.”
The Jewish tradition is very clear that all sexual encounters require explicit consent (Talmud Eruvin 100b), Maimonides (Deuteronomy 5:4) explains that not only must one’s partner explicitly consent and be neither asleep nor drunk, but that even if the woman is anxious or hanging back, he shouldn’t proceed, and in fact, not only that, but even the way he speaks to her should be modest and kind, and that even in the midst of a sexual encounter, he should never use obscene language.
But the reality is that the flood of “#MeToo,” isn’t really about sex. At least not directly. In our society, sex has become disconnected from sanctity and affection, and instead, it has turned into an occupation that is often done simply for physical satisfaction and expressed too often through an exercise of power. This has led us to a place where sex is seen as a right, and the opportunity to have sex with anyone one has power over, implicitly, is perfectly acceptable.
But Judaism tells us something different. Appetites are not to be quashed entirely but sanctified. The Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination — is considered to be the source of a person’s appetites. But despite its name, it isn’t actually evil. The sages tell us, “Were it not for the evil inclination, a person would not build houses, would not marry and would not bear children.” (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7)
In other words, the Yetzer Hara is a drive. It urges us to create, to be ambitious, to reproduce. None of these things are bad in themselves – it is only when we give them free rein and allow ourselves to think that in themselves, sex or money or power are ultimate goals that we have a right to indulge freely, that they become evil. The Jewish tradition makes clear that it is when we believe that we have a right to indulge our appetites that we come to ruin and destruction and bring others to despair and harm. Much of Jewish law exists to remind us that it is not that we have rights, but that we have obligations to others and to God.
To make the world a fit place, we sanctify and circumscribe our natural behaviors, curbing our tendencies to make ourselves the center and disregard the pain and needs of others.
Even God reins Godself in: In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is explained that for humanity to exist, God has to do tzimtzum – to contract Godself. When God is fully expansive, there is no room for anything else. For creation to come to be, to grow and develop, God has to make room. Without that tzimtzum, God is alone – there is only perfect self-regard in stasis.
Similarly with humanity: Whenever someone with power thinks that appetites are to be indulged and fully expressed, desire becomes destruction and isolation. For humans, when we – especially those of us with power — fail to regard the reality of others, to make space for them and ensure that we understand the completeness of others and our obligations to them, then our power becomes dust, our creation, stagnation, our desires, evil.