B’tselem Elohim: Jewish Ethics, Sexual Harassment and the Workplace of the Future

By David Teutsch, Mira Wasserman and Deborah Waxman

The #metoo campaign is an unprecedented demonstration of the difference that good people can make when they come together to seek justice. From Hollywood to Congress, powerful people are reckoning with patterns of abuse and domination that went unaddressed for generations.

The outpouring of truth-telling has already toppled perpetrators in politics, entertainment, and the media. This is a moment of decision. If #metoo is to bring lasting change to every corner of society, extending safety and justice not just to those who garner media attention, but also to the women and girls who remain the most vulnerable to harassment and assault, now is the time for turning brave speech into effective action. This moment confronts us with the urgency of making our workplaces, homes, and communities spaces where all women, children and men can flourish. In Jewish life, there is a new readiness to address past wrongs and change organizational cultures. How can the wisdom of Jewish tradition guide us in this moment of decision and possibility?

The most basic thing Jewish tradition teaches us about human beings is that we are all fashioned b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. Disrespecting another person inevitably involves failing to see the divine element in the other. It is wrong to treat anyone as an object; every person has inherent kavod, dignity. From this perspective, it should be obvious that sexual harassment in all its forms is wrong. Repeated propositioning, coercive pressure, unwanted touching and physical violence are all completely unacceptable.

Unfortunately, this core message of Jewish ethics has sometimes been eclipsed by a sensibility that protects the reputations of powerful individuals at all costs. This is a grave misreading of the Jewish ethical tradition. Jewish tradition places a strong value on avoiding l’shon hara, speech that, while true, will lessen the hearer’s opinion of another person. But this value is not an absolute principle. One is enjoined to do l’shon hara in the form of warning (azhara) to save someone from danger, whether it is physical, emotional or financial. One is also required to offer tokhekha, reproof, when someone has done something wrong and should be urged to do t’shuva, to apologize and not to repeat such behavior in the future. The Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, even goes so far as to say that one who fails to offer rebuke bears responsibility for the sin (Deot 6:7). Thus, from a Jewish perspective it is imperative that we face harassers and harassment in all their guises and do what we can to put an end to these demeaning and destructive behaviors.

One way that contemporary secular law has been used to avoid azhara is the use of confidentiality agreements as part of financial settlements. Such confidentiality agreements ought to be prohibited by law so that repeat offenders – and most offenders are repeat offenders – can be detected and dealt with. Banning confidentiality agreements would have aided in identifying pedophiles in the Catholic Church. It would have also bared Harvey Weinstein’s evildoing years ago.

The current tidal wave of women speaking out may mark a sea change in how American society deals with these issues. However, women speaking up is not enough. There must be a vast increase in education and training around these issues in schools, corporations and institutions of all kinds if such behavior is to be banished. Such programs must examine the way that the assertion of power, an inflated sense of entitlement and objectification of women are essential parts of sexual exploitation.

In a world where a president can be elected despite talking on camera about grabbing women’s private parts, we have a long way to go. When a major political party pours money into a senatorial race to support a candidate who has been banned from a mall for harassing teenage girls, we know that the old-boy mechanisms are still in place. Such men have been in denial when they should be experiencing shame, and they have a broad cohort of people who support them in their denial.

Women in recent weeks who have spoken out about what has happened to them have forced a significant number of men to acknowledge wrongdoing, but it is striking how often such apologies have been imprecise and generic: “I apologize if I hurt anyone.” Much of the time these men are so accustomed to treating women as objects that they are genuinely unaware of the psychological damage they have done to their victims. These men show a startling lack of empathy. Otherwise they would be unwilling to inflict such harm. Unless men come to see women as subjects rather than objects, only the fear of embarrassment and punishment will affect their conduct, and that would be insufficient to stop it. Making permanent change requires re-education of men – athletes, executives, actors, politicians, laborers and schoolboys. It also requires the creation of circumstances that protect women who speak out.

Permanent change also requires policy changes. Partly to avoid lawsuits and partly to protect productivity, more organizations are adopting policies regarding relationships among employees, use of demeaning language, safe reporting mechanisms, and so on. Such policies ought to be adopted by all employers and organizations. Responsible leadership involves checking to ensure that such policies are in place, that everyone in the organization knows about them, and that they are enforced in a way that protects complainants from retribution.

In Jewish organizations, female staff members are sometimes subjected to sexist treatment and outright harassment by board members and other volunteers. Some of the worst behavior of this kind has been exhibited by wealthy donors who expect “special treatment” in light of their gifts, creating awkward and unpleasant situations for women who do fundraising. This will only stop when senior executives, and particularly senior male executives, step in and make it clear that such conduct is unacceptable. Of course it takes moral courage to do so because there is a risk that a major donor may walk away from the organization, but the integrity of the organization and the safety of its staff and volunteers ought to take precedence. The obligation to protect the kavod, dignity, of others and the obligation to offer tokhekha ought to take precedence in every Jewish organization.

While it is true that the overwhelming number of sexual harassment incidents involves men treating women, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are victimized. When men and boys are harassed and exploited, they might be fearful to come forward because of notions of masculinity and entrenched homophobia in our society. Homophobia also contributes to the harassment of lesbians, who might be targeted precisely because they are not sexually available to men. Protection for all whistle blowers and swift and meaningful punishments are needed if the impact of #metoo is to be long-lasting.

One of the steps needed to ensure that the changes underway retain their momentum is to ensure that the consequences are appropriate to the crimes. Unwanted touching is morally reprehensible, but it is not nearly as heinous as rape or child molestation. The frequency of wrongdoing, its seriousness, the age of the victim and the impact on the victim and on the broader environment all deserve careful consideration when deciding how to respond. Speedy, thorough investigations, measured punishments, and public disclosure are part of what is needed to bring the changes American society needs to sustain our commitment to human dignity.

When Jewish organizations attempt to protect perpetrators rather than call them to account, we compound the injury to those who have been harmed. While certain ethical violations are appropriately addressed by employers, allegations of criminal wrong-doing should be adjudicated in courts of law. Yet another response – particularly when crimes occurred long in the past – is to pursue a course of restorative justice. This is an approach that brings victims, offenders, and community members together to make a plan for restitution and reconciliation. This approach aligns with Jewish ethical teachings in that it seeks justice for victims even as it supports offenders in pursuing t’shuva.

What we are saying, in short, is that Jewish ethics requires us to do proper education and training around these issues; that organizations of all sorts must have procedures in place to do swift and fair investigations and mete out appropriate punishments; that people who come forward with complaints must be protected; that leaders have an obligation to create an atmosphere that actively discourages abuses of power; and that Jewish leadership requires the ongoing defense of human dignity. With all those changes, harassment will finally become fully disreputable in all its forms – from cat-calls on the street to propositions at work, from ogling to touching to outright violence.

The #metoo campaign has brought us to the threshold of a transformative shift in our culture. Brave women, children and men have taken the risk of telling the truth, offering reproof to harassers and abusers and to the leaders and institutions that have protected them. Let’s work together to ensure that these acts of bravery become a foundation for lasting change.

Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D., is the former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D., directs the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Colllege’s Center for Jewish Ethics.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College & Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.