Teach Our Children Well: Judaism, Ethics, and Intimate Justice

By Deborah Meyer

Almost every day there is a revelation about anotherpowerful man harassing and assaulting women. Even those of us who work on issues of gender and equality, and the tens of millions of us who have experienced this kind of treatment firsthand, are learning that this behavior is more widespread than we would wish to believe. Despite decades of very real progress, the cultural norm that women are objects remains pervasive, and deeply entrenched.

Perhaps the most disturbing, but also enlightening, aspect of this unfolding moment is that it shows that men who have worked for social, racial, and economic justice apparently are just as likely as others to act as if they believe it is natural and acceptable to harass and assault women.

As a nation and as a people, this moment offers a terrible vision of what happens when people pursue power unmitigated by a sense of responsibility and respect for the other – and very specifically, for women. This is a view of the world that teens already are exposed to far too vividly through objectifying, predatory sexuality rampant in mass media and pornography. Now, however, they are seeing that this same mode of gender relations seems to hold sway in the real world, outside of fantasy driven narratives, among otherwise respectable, progressive members of society. The stories of these men, in their immediacy and reality, might convince teens that sexual harassment and assault is just how the world works.

If we do not want the world our teens inherit and shape to look like the world of today, then we must seize this opportunity to delve deeply into how we understand the relationship between sexuality and power. We must take an honest look at how our actions often reflect beliefs that are far less conscious and enlightened than the beliefs we profess. Only then can we articulate and adhere to ethical norms of behavior.

This is work we must do in community, and even moresowith teens. Teens need – and benefit greatly from – guidance from Jewish educators to develop an ethical frame on human relationships and sexuality.

How we treat each other – either as objects for our use or as individuals with whom we relate – is a core focus of Jewish thought. Martin Buber, writing in I and Thou in 1923, argues that rather than being transactional, we should relate to one another as subject to subject, based on mutuality and respect.

The model of shared power, rather than of domination, is central to feminist thought. Grappling to rework Leviticus 18 and 19 in her essay in The Coming of Lilith, Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow understands “defilement” as the “outcome of abuse of power and the violation of the vulnerable.” She urges us to “connect sexual values with those ethical values which ought to guide all relationships.”

Sadly, recent events have shown that our society and our leaders do not value or foster ethical relationships. In this context, women are seen as objects for men to take. To many successful men in politics, business, and entertainment, sexuality can be used to stoke their sense of power, with male status gained through possession of a desirable woman.

Sex is also used by men to exert power over women, to dominate them, whether they are subordinates or competitors. When men “take” women – by grabbing, harassing, and assaulting them – consciously or unconsciously, men are attempting to reduce and strip women of their power. It is not only an unending series of personal violations. It is a grave social injustice, carried out on a grand scale.

Now is the time to introduce and uphold the value of intimate justice, a term coined by psychologist Sara McClelland to explore the inequality in how society expects women and men to engage in and enjoy sex. Those who pursue intimate justice are challenging internalized beliefs to argue that women are capable of empowerment and self-love and that men are capable of intimacy and connection.

As adults, we as individuals and as members of Jewish and American communities would benefit from re-engaging with the ethical tools of Judaism, applying moral and ethical conversations with renewed vigor to gender and sexual ethics.

For those of us who work in Jewish education, it is urgent that we have these conversations with teens, without shying away from the sensitivity of the sexual content. In the crucial stage of developing identity, and for the good of Jewish community and our secular society, teens need exposure to Jewish ethical and moral conversations. As they explore the world and imagine who they want to be and become, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to share with teens the rich conversations within Judaism that help us struggle to find and maintain ethical behavior.

Along with shocking revelations, it is remarkable to see women drawing strength from one another to speak up and to hold men and institutions accountable. And it is heartening to see many men standing as allies and joining the call for justice. Teens need and deserve the opportunity to engage in this same societal conversation, to think for themselves within Jewish community, drawing on Jewish values, so that they are able to work for intimate justice in their peer communities and the wider world.

We owe this to Jewish teens, as individuals under our care, as American citizens with a responsibility to be involved in the polity, and as a concrete illustration of how Judaism can provide meaning and remain relevant to our lives today and into the future.

Deborah Meyer is the co-founder and CEO of Moving Traditions, which emboldens teens by fostering self-discovery, challenging sexism, and inspiring a commitment to Jewish life and learning. The organization has pioneered a new model of sexuality education that draws on Jewish values to help teens explore issues of consent, objectification, and pleasure, as they form a healthy sexuality based on mutuality and respect.