How can we find a mod­ern sex­ual ethics? Look in the Bi­ble

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI EL­IZ­A­BETH TIKVAH SARAH El­iz­a­beth Tikvah Sarah is rabbi of Brighton and Hove Pro­gres­sive Sy­n­a­gogue. For a fuller treat­ment of Jewish sex­ual ethics, see chap­ter eight of her book Trou­ble-Mak­ing Ju­daism

Sex­ual ha­rass­ment has been in the news in the past few weeks, and the #MeToo cam­paign in so­cial me­dia has re­vealed just how wide­spread it is. Of course, it’s not just a con­tem­po­rary prob­lem. The He­brew Bi­ble is full of sim­i­lar sto­ries of preda­tory male sex­ual be­hav­iour, from the rape of Di­nah, daugh­ter of Leah and Ja­cob by Shechem the son of Hamor (Ge­n­e­sis 34), to the rape of Ta­mar, daugh­ter of King David by her half-brother, Am­non (II Sa­muel).

But there is an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now — or should be. The re­cent ex­posé of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and abuse has con­cerned so-called ad­vanced, demo­cratic so­ci­eties that have seen huge ad­vances in gen­der equal­ity in the past 50 years. But sim­i­lar ad­vances have not been made, it seems, in sex­ual ethics.

The gen­der equal­ity rev­o­lu­tion has its roots in the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion of the 1960s. And therein may lie the prob­lem. Al­though, os­ten­si­bly, the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion liberated the gen­ders on an equal ba­sis, in prac­tice, sex­ual free­dom was a li­cence for males to have lib­eral ac­cess to fe­males. It took the ad­vent of the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment in the 1970s be­fore an in­ci­sive cri­tique of male power and priv­i­lege emerged that un­masked the sex­ual ha­rass­ment and ex­ploita­tion of fe­males that passed for “free­dom”.

So, what has Jewish teach­ing got to say about sex­ual ethics? The short an­swer is: not a lot. Tra­di­tional Jewish teach­ing on sex­u­al­ity starts from the premise of male power. Fa­thers and hus­bands are the pre-eminent ac­tors and the em­pha­sis is less on eth­i­cal be­hav­iour than on the reg­u­la­tion of re­la­tion­ships. In the first ex­ten­sive treat­ment of sex set out in the To­rah, in Acharei Mot and Ke­doshim (Leviti­cus chap­ters 18 and 20), the focus is on pro­hib­ited sex­ual acts — those be­tween family mem­bers; a man and his neigh­bour’s wife; a man and a men­stru­at­ing woman; two men; a man or woman and an an­i­mal.

In all these cases, with the ex­cep­tion of bes­tial­ity, where ini­ti­a­tion of the act by a woman is con­ceived, the in­di­vid­ual male is the sub­ject; the in­di­vid­ual fe­male is the ob­ject.

In­ter­est­ingly, a chap­ter with a very dif­fer­ent agenda is sand­wiched be­tween Leviti­cus 18 and 20. Leviti­cus 19 fo­cuses on eth­i­cal be­hav­iour to­wards the needy, vul­ner­a­ble and mar­ginal — the poor, the dis­abled, the el­derly, and the stranger — and also to­wards one’s neigh­bour.

In my view, the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the chap­ters is not ac­ci­den­tal. Rather, it sug­gests that the sex rules should be un­der­stood in the con­text of the eth­i­cal reg­u­la­tion of so­cial re­la­tion­ships. And yet, to this day, ha­lachah (Jew- ish law) has failed to con­sider the im­pli­ca­tions of this jux­ta­po­si­tion for sex­ual ethics.

None of the var­i­ous laws re­lat­ing to sex­ual be­hav­iour in Leviti­cus say any­thing about love. At the heart of Leviti­cus 19, by con­trast, lies the fa­mous dic­tum: “You shall love your neigh­bour as your­self. I am the Eter­nal” (19:18). The He­brew word trans­lated as neigh­bour, rei’a, also means “friend” or “com­pan­ion”.

Lov­ing your sex­ual com­pan­ion as you love your­self trans­forms sex from a se­ries of acts per­pe­trated by one party on the body of another, into a re­la­tion­ship char­ac­terised by equal­ity and rec­i­proc­ity; an ex­pres­sion of love in which two peo­ple, re­gard­less of sex­u­al­ity or gen­der, are ac­tive sub­jects, peers, equals.

So what hap­pens when we ap­ply the cri­te­ria of love, equal­ity and rec­i­proc­ity to the sex­ual pro­hi­bi­tions out­lined in Leviti­cus 18 and 20? The ex­pres­sion gillui er­vah, “un­cov­er­ing naked­ness”, used re­peat­edly in these chap­ters, sug­gests not only sex­ual in­ti­macy, but vul­ner­a­bil­ity and dan­ger, and the po­ten­tial for ex­ploita­tion.

Clearly, all sex­ual con­duct in which the in­equal­ity of the par­ties is an in­her­ent fea­ture, for ex­am­ple, sex­ual acts in­flicted by adults on mi­nors, is abu­sive. Sim­i­larly, all non-re­cip­ro­cal sex­ual be­hav­iours, de­signed to in­timi- date, in­clud­ing, leer­ing and touch­ing. “Un­cov­er­ing naked­ness” can be lit­eral, it can also be fig­u­ra­tive: lewd and ob­scene re­marks ob­jec­tify and hu­mil­i­ate.

In­ter­est­ingly, the ex­pres­sion “un­cov­er­ing naked­ness” is not used in Leviti­cus 18 and 20 in con­nec­tion with adul­tery, sex be­tween men and bes­tial­ity. In these cases, the more neu­tral term “ly­ing down” is em­ployed. In the verses con­cern­ing two men ly­ing down to­gether (Leviti­cus. 18:22 and 20:13), there may be an im­plicit as­sump­tion that the in­de­pen­dent adult male sub­ject is not in a po­si­tion to ex­ploit his equal — another adult male.

But, at a deeper level, “un­cov­er­ing naked­ness” refers not only to who is in­volved, but to what is in­volved. Even if the par­ties in­volved are equals, any sex­ual be­hav­iour which is im­posed on another with­out their con­sent, or en­tails ex­pos­ing and ex­ploit­ing another per­son’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity, is “un­cov­er­ing naked­ness”.

The prac­tice of a code of sex­ual ethics rooted in love, equal­ity and rec­i­proc­ity is the only an­ti­dote to sex­ual ha­rass­ment and abuse.

The Bi­ble is full of sto­ries of preda­tory male sex­ual be­hav­iour’

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

The#MeToo cam­paign has en­cour­aged women to come for­ward with their ex­pe­ri­ence of sex­ual ha­rass­ment

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