While sexual attitudes are inclined to change from generation to generation, controversies relating to sexual behavior are ageless and even occupy a prominent role in the biblical narrative.
Perhaps as an octogenarian there is a generational gap between me and younger people with respect to prevailing sexual attitudes. I am no prude and when, 50 years ago, it was fashionable to demonize homosexuals I never joined the pack. I always maintained that consensual sexual relations were a private matter, I never discriminated against gays or lesbians, and I unhesitatingly employed quite a few. And despite the strict halachic prohibitions, I maintain that if gay people wish to be observant, they should not be ostracized from communal religious participation.
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At the same time, I oppose gays flaunting their sexuality (for example by participating in pride parades) or promoting their lifestyle as progressive while implicitly denigrating the traditional concept of a nuclear family. They should be free to live their lives as they deem fit and enjoy all civil rights extended to heterosexual couples. But I am not ready to concede that gay couples should be glorified, as they sometimes are on TV, for supposedly partaking in a superior alternative lifestyle. I feel that this encourages young people to experiment unnecessarily with their own sexuality.
This brings me to the same-sex marriage issue, which has created such a global upheaval. The continuity of mankind depends on male-female intercourse. Marriage implies a heterosexual union and to religious people it is a sacred institution.
While I fully support the legal system providing gay couples with rights identical to those of a heterosexual union, surely appropriate commitment ceremonies can be devised that do not imply bracketing such unions in the same category as traditional marriages.
Jewish non-Orthodox bodies like the Conservative and Reform movements should at most be neutral on this issue, but unfortunately, they are at the forefront of calling for gay unions to be defined as traditional marriages. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews are wrongly condemned for being homophobic when they praise the sanctity of marriage and do not endorse gay weddings as an extension of what is religiously accepted as a sacred union.
The gay marriage debate has descended into bullying and vilifying anyone who dares to defend traditional beliefs. But objecting to gay marriage is neither discriminatory nor homophobic. The slandering of all who oppose gay marriage has descended into a poisonous hate fest.
The just campaign to ensure equal social and civic rights for gays has succeeded beyond all expectations. But it was never intended to promote a gay lifestyle at the expense of heterosexuality and the nuclear family. I do not endorse the belief that sexuality is fluid. Nor would I condone the silencing of traditional and religious values, which consider marriage between man and wife to be uniquely sacred.
Putting aside the issues of LGBT rights and gay marriage, an entirely separate and unrelated aspect of the so-called sexual revolution is how we relate to predation and abuse.
People who are in every other respect normal, including those who occupy important social or political roles, sometimes engage in deviant and dark sexual behavior. This is probably one of the reasons why rabbis in the Middle Ages imposed needlessly extreme divisions between the genders and obliged women to cover themselves up to avoid tempting sexual predators. Many men, including rabbis, also regrettably regarded women as sexual objects whose primary role was to give birth to children.
From the Victorian era – an era of sexual debauchery – to the early 20th century, public displays or discussions of sexuality were considered taboo. It is only in the past 60 years that sex has found its way into public discourse.
The early 1960s featured ugly whispers, subsequently confirmed, about the exploits of the Kennedy brothers. Since then, exposés regarding the predatory behavior of powerful men have become commonplace.
But the world was shocked when, beginning in the late 1980s, a flood of cases of horrific abuse of children in schools and churches was exposed. Alas, Jewish schools and yeshivot were not immune to such abuse. These tragedies were frequently compounded by rabbis and administrators who refused to report incidents and who covered up the issue by dispatching the offender to another institution where he could resume his monstrous activity.
But the final turning point was when New Yorker magazine exposed the predatory sexual behavior of one of the world’s most famous movie moguls, Harvey Weinstein – which the district attorney failed to prosecute on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
Last month, The New York Times published two investigative articles providing additional, detailed coverage of some of the horrendous sexual assaults he allegedly inflicted on a host of actresses and employees. This triggered a reaction from dozens of women claiming that over a 20-year period, Weinstein had also sexually assaulted them. It also unleashed a flood of other harrowing stories of women abused or raped by others in the entertainment world. Many did not testify because they had previously received huge sums to remain silent.
Once the issue came into the public domain, the media was inundated by a flow of condemnations and moral outrage. Yet many of those condemning Weinstein had been aware of this disgusting behavior and the vast majority had until now silently stood by.
This is a worldwide phenomenon and certainly not restricted to Hollywood or the entertainment industry. The current UK Tory government is on the edge of an abyss because a number of cabinet ministers and MPs have been forced to resign after having abused their positions to extract sexual services from their underlings or employees.
As a byproduct, the overnight exposure of this obscene behavior unleashed hysteria from some imaginative women looking for retribution after a failed tryst, or just seeking publicity, to begin accusing all and sundry of abuse. In the current climate, the media publicized every accusation. Many, if not most, of the accusations were undoubtedly valid.
But when Elie Wiesel is smeared and unable to defend himself, this is outrageous. A person who has passed away should not be subjected to such accusations unless clear evidence is tabled. People who claim to have been abused should be encouraged to immediately report the event to the authorities, so the courts can swiftly indict or exonerate the alleged offender.
And it is crucial, though sometimes difficult, to distinguish between initiating a relationship, subjecting a person to a tasteless joke or an unwanted touch (as aging, wheelchair-bound former President George H.W. Bush has apologized for), and actual coercion. Otherwise this “me too” phenomenon creates a Salem-like witch hunt atmosphere.
One thing is clear: an employer should unquestionably be prohibited from engaging in a sexual relationship with an employee unless both parties first publicly announce their intention to become involved. The shock of the recent exposures will for the time being hopefully deter employers from indulging in such behavior. It remains to be seen whether a long-term change is in the offing.
In any case, if we are to return to a normal society without becoming prudes, and enable men and women to coexist naturally, we must also do something drastic with the visual media.
I consider the major source encouraging such disgusting behavior to be the entertainment industry, particularly television, movies and the Internet. While movies in Hollywood’s earliest years were relatively libertine, from 1934 to 1968 a puritanical production code was strictly enforced. It was even prohibited for a man and woman to be filmed sitting together on a bed. Today, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. From ridiculous prudishness we have moved into quasi-pornography. Movies and TV shows now regularly include detailed depictions of sex with few details left to the imagination. I must confess that if I watch some of these films with my grandchildren I feel embarrassed almost to the point where ultra-Orthodox bans on movies and the Internet start to sound sensible.
The shock waves triggered by Weinstein may well spur reform and create a healthier society. A shakeup is needed. The sexual depravity that surrounds us is sickening and utterly condemned by Judaism as well as Christianity. These sexual abominations reflect a decadent and corrupt society reminiscent of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.
We must strive for a society that respects the right to privately live one’s preferred lifestyle without seeking to impose it on others – a society that respects women’s rights and harshly punishes abuse.
It is not too late. The vast majority of people in democratic countries are sickened by this behavior and will support politicians reforming the system.
Traditional Jews should be at the forefront of a public campaign to restore our sanity.