This past week, those two simple words set off a powerful campaign of solidarity rooted in a shared vulnerability—the acknowledgement, by untold thousands of women on social media, that they have been victims of verbal or physical sexual assault.
Even as a proud and self-proclaimed feminist, the sheer scope of the response—both in its size and diversity—was a shocking and painful reminder to me of the pervasive nature of this social disease. And is there any other widespread societal ill where so many suffer in silence out of fear or shame? In many cases, women, for the first time, were acknowledging a source of deep pain not just to Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but also to their parents and their spouses.
After an acquaintance of mine shared a number of disturbing stories from her college days, her father commented on her post that had he known what was going on, he would have burst through the doors of her dormitory, fists at the ready. In reply, she admitted that she didn’t tell him, not because she was worried about what he would do, but because, at the time, she didn’t even realize that the egregiously aggressive behavior by her male floormates (which I won’t describe here) was something she should report to anyone—much less her father. Simply put, that kind of behavior was to be expected.
And as much as we might want to shake our head in disbelief, our Torah teaches us exactly that—we shouldn’t be surprised, or even expect our society to register an injustice when the bodies of human beings become vehicles for satisfying our lust for domination and our taste for humiliation.
Why was God so insistent on denying us the knowledge secreted away in the flesh of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden? For the same reason that he immediately clothed Adam and Eve after their first bite from the apple—because He knew that once we became aware of our bodies we would immediately objectify them.
It doesn’t even register anymore.
Flip through any magazine and take a close look at the ads. Ask yourself how we got to the place where our society takes for granted that scantily clad women should be used to sell everything from cars, to the chemicals that disguise our body odor, to cat food (google it). Is it any wonder that so many men in positions of power—be they Hollywood executive, or as has been increasingly reported of late, physician, teacher, or even rabbi—easily convince themselves that their behavior should be excused because “this is the way things are?”
God was right not to trust us with the responsibility of privileging human dignity above all things. Even as He promises in this week’s parasha never again to flood the earth, he warns Noah and his family that “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.”
But out of this grim realization, a new source of hope was gifted to humanity–seven laws that, to this day, form the backbone of our universal moral code. With these laws, God gave us a way to transcend our nature, if only we would give ourselves over to divine nurture.
The solution to this problem cannot be limited to exposing the culprits and enforcing workplace regulations. That may curtail the behavior, but it won’t address the root cause of the problem. Because the widespread verbal and physical sexual abuse of women is not primarily a disease of the body—it is a disease of the spirit. And it will take spiritual work—religious work—to cure ourselves and our society of this shameful epidemic, to retrain our minds to see the human form as something composed more of the stuff of the highest heavens than of the basest and lowest materials of the earth.
Noah emerges from the ark devastated by the destruction he witnessed. To console himself, he plants a vineyard and drowns his sorrows in drink. Not long after, his son Ham discovers Noah in a state of undress. Not only does Ham fail to console his father, he leaves him exposed in his vulnerability and runs to tell his brothers what he saw. For this sin, for failing to see through the nakedness of the body to the pain of the soul, Noah curses his son and the Canaanites, his descendants. But Noah’s son Shem, the ancestor of Abraham, who lovingly covers his father with a garment, is rewarded with God’s blessing.
We are the inheritors of this blessing and as Jews we must continually prove to ourselves and to the societies we live in that we are worthy of that blessing by following in Shem’s example—by providing cover to the vulnerable, by speaking up when we are witness to the objectification and denigration of the holy vessels granted to us by God. And by insisting that when it comes to making the world a place where women can feel safe, heard, and seen–not just as bodies but as souls–we can do better.