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A Different Type of Social Distancing

by Rabbi Mark Wildes

In the last few days, more women have come forward accusing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment. When the accusations began, a photo circulated showing Governor Cuomo embracing one of his accusers. The Governor responded by saying that his usual and customary way of greeting includes hugging and kissing people. In his own words: “…you can go find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people, men, women. It is my usual and customary way of greeting.” Although it is under investigation as to what truly transpired, solely hugging and kissing are a “customary” manner of greeting and can seem pretty mild or as the Governor called it “usual”. Hugging and kissing people hello is pretty much the norm in our society, and I suspect it will be again once herd immunity is achieved. We will, no doubt, return to the usual physical embracing and casual after-work drinking with our colleagues, bosses and employees and somehow expect no inappropriate behavior to take place.

To be clear, the cause of sexual harassment is moral weakness, wholly due to the corrupt behavior and poor judgment of someone who shamefully abuses their power. We must never blame the victim. To minimize the likelihood of such abuse we create boundaries because we know people will be less tempted to do the wrong thing, even if those boundaries will not stop everyone. This is at least one of the many reasons Jewish tradition creates some separation between the sexes, such as the laws restricting Yichud (seclusion) and Negiah (touching)—not because those boundaries can fully eradicate bad behavior, but because they can reduce their occurrence.

The Sages of Israel emphasized how challenging it was for the Jewish people, who encountered God on Mount Sinai, to accept the obligations and ramifications of the commandments pertaining to sexual morality. Moses Maimonides—the great 12th century rabbi, philosopher and physician—highlights this point in his codification of Jewish law called the Mishne Torah. In his discussion of the Jewish laws pertaining to illicit relationships (22:18), Maimonides writes “there is nothing more difficult in the entire Torah for the majority of the nation than to refrain from sexual immorality and illicit relationships''. He goes on to quote from an earlier rabbinic source (the Sifri) that when the Jewish people accepted this area of Jewish law, they did so with tears, and wailing!

I was struck by the honesty of these rabbinic teachings. Plain and simple, maintaining one's sexual morality is incredibly challenging. In Maimonides’ words, “there is nothing more difficult in the entire Torah”. We would do well as a society to be more honest with ourselves; to acknowledge our vulnerability and weakness when it comes to sexual desire and establish greater boundaries; and not just in the workplace. It is unrealistic, and psychologically unhealthy, to live our lives one way out of the office, and a completely different way the rest of the time. If hugging and kissing—which at times are accompanied by drinking—are commonplace or “usual” with those we are not in an intimate relationship, can we really expect that conduct not to occasionally surface in the workplace? Call me old fashioned, but it’s time to reassess what we consider acceptable social behavior and consider creating some new boundaries—in and outside the office. If we can make some smart changes in the way we relate to each other generally, we will have less problems in our work and public spaces.

Governor Cuomo’s alleged behavior and the forces that gave rise to them are not new, nor will they be going away anytime soon. With quarantine and isolation bans being lifted in the near future, we would be wise to adopt the honesty of our Sages when it comes to sexual desire and consider some positive change in our own personal lives. Those changes will not only make our public spaces safer—but permit us to see one another as men and women created in the Divine image.

Special thanks to Yoel Saidian for his contribution to this blog.


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