By Rabbi Mark Wildes
Watching Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford during the confirmation hearings was upsetting, shocking, and anything but bipartisan. However, if we remove all the politics involved, the situation raises two ethical issues: sexual morality and speech.
Both are fundamental Jewish principles and go to the very heart of what it means to be a human being. Parshat Bereishit famously tells us: “God created man in His image” (Bereishit 1:27).
So what does it mean to be created in God’s image? There are a wide range of views of what “His image” means.
The Impact of Speech
Maimonides said that it refers to man’s cognitive abilities – that only human beings can reason/think in a certain way. Only humans can freely choose their path in life and rise above the instinctual part of who they are – something an animal cannot do.
There is another fascinating interpretation by the great scholar Onkelos. Onkelos says that what separates man from animal is man’s capacity for speech. Rashi also says this, namely, man was given something extra – “deah v’dibbur”- he writes, intellect and speech. The human capacity to speak is reflects on us as intellectual beings that are able to communicate complex thoughts.
Thus when we misuse speech, “lashon hara,” we are tainting an inherent, “Godly,” trait that makes us fundamentally human, undermining mankind’s holiness. By misusing speech, we risk losing our very humanity. We must always stay vigilant and careful about what we say to each other and the impact of our speech on others.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick, in his comments on the Chanukah story, points out Maimonides’ very specific language in his description of what the Greeks were trying to do to the Jews:
“The Greek oppressors laid their hands on our property and on our daughters.”
That kind of attack on the daughters of Israel (during the attack, the Greeks made Jewish women submit to their officers) went to the heart of who we are because, as Rabbi Soloveitchick wrote, sexual morality is a fundamental principle in Judaism:
“No other moral norm is as central and as important in Judaism as that of sexual modesty. Judaism held the view that human dignity and majesty can be achieved only through protecting sexual morality. If the latter is abolished, then man, no matter how agreeable and creative, forfeits the extra existential dimension that the Almighty granted him.”
The Rav refers to our sexual identity as an “extra existential dimension” – a gift that goes to the essence of who we are as human beings. Therefore, acting in a way which violates another’s sexual integrity can cause that individual to feel less than human because, like speech, it’s a fundamental aspect of who we are.
Not Out of Our Control
We can’t control what happens on Capitol Hill, but we can try to make sure that in our own lives and in our own community we treat these two areas – speech and sexual propriety, the holiness, respect and utmost of seriousness they deserve.
The Jewish community is not immune to what we see happening all over the country, including inappropriate sexual advances and badmouthing that can ruin a person’s reputation. In the last few months, I’ve had to bar two individuals from coming to MJE: one who I became convinced was inappropriately touching women (who very bravely came forward) and another who spread unfounded/unsubstantiated claims about someone else. Both refused to acknowledge or apologize so both are no longer a part of our community.
Jewish law is very clear: we must never say anything untrue about another person. Even something which is true, but negative, we must learn to keep to ourselves UNLESS it is necessary to protect ourselves or to protect another from harmful or wrongful behavior. Then it becomes a mitzvah to say something. Speaking out in that kind of circumstance should be seen as an act of heroism, because – in all probability – you won’t only be saving yourself, but also the next victim.
If we can learn to get this right, we will fill our lives and our community with the kind of holiness our world so desperately needs and ensure we remain true to the divine image in which each and every one of us was created.