Israel has indeed had a busy year: social protests in the summer, the Price Tag hoodlums last month, and now the “Haredi Spring” of Beit Shemesh. I have already written about the former two (here and here), and want to offer a perspective on this week’s events.
There are a bunch of noteworthy things about what is happening in Beit Shemesh: As Allison Kaplan Sommer writes in the Forward, the fact that Beit Shemesh is largely populated by American olim is contributing to the backlash against Haredization. As others have pointed out, the entire spectrum of religious leadership, including Haredi figures, are speaking out against extremism. And as I myself noticed while watching the protest in Beit Shemesh the other night, I can’t think of another time that Limor Livnat (Likud) and Shelly Yachimovitch (Labor) would have spoken in one voice, on the same podium, one right after the other. In many ways, the reaction here is a credit to Israel and the Jewish people.
But it also raises questions. Extremism is a reflection of strains that are within the mainstream. While the mainstream separates the wheat from the chaff, the extreme reminds us of the chaff that lies within. Many have asked, “How can these people claim to represent the Torah?” Torah is a sea–hakol ba, everything is in it. Reading Torah, understanding Torah, is not like reading an instruction manual. Torah requires interpretation, and when interpretation enters the mix, the possibilities become very wide in all directions.
In this case, the extremists are picking up on threads within the Talmud which can be read as putting the onus for uncontrollable male sexuality on women. Now, there are also strains within the Talmud that clearly put the responsibility on each individual to control themselves, to comport themselves with a sense of modesty and humility–not because they are sex objects for others, but because they (we) are God’s creatures and should carry that awareness at all times. Part of the Orthodox community’s reaction against the sexual revolution of the later 20th century has been to articulate a sexual ethic of modesty. And in many respects, this is a very healthy thing, particularly when it applies to the universal responsibility–of men and women–to live with a sense of yirat shamayim (awe of heaven) and avodat Hashem (service of God).
Where things get crooked is when we start to make some people responsible for the sexuality of others–in particular, when we make women responsible for the sexuality of men. As one of my Roshei Yeshiva put it to us years ago, “A true ben Torah should be able to walk down Yafo street [in Jerusalem] in the middle of the summer, see attractive women in tank tops, and not be aroused.” That is, each individual needs to be responsible for what he or she does with his or her sense of sexual arousal–it is not the responsibility of one sex or the other, and it certainly is not about trying to impose one community’s self-described extreme (Haredi) ethic of modesty on the rest of society. If anything, Haredi men should strive to be examples of equanimity.
What has sadly taken place, however, is a misreading of Torah. Here, for instance, is a Gemara from Taanit 24a about Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret (thanks to Mori v’Rabi Dov Linzer for reminding me of this):
He had a beautiful daughter. One day he saw a man boring a hole in the fence so that he might catch a glimpse of her. He said to the man, What is [the meaning of] this? And the man answered: Master, if I am not worthy enough to marry her, may I not at least be worthy to catch a glimpse of her? Thereupon he exclaimed: My daughter, you are a source of trouble to mankind; return to the dust so that men may not sin because of you. (Taanit 24a)
One could read this story as saying that the daughter–and by extension, women–is responsible for the man’s sexual arousal. But to read the story that way is to forget what precedes it: A conversation between Rav Ashi and Rabbi Yosi bar Avin.
Rav Ashi enquired: Did you not frequent the discourses of Rabbi Yose of Yokeret? He replied: Yes. Rav Ashi then asked him: Why did you leave him, Sir, and come here? He replied: How could the man who showed no mercy to his son and daughter show mercy to me?
That is, the Gemara is repudiating the view of Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret, not endorsing it! It is saying that his behavior–making his daughter responsible for the sexuality of a peeping tom–is reprehensible. He is a character without generosity of spirit, someone literally not to learn from. And so Rabbi Yosi bar Avin left him to learn from Rav Ashi.
It is this point, this generosity of spirit, this openness to the world and sense of proper self-assurance, that we need to be striving for. This is the classic difference between the approach of Reuben and that of Judah: Where Reuben offers to kill his own sons if he fails to bring Benjamin and Simeon back to Jacob, Judah takes a more mature, self-assured sense of responsibility. Where Reuben displays short-sighted, narrow-minded thinking, Judah becomes an arev: He takes responsibility for himself and shows magnanimity to his father. Like Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret, Reuben is a teacher we should avoid. Rather we should learn from Judah, and assume responsibility for our lives.