Purim is now behind us; Pesach is ahead of us. Both, in their own ways, are festivals of freedom. Purim celebrates freedom from religious hatred and the threat of death; Pesach celebrates freedom from slavery. At the end of winter and the beginning of spring, freedom is in the air.
But this month, I want to write about another freedom: freedom from sexual predation. There is little need to explain why this is on our minds. From Jimmy Savile to Catholic priests, from senior politicians to ordinary people, everyone appears to be at it.
Those who violate others in this way seem to feel that they have a right to ride roughshod over the humanity of those weaker than themselves providing, of course, that they are not caught. They go to great lengths to hide their crimes and intimidate their victims into silence.
We Jews are not immune, either as perpetrators or as victims. We are the same as everyone else. However, we carry with us a belief and a system of laws that should go some way towards inoculating us against this scourge.
Firstly, the belief. We believe in a God who is all-knowing and who cares for every individual. Over and over again in the Torah, riding as a refrain over the laws of our faith, is the assertion that ‘I am your Eternal God.’ When there is no other reason given for obeying, those words re-echo, to remind us that there is One who witnesses and judges even when we do something in secret. Moreover, ‘If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking iniquity; and if you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon day’ (Isaiah 58:9–10).
Secondly, the laws. We repeat them year after year. Laws reminding us that each one of us, male and female, weak and strong, are all made in God’s image and we must treat each other with decency and honesty, seeing ourselves in each other. Moses Maimonides gives this interpretation of the central law of Judaism, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’: ‘It is a mitzvah for every human to love each and every one from Israel as he loves his own body. As it is written, “be-loving to your neighbour (as one) like yourself”, therefore one must sing his/her praises, and show concern for his/her well-being, as he would for his own well-being and as he would for his own honour. Anyone who aggrandizes himself at the expense of another person has no portion in the world to come.’
I will not mention here laws concerning specific sexual crimes, as I feel the general laws hold greater power.
Judaism, if it is worth anything, is more than a sense of peoplehood and shared history, customs and ceremonies. It is a bold attempt at human spiritual improvement. The current concentration on bringing to justice those who, in positions of trust and power, have exploited others sexually is commendable. We must also inoculate ourselves from our own basest desires.
A final thought. The rabbis said, ‘Were it not for the evil inclination a man would not build a house for himself or get married; he would neither beget children, nor ply a trade or pursue a profession’ (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:9). Sexual desire, within a loving, reciprocal relationship, can be beautiful. In other situations, it can be criminal.
Rabbi Stephen Howard