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The Morality of Weakness: Defining Sexual Harassment

The Morality of Weakness: Defining Sexual Harassment

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Our first dilemma in dealing with this issue is clarifying exactly what constitutes sexual harassment. Let us look at the following two scenarios:

During a coffee break at an office, a man puts his arm around a woman by the coffee machine and says: "How is it going?"

She responds: "Please take your hands off my shoulder."

"Lighten up," he says with a smile. "It's only a friendly gesture. We're in a friendly office and we want to keep a friendly atmosphere here.".

"Do you want me to report you?" She asks angrily.

"Lady, you've got a serious problem. You're overreacting. Lighten up!"

Scenario #2:

A woman walks into a man's office after hours, closes the door, and says:

"There's nobody else here now."

The man very nicely requests:

"Excuse me, please, but could you please leave the door open?"

She says: "What are you afraid of?"

If either of the above ever reached a courtroom, the judge would have a hard time deciding. Is this harassment? Maybe he was just having a bad day. Maybe her imagination was working overtime. Maybe they should both be seeing therapists for their problems.

Even in more obvious cases, it's difficult to reach a point of clarity about the exact nature of sexual harassment. Remember the Thomas-Hill case that engrossed the entire country in 1991? Every time you turned on the TV, glanced at a magazine or read a paper, someone, somewhere was asking: Is he telling the truth? Is she lying? Is he covering up? Are they both lying? Yet for all the debate, it was difficult for people to figure out exactly what crime had been committed. Under which category in the Ten Commandments did it fall? Did it belong under the category of "Do not covet your neighbor's wife"? What if she were single? The episode seemed to indicate that society was not as intimidated by harassment itself as much as it was terrified by the fact that it didn't know how to categorize harassment.

What is Morality?

In order to gain a better understanding of what harassment is, one must first have a clear picture of what morality encompasses.

In simple terms morality emerges from the conscious realization that, "Although I may be bigger than you, I may not use this to take advantage of you. The fact that I am rich and you are poor, or that I am strong and you are weak, healthy while you are sick, does not entitle me to take advantage of your disadvantage."

G‑d created a world in which no two people are equal. Each has some advantage over the other, be it in size, speed, intelligence, material wealth or connections. And whenever two people get together there exists always the temptation for one to take advantage of the other. G‑d deliberately created a world of imbalance and expressly commanded us not to take advantage of that fact. It is precisely the restraint that we, as human beings, are called upon to manifest that sets us apart from the animals and endows us with our morality. In a world of equal wealth, equal size and knowledge, there would be no crime, but also no morality.

As a rule, human beings try very hard to act with the kind of dignified morality that distinguishes man from beast. They take pride in the fact that although their physical needs are similar to those of animals, they do not live solely by the dictates of the body, but also by the dictates of their intelligence. And while humans have certain physical limitations, they can rise above them when called upon to do so. A mother may be exhausted, but when her baby cries, she finds the energy somehow and rushes to comfort her child. It is this ability to go beyond the confines of our own physicality, to regulate it according to the specific circumstances, that makes us human. As we grow and learn, we shift the center of gravity from our physical needs, to our mind and soul, toward our ultimate purpose.

Respecting Vulnerability

Seen in these terms the nature of sexual harassment takes on a new light.

Unlike other assaults, the sexual assault makes us victims of our own sexuality. For this is a weakness we all have. We are sexual beings, and our sexuality came to us long before we knew what was happening. It's inherent. It's part of us now, and we spend a good part of our existence trying to master this thing, to control it. Most of us learn how to integrate our sexuality into the overall structure of our beings which allows us to get on with the business of living. But it's still an area of considerable weakness — a center of vulnerability. If I'm sitting in my office late at night, and a fellow female worker appears in the doorway, enters the room, gently closes the door, that person is messing with my head, creating a forced intimacy that is not called for. She's trying to stir up something she has no business stirring up, because here I am trying to keep it all under control so that I can get on with my work and go on home to my spouse. Now if she persists, smiles with a little hint of suggestion in her eyes, and ventures a little closer. . . I'm probably going to end up in one of two situations, both of which are uncomfortable — disgusted with myself or pretty hot under the collar. Neither is where I want to be at this particular moment in time. My response is my business either way, but the person who came through that door, whether or not he/she intended to elicit some kind of sexual activity, is nevertheless guilty of sexual harassment.

Taking advantage of another's weakness in this manner is an insult to their intelligence, an assumption that they are living by the dictates of the body alone, and it demonstrates a total lack of respect for the human condition.

A commonplace scenario among teenagers further illustrates the boundaries that are all too often crossed in cases of sexual harassment. "Come on," the guy says. "Don't tell me you don't enjoy it. You like it just as much as I do." (Taking this to its extreme, the rapist says the same thing to the victim: "You enjoy it.") It's true that she may enjoy it. But why? Because the body is a physical entity which enjoys any attention, contact or experience it receives. That's the nature of the physical body which remains sexual from the moment it comes into being until the moment it ceases to breathe. If we were bodies alone we would be full-time sexual beings. And if we say no, it's not because the body can't handle it, but because the soul can't live with it. It may feel good to the body, but not to the soul. The teenage girl might think "Why do you continue to look at my body and ignore my soul?"

A human being, the way G‑d created him or her, is always a sexual being. What we do individually with our sexuality depends on who we are, what we were raised to believe, and what our society has taught us. Yet all of us, regardless of upbringing or background, have that common thread of sexuality running through us. G‑d did not create it so that we would suppress it to the point where we could no longer feel it, but He did provide us with a series of commandments which act as guidelines so that we do not abuse it in ourselves or others, so that we do not cross over those boundaries into the arena of harassment.

In conclusion, harassment indicates a lack of understanding of and respect for human sexuality. We can't just turn it on or off whenever we wish. It's always there just under the surface. We keep it there under the surface. And when someone comes and tries to force it to the forefront of our beings, when we don't want it, or are not ready — that's harassment.

The antidote to sexual harassment is to understand that being a sexual being is not abnormal, but extremely normal. That's why we need the Torah's commandments. Without commandments we would be lost. What was the crime in the Thomas-Hill fiasco? The crime was the essence of immorality. It was not any specific sin, but the total lack of morality. The solution is to be sensitive to the feelings of others, to other people's sensitivities, meaning, be respectful of the weaknesses you perceive in others.

Everyone is entitled to their weaknesses. We work on overcoming them. But you have to respect the space that others create around themselves. Morality says: when you see a weakness in someone, don't take advantage of it. Respect it, go around it, don't disturb it; don't enter where you are not invited. When we understand this, I believe, it would make us all better people.

Rabbi Manis Friedman, a noted Chassidic philosopher, author and lecturer, is dean of Bais Chana Women's Institute of Jewish Studies.
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Anonymous February 18, 2015

Wow. That was really awesome. I need to reread it, I think.
I had an incident of molestation when I was in preschool, and I think I still have confusion over the issues. This article provides some clarity. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous May 16, 2011

You are a Genius Thank you Rabbi. This is an incredible article. Words cant describe how brilliant you are at articulating a very difficult and complex subject.
Reply

Mrs. Rene O'Riordan Dublin, Ireland December 21, 2008

Sexual harrassment Timely article, though I'm late reading it. There is so much here to unravel. I'm a Catholic and believe that the "two become one flesh". My husband left me many moons ago and so I'v had to remain celebate in conformity with my beliefs. I'v learnt a few tricks to keep myself chaste in those years - guard your eyes! This one is important - don't give anyone, what my gran used to call "the glad eye". Guard your mind, if something comes on the telly you wouldn't want a seven year old watching - change the channel, keep your own mind clean; these impure images keep coming back into your head; so nip it in the bud. Guard your soul - let your soul dictate your actions; this grows stronger through prayer and fasting. You have an eternally beautiful future ahead - keep your mind on the big picture. - Blessings, Reply

Stephanie May 3, 2008

What a timely article Thank you for your thoughts and perceptions. Reply

Mark R Reston, VA via chabadrh.org May 2, 2008

body or soul ? I often wondered, why it never made intuitive sense to me when sexuality was declared only relevant to the body, and not the soul. I realize now why: sexuality inherently includes the perception of beauty. And, perception of beauty is a spiritual thing, not a bodily thing. Reply

Anonymous FL April 29, 2005

Very nice article. A well written article. I enjoyed reading it.
Thank you Rabbi. Reply

Anonymous Marysville, Ohio/USA April 24, 2005

Morality of Weakness Article Can we also apply this to a marriage?
Thank you for your definitions, they are helpful.
Reply

Mark Wagner Dallas, TX April 23, 2005

Morality of Weakness Great article and a pearl of wisdom. Reply

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