Talking nonsense about religion
Ever notice how many ridiculous assertions, many of them touching on matters of religion, are printed in serious journals weekly? Last week’s non sequitur prize goes to Jerusalem Report‘s cover story on sexual harassment in Israel. The article quotes a number of social scientists who purport to identify various social and cultural factors that make Israeli society a fertile ground for the phenomenon, including – you guessed it – Judaism.
Among the social factors cited are Israel’s lack of separation of state and religion and the inferior status of women in Judaism. As an example of the latter, social anthropologist Dr. Esther Hertzog notes that former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau is considered a possible candidate for president despite the fact that he does not shake hands with women.
Frankly, the connection between Rabbi Lau’s handshaking habits and sexual harassment escapes me.
Are those who do not shake hands with women more likely to engage in sexual harassment of various kinds? If memory serves, a recent president of the United States was as affable and undiscriminating a presser of the flesh as ever came down the pike. That did not prevent him from being the subject of at least one charge of rape and many others of groping and lewd behavior no less credible than those being hurled at President Katsav today.
Yet, as far as I know, Bill Clinton is not Jewish; the Hot Springs, Arkansas, in which he grew up, was not notably suffused with Jewish values; and there is a full separation of state and religion in the United States.
Here’s an interesting idea for a study by our social anthropologists: Survey religious women in the secular workplace to determine whether they are subjected to the same sexually crude remarks, suggestiveness, and outright solicitation as their secular counterparts. Or do their standards of dress, demeanor and conduct, and hair covering convey a clear message that they are off-limits and have no desire to be part of co-workers’ sexual fantasies?
One Orthodox woman who worked for years in a newsroom where the male reporters regularly regaled one another – and women reporters who feared being thought to be prissy – with vulgar jokes told me that not once did they invite her to join the fun.
IT IS not traditional Jewish norms that have provided fertile soil for sexual harassment in Israel, but their absence. The Jerusalem Report article provides no cross-cultural statistics suggesting that sexual harassment is more prevalent in Israel than other modern Western societies. And even if it were, the explanation would have far more to do with the original decision to draft women into the IDF (made over fierce ultra-Orthodox opposition), where, in the words of one former Chief of Staff, they served primarily as morale boosters for male soldiers and officers.
The failure of strong legal sanctions to eliminate sexual harassment in the Israeli workplace results primarily from the impossibility of superimposing a legal regime on the workplace that flies in the face of the hypersexualized general culture. Israel’s tabloids, popular music, and TV sit-coms all promote the idea that the main thing on virtually everyone’s minds is sex.
It is impossible to expect people living in a world of double entendres, sex clubs, and clothing designed to leave as little to the imagination as possible to suddenly park the conventions of that world upon entering the work place. And that is especially so when workplace dress no longer signals any clear line of demarcation.
The highest aspiration of our young is to be a celebrity in the Paris Hilton mold. Young girls judge themselves on a scale of how “hot” they are – i.e., by how much attention they attract – in a complete inversion of the original feminist ideal of women being judged as something other than sex objects.
In one poll, cited in the Report article, only 18% of female soldiers reported being subjected to sexual harassment in the IDF. But when asked whether male soldiers or officers had made crude remarks of a sexual nature to them, 55% answered affirmatively. One possible explanation of the disparity is that the crude remarks were not experienced as sexual harassment because they were not entirely unsought, as evidenced by efforts of female cadets to tug their army issue pants ever lower.
WOMEN ARE victims in this process, but not complete innocents. More than one secular writer has noted that there are body parts on regular display in Israel seen nowhere else in the world in public. And the goal is not to turn young men’s thoughts to Aristotle or Proust.
Haim Ramon’s accuser may not have expected to be forcibly kissed. But it is not hard to understand why Ramon might have expected a different response from a near stranger, several decades his junior, who had gone out of her way to be photographed embracing him.
Such confusion and mixed messages are inevitable in a society where sex is up front all the time. A little more of the traditional Jewish sexual modesty would be a big corrective.
MY SECOND entry in the non-sequitur sweepstakes can be found in a recent Jerusalem Post opinion piece (“Thus Spake Zarathustra,” September 15) by the paper’s former managing editor, Calev Ben David: “Any religion in the modern world that does not make an effort to welcome, or seek out, new converts, is fated to diminish.”
As a matter of elementary logic, that statement is false, unless one is discussing the Shakers and other celibate religious communities.
Religions whose members marry and reproduce at a rate in excess of 2.1 children per family will grow. The rapid growth of Muslim populations all over the globe owes little to conversion, and a great deal to high birthrates.
Or let us take a happier example: Orthodox Jews. A close friend of mine in his early ’70s already has a 100 grandchildren plus or minus. With a little more such fecundity, all the hair-pulling about the disappearance of the Jewish people would cease, even if not one more convert entered our ranks.
Indeed demographers predict that by the middle of the century the decline of the Jewish population will bottom out and reverse due to Orthodox growth.
As Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, never tires of pointing out, American Jewry is disappearing because Jewish women tend to marry, if at all, at a later age and have fewer children than any other religious or ethnic group.
In place of the sentence quoted above, I would offer a far more defensible rule: A religion whose foundational texts and basic tenets are unknown to most of its members, whose rites and practices are observed by few, and which is of so little significance in its members’ lives that well over 50% marry members of other faiths is fated to diminish.
Such a religion, by the way, will exercise little appeal for converts. The heterodox branches of Judaism could hardly be more welcoming to converts, and yet the rate of conversion among gentile spouses of Jews continues to drop.
Now how about a moratorium on silly statements about religion?
Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2006.