This week's Torah portion, which discusses the holiness in sexual propriety, reminds us that we have a lot of work to do to end sexual assaults.
I received a Passover mailing from American Jewish World Service, an organization that, in their words, “works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world,” inspired by a Jewish commitment to justice. The mailing explained that one in three women worldwide will be violently assaulted during her lifetime, often sexually. One of AJWS’s main missions is to support grassroots organizations in the countries they are involved in, which are working to protect and improve the lives of women.
Meanwhile, we have a lot of work to do at home. According to the website www.oneinfourusa.org, one in four college women in the United States reports being sexually assaulted since her 14th birthday. Many of these assaults take place on college campuses. We all have connections to institutions of higher education, and this is something that we should be deeply concerned about.
The opening words of Kedoshim concern holiness. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” The medieval commentator Rashi understood holiness to mean refraining from sexual impropriety. He writes: “Separate yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin, for wherever one finds a barrier against sexual immorality, one finds holiness.”
Why is there a connection between sexual propriety and holiness? Much of the holiness code of Leviticus deals with prohibitions of a sexual nature. Sefat Emet, a Hasidic commentator, broadens our understanding of this connection by expanding the concept. He notes that the commandment to be holy is spoken to a public assembly — “the whole Israelite community” — and for him this means that holiness is about negating oneself in favor of the community.
“No one can attain holiness except by negating his own self before the whole of Israel … That is why most of the laws in this section deal with interpersonal matters.” For him, the holiness springs not only from proper sexual relations, but also from making all relations proper and respectful. Indeed, this is the true emphasis of this section of the holiness code.
Here we are reminded to revere our fathers and mothers, to leave the gleanings of our fields for the poor, to pay our laborers promptly, to show deference to the old, and to love the stranger — just a few of the commandments that have to do with respectful interpersonal relations. Proper sexual relations are one category out of many.
How can we teach our children, as they head toward sexual maturity, that engaging in respectful, consensual sexual acts is part of what it means to relate to other humans? How do we tell them that this is so important, that it is at the root of our tradition’s understanding of what it means to be a holy people?
This can be done. The majority of these sexual assaults take place between people who know each other, who already have a human relationship. Our children must be taught that the other person, the acquaintance or the stranger, the whole community, outweighs the importance of their personal pleasure-seeking or peer prestige.
We must give our young men and women the tools to “separate themselves” from improper sexual actions. Talking about this issue with our children before they enter college, before they even engage in their first sexual experimentation, is one step we can take.
We must also recognize that American women are part of the horrendous worldwide statistic of “one in three,” and our tradition demands that we all take responsibility for everyone, the whole community.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected].