Human RightsSukkot

Shabbat Sukkah 5777 – Locker Room Talk

Millions of women around America have had old wounds reopened because of recent newspaper coverage of sexual harassment and the way men talk about it.

I’m not talking about politics today. A tape of a conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush is certainly what has stirred up this particular issue at this particular time, but for this morning I’m not interested in whether what Trump said is true or not, and whether or not women who’ve come forward to say Trump touched them inappropriately are lying or not. Whether or not a candidate’s sex life has any bearing on his suitability to serve as president is not my topic this morning. Presidential sex scandals go all the way back to George Washington who was rumored to have had an affair with one of his slaves, and certainly JFK and Bill Clinton were both notorious philanderers, although pretty much every recent president has had allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior around him, including LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, and the senior George Bush. One of the few exceptions seems to be Jimmy Carter, although even Carter admitted to “lusting in his heart.”

The public discussion of the topic, however, has stirred up painful memories for many women.

Megan Linsey, a star on “The Voice” posted a blog where she said:

But hearing his comments in that tape started to make it even more personal for me. It made me feel like I wanted to vomit, because it reminded me of the many times I’ve been compromised as a woman.

But for today, my focus isn’t on what Donald Trump said: I’m much more interested in Billy Bush.

In the tape Trump talks about how he tried (unsuccessfully) to make a move on a married woman, and how thanks to his fame and power and he can just grab women and start kissing them, or grab them by the genitals, and get away with it.

I don’t know many men who talk like Trump. Of course, not many men have so much fame and power that they might think they could get away with such behavior.

What I find more interesting and relevant to most of the men I know is how Billy Bush reacted.

Bush doesn’t say anything at all like what Trump said. But he goes along with Trump. He even encourages Trump, commenting that a woman is hot, and that Donald “scored.” He even serves as a facilitator, encouraging an actress to give Trump a hug.

How many of us men have been like Billy Bush – listening to inappropriate speech and either playing along or keeping our mouths shut, because we don’t want other men to think of us as uptight, or prudes, or not “one of the boys.”

Most men have been ignorant for far too along about how common it is for women to be not only sexually harassed but sexually assaulted.  I asked some women I know, who said sexual harassment is so common that they don’t even mention it to their boyfriends or husbands.

I know several women who have been raped. All by men they knew, sometimes by men they were in a relationship with. If a man forces a woman to do something sexually she doesn’t want to do – even if he’s her boyfriend, even if he’s her husband – it’s rape. And the fact that rape is often perpetrated by someone the victim knows doesn’t make it any less rape, and doesn’t make it any less traumatic or painful for the woman. I know women who many years later still feel traumatized by a decades-old sexual assault by someone they knew. The women live with all sorts of horrible feelings, fear, shame, and in many cases the trauma impacts their ability to have a healthy sexual relationship in the future.

Less than two weeks ago we were together in shul on Yom Kippur, beating our communal breasts for a large number of sins.

I spoke about how we recite the sins in the communal form – ashamnu – we have transgressed – partly because if anyone has done a particular sin, we are all guilty of failing to create a community where people don’t commit that sin; the example I used is we confess to stealing, because we haven’t created a community where no one needs to steal.

That’s a little abstract.

When it comes to sexual harassment, good men do bear some responsibility – because we tolerate a culture that not only objectifies women but that can make sexual assault sound like a little fun on a boys’ night out. It’s not.

On Yom Kippur we beat our breasts for being violent, being perverse, being corrupt, committing abominations, lying, coercing, and more.

If good men act like Billy Bush – in essence, being accomplices to violence against women – we bear partial responsibility. Dismissing such talk as “locker room talk” is lashon hara, malicious speech, against athletes. If we are silent, or even worse, say things that encourage such behavior, we provide positive feedback that perpetuates a culture of violence against women. If men speak up, and make an effort to shut it down when a man brags about harassing or assaulting women, the negative feedback helps stop the spread of the idea that such behavior is acceptable.

But where do we draw the line? Men are certainly going to continue to make comments about good looking women – and vice versa. Yes, ladies, I know on a girls’ night out you sometimes make comments about good looking men, “there’s a hunk!” Is that OK? Almost all people would say admiring a good looking person is not a problem.

On the other hand, almost all people would also say what Billy Bush did – remaining silent in the face of talk about sexual assault – is wrong, and he should have spoken up. But when does the obligation to speak up kick in?

This is an issue every man needs to decide for himself. The guideline I’m using for myself is if it’s a comment that one of the women who’s close to me – either a daughter, a good friend, or my mother, z”l, would have been hurt or offended by, I’ll speak up.

This is an issue that is more common in environments where there is an “excess of testosterone,” such as the military or fraternities. Those are places where younger men tend to be found. As such, it’s incumbent on the older generation to make sure their sons and grandsons are aware of the importance of speaking up against talk that glorifies sexual harassment or assault.

The Talmud says improper speech harms three people: not just the subject of the speech, but also the person saying it and the person who hears it. Even when we hear such talk, it harms our souls.

We are in the midst of the holiday of Sukkot. One of the things I love about Sukkot is how when we sit in the sukkah, the mitzvah surrounds us – we’re reminded of God’s sheltering presence all around us.

God’s presence, however, is not limited to the synagogue or the sukkah – as we say in the kedusha, the whole world is full of God’s glory. God is here with us now, and God is with us even when we’re having a conversation in the locker room. God’s tape recorder is always running. Let’s make sure we’re not embarrassed by what’s on the tape, or embarrassed by silence on the tape when there should be speaking out on the tape.

Shabbat shalom


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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