Reacting to #YesAllWomen: A Primer for Men

December 7, 2017

It was a Torah portion I had heard umpteen times before but current events made the “punch line” all the more powerful.

In parshas VaYishlach, we read about the rape of Yaakov’s daughter Dina by the individual known as Shechem. As a consequence, her brothers Shimon and Levi wiped out the residents of the city known as Shechem, of which the offender was an important personage, for allowing such lawless behavior to go about unpunished. Yaakov was displeased by his sons’ actions, fearing that the massacre would mobilize all the neighboring peoples against him. Shimon and Levi get the last word, saying “Should we let our sister be treated like a prostitute?” (Genesis 34:31).

It’s important to note that Yaakov was not actually persuaded by their argument. Years later, on his deathbed, he cursed the anger demonstrated by Shimon and Levi, and directed that their descendants be scattered geographically among the other Tribes in order to prevent a reoccurrence of such violence (Genesis 49:5-7).

Even though Yaakov would not be swayed to the extent that he could accept the elimination of the corrupt city, he did let Shimon and Levi have the last word because, honestly, they made a good point. He acknowledged that, while he disagreed with their actions, their point of view had validity. Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to condone of the degree to which they took things but he was not going to deprive them of the rightness of their argument.

Which brings us to current events with the sexual harassment of women in Hollywood, Washington and – let’s be honest – everywhere. Women have been aware of this reality since time immemorial but for a lot of men, the full scope of the problem is only now becoming apparent. So what should we do?

In my opinion, the most appropriate course of action would be to say “Should we let our sisters be treated like prostitutes?” and work to clean house. Men have to join with women in taking a stand and making it clear that such behavior is unacceptable. It was never appropriate – not in the 1950s, nor in the 1970s, and certainly not today – and the days of turning a blind eye are over. But we must not let it become a bloodbath.

A number of celebrities, including Geraldo Rivera (a man) and Kirstie Alley (a woman) have expressed concerns about a kneejerk reaction that ignores the possibility of innocence on the part of an accused. This is a valid concern and one that should be addressed but not by ignoring women’s complaints. Along these lines, I applaud how NBC handled the recent Matt Lauer affair. The news that Lauer had been fired because of an accusation initially sounded like one woman made an allegation and he was summarily dismissed. It later became apparent that NBC did the due diligence of investigating the charges and, upon deeming them credible, took action. They struck that difficult balance between the inaction that has been the standard until now and the overreaction that some fear. So we see that it can be done.

With so many women (and a few men) sharing their experiences of harassment and abuse, and the disheartening near-daily revelations as pop-culture and political icons alike fall from grace, many men feel that they are on the defensive. They need not be. And yet, when they see women post their experiences with hashtags like #MeToo or #YesAllWomen, they feel obligated to proclaim their own personal innocence or the general innocence of the male gender with the hashtag #NotAllMen. You know what? Nobody is saying it’s all men. But that response minimizes the plight that our sisters are trying to address. It does a huge disservice to women, to justice and to society.

So, when men see #MeToo or #YesAllWomen, they have two acceptable options, and getting defensive isn’t one of them. As mentioned earlier, I think the best course of action would be to emulate Shimon and Levi and take action in defense of our sisters (although, unlike Shimon and Levi, being careful not to overreact). Realistically, not everyone is going to do that but that’s okay; there’s a second choice, and that’s to be like Yaakov. Upon seeing such hashtags, even if you think they overstate the case, don’t talk back. It takes bravery to speak up as so many women have been doing. Don’t belittle women’s courage in these matters, and don’t deprive them of the benefit of their experiences – experiences that #YesAllWomen have even if #NotAllMen do. Recognize the rightness in our sisters’ statements even if you can’t empathize. When it comes to this particular subject, please – just let them have the last word.