Friday, May 27, 2011

Men Behaving Badly: Hammerman on Ethics

Men Behaving Badly

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Special to the Jewish Week

Q - In the wake of recent sex scandals involving Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Time Magazine ran a cover story asking the rhetorical question, "What Makes Powerful Me Act Like Pigs?" Ethically speaking, how does Judaism account for this constant abuse of power by piggish men?

A- Yes, both Time Magazine and The New York Times Week in Review ran cover stories equating men with pigs last week. With all the apocalyptic events going on these days, from firestorms in the Middle East to thunderstorms in the Midwest, it's almost comforting to have been preoccupied for a brief time by good old fashioned lechery. But these two situations involve more than just men getting caught with their pants down.

It's important to note that there are significant differences between the Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn cases. One has admitted to fathering a child in an extramarital affair with a maid and the other has been jailed for alleged rape. That said, the common threads are infidelity, the abuse of power, and society's response to it. Remember that power is a relative term. Any boss has power over his employees. You don't have to be a Governator to be a predator. But it helps.

The answer to your question is that not all men are livestock. At the risk of sounding Nixonian, I am not a pig. Psalm 8 makes the claim that we are just a little lower than angels (literally it says "gods") with dominion over sheep, oxen and beasts of the fields. One would assume that also means we potentially have dominion over ourselves - and the beasts within us. But Judaism recognizes that we often fail to live up to that potential. David's abduction of Bathsheba (his defense attorney would probably claim, incorrectly, that it was consensual and that she seduced him by bathing on the roof) and murder of her husband Uriah (2 Sam. 11-12) virtually combine the sins of Schwarzenegger and, allegedly, Strauss-Kahn. The prophet Nathan brilliantly recalibrates David's moral compass - otherwise, David would not have been fit to lead.

Judaism has always seen marriage as a microcosm for all social bonds. It is the grand experiment. The Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) at the wedding ceremony proclaim that marriage is our last best hope, that, to paraphrase Sinatra, if commitment can make it here, it can make it anywhere. Break trust with your spouse, and you've broken it with God. So how could you possibly expect to be trusted by the rest of the people?

We've come a long way since the days of "Mad Men," when affairs were an expected perk for powerful men, including US Presidents, and everyone turned a blind eye. Now even the French seem to be getting it. Infidelity has become a scarlet letter for candidates - just ask John Edwards and Newt Gingrich.

But are men sexual predators by nature? The Talmudic rabbis seemed to think so, so they proceeded to create barriers to keep men from succumbing to their temptations. Unfortunately, most of those barriers came at the expense of women. More recently, in Israel we are seeing this in its most extreme forms, with segregated buses and separate shopping hours for men and women in some post offices and supermarkets. The ancient rabbis both revered and feared women (although Jewish thought also recognizes feminine characteristics in God), but this current trend toward misogyny-gone-wild indicates that what Jewish males might fear most is their own lack of self control.

Are men pigs? Only if they allow themselves to be.

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