This young man also recognized me while I was touring Yeshiva. We too entered into a discussion about last night’s post. I asked him to send me a letter with his thoughts. I’d like to preface his letter by saying that I personally remain very confident about my assessment of yesterday’s situation. However, Simon’s letter contains great wisdom:
I figured our paths would cross serendipitously. I’ve been thinking a lot about the picture you posted last night of an Orthodox Jewish man propositioning a Sudanese woman.
You have a microphone that now reaches beyond the humans of New York. You can speak to the humans of the world, using your art as a medium for good, for awareness, for change. It’s a task that requires nuance. Nobility is a slippery slope, and often, in our quest to do justice,
we rush to false judgment. To be virtuous, it seems we must be patient. We must be incredulous even about our own suppositions—especially about our own suppositions—in order to do right by others.
It’s a foundational imperative in the Jewish tradition of dan lekaf zechut—judging another favorably—or refraining from judging another unfavorably in the absence of proper evidence.
UPDATE: The original post has been removed out of respect for the man’s family. After 1,000 comments, I believe the discussion had run it’s course.
Humans of New York, you were fed a bill of sale.
Indeed, Judaism does teach dan lekaf zechut, and teaches the evil of lashon hara, speaking badly of another person. It is very important not to lash out against someone whose motivations you may not understand, nor to single out one man for the actions of a multitude. I try to live my own life this way.
But this doctrine—of compassion and of silence in the face of apparent sin—is one that is applied with total hypocrisy among many American Jewish communities. As any young Orthodox Jew knows, such as the one pictured above, women in what gets called the “ultra”-Orthodox Jewish community suffer terribly from marital rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and many lesser but still painful crimes, because they are told not to speak out. Not Speaking Ill of Others has been used to justify such horrifying tactics as blocking cases of child sexual abuse from the police unless a rabbi ‘first determined their suspicions were credible’. It’s common to demand that rabbinical sexual harassment cases not be reported until the case has entirely run its course, thereby allowing rabbis to retain their position and their influence despite ongoing investigations into terrible misconduct. In certain religious practices by no means limited to the Orthodox community, men are the ones with the right to divorce; a man can hold enormous power over a woman by holding her divorce documents (her get) hostage (“He will, out of mean-spiritedness, revenge, or simply power and control, deny her the get,” says Bluth. “The man will dangle the get if she does not agree to relinquish certain privileges: full custody of the children, power of attorney on accounts, or handing over properties. The woman becomes a virtual prisoner.”)
Abuse, assault, sexual harassment are not things we are meant to discuss. They are shameful, a shanda; we’re not understanding the perpetrators, we’re not giving them the benefit of the doubt. This is true universally in the culture, but Judaism harbors a pustulent strain because we keep our lashon hara to ourselves. Meanwhile, this benefit of the doubt is not extended within the Orthodox community to those who dress “shamefully”, have nonheterosexual or noncisgender identities, express sexuality, attempt to pray in public… I hate to bring up an experience in Israel as though it is applicable in this situation because Israeli gender politics are as different from American as any country is from another, but the Orthodox Jews who I was told would spit on me or even be violent when I wore a prayer shawl to the Western Wall, the ones who did spit on my friends and told them they should be ashamed of themselves? Yeah, a lot of them are American. Orthodox men in Israel have tried to literally force women to the back of the bus. They’ve done it on American buses as well, buses run by the city of New York, though the situation there was more ambiguous as to the women’s consent.
As for racism, it is as widely spread. I refrain from discussing it here only because it is nowhere near as widely covered up. Racism in the Jewish community is more often openly embraced than considered a secret sin.
Of course my first reaction to the old Jewish man harassing the Sudanese girl, with such a wide and curious smile, was a shanda fur die goyim, how dare he shame us in front of the Gentiles. But that’s a bullshit attitude that comes from fear. That man is not going to be harassed; his family is going to be fine. He’s an old bearded man in New York, there are a lot of those. You don’t show consideration for him and his community by covering his crime in silence. You show consideration by being honest about it, by bringing it into the light. Don’t worry about rushing to false judgment. That isn’t the danger here. The danger is that no one will judge him at all.
When I first saw the original post it came with a bunch of lovely comments about horrible Jews because you know, Jewish men are prone to a special dastardly strain of racism and misogyny that their gentile brethren are free from and it’s totally acceptable for goyim to bring anti-Semitic tropes into the picture when discussing a terrible action perpetrated by a Jew
But yeah the idea that the picture itself or the story needed to be taken down out of respect for Jews? Blow me. He disrespected that Sudanese woman, where is her right to dignity? And I’m a Jewish woman and I don’t stand by any motherfuckers who think they have a right to harass and buy women and then try to save face by claiming lashon hara.