Even as I wrote it, I was disturbed by my last week’s Musing. The Musing’s premise was that we shouldn’t be surprised by hypocrisy in our politicians. I think, sadly, that this is true. When many citizens demand that elected officials sanctimoniously parrot standardized phrases and then vote on the basis of those politically correct formulations we shouldn’t be surprised that the words of those running for office don’t match their personal actions.
This is not confined to politicians, of course. Our society keeps on pushing people to say one thing and think, believe and do another. For example, for many years now students taking a variety of exams, have been forced to choose between marking what they know to be the officially correct answer or responding with the truth according to their beliefs and, often, according to science. Recently, the MCATs, taken by aspiring doctors, added ideological questions that compel religious Christians and Jews to make exactly that deeply disturbing choice.
However writing about Eric Schneiderman, who resigned as New York’s Attorney General after allegations of disturbing personal conduct were made, troubled me. This resignation follows a pattern in a continuing series of stories that fling private matters into the public realm.
Let me explain. This Saturday night marks the 3,330th anniversary of God giving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. While the Five Books of Moses do feature many oft-cited rules about charity, food, justice and sexual behavior, a surprising number of them deal with speech.
Gossip as entertainment has become so deeply embedded in our society that it is easy to forget that the prohibition against it springs from the same source as the prohibition against theft and adultery. In the Bible, there are numerous subcategories of forbidden speech, known in Hebrew as onaat devarim, sheker, rechilut, lashon hara, avak lashon hara, motzi shem ra and more. These don’t have ready translations into English and each headlines an area that has many categories. They include truthful statements and lies, positive and negative words, discussions that are seemingly innocent and words meant to wound. However, although there are rare times when one is obligated to carefully share negative information or to sound harsh, the idea of casually talking about people and intruding into people’s lives is never seen as a desired behavior. Almost all words said in private conversation to friends and other people merit protection. Without that, one enters a Soviet style world where people are afraid to speak.
While I admit to picking up People magazine two weeks ago at the dentist’s office and enjoying the pictures of the new British prince, the idea of a magazine like that, which in itself is tame compared to other media out there, is unambiguously against God’s directives. Today, newspapers that like to think of themselves as sophisticated cover stories that used to be considered only tabloid fodder. Technology has increased the reach and power of peering into others’ lives in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Our society is awash in lascivious looks and prying peeks.
Even the sanctity of marriage is threatened by a society that salaciously pants for views into private relationships. No decent person thinks that marriage allows a man to physically assault a woman. This was the impetus behind laws that emerged from the 1970s on, declaring spousal rape a crime. But our cultural definition of rape and force is changing to the point that just about everyone is liable to be guilty.
There are things each of us do for other people. I put a smile on my face when I am in the supermarket because my having a difficult day doesn’t give me permission to bring down the mood of others around me. I dress in a certain way when going to a class to show respect for the other students and the teacher. I play a game of Candyland when my to-do list is overwhelming in order bring a smile to my granddaughter’s face.
And in a marriage, husbands and wives do things that they may not particularly care to do in order to please their spouse. All those things, but especially intimate ones, deserve the sanctity of privacy. Almost every word exchanged within a sacred relationship, like marriage and family, merits titanium protection. If at a future time the marriage sours, leaving animosity in place of affection, those things should not retroactively be labelled as forced. Details being flagrantly shared should make decent people recoil with disgust.
Having intimate relationships outside of marriage is not encouraged by the Torah, but speaking about them compounds the wrong. If a man assaults a woman, that is a criminal act. But if a man and a woman engage in an activity, it is a dangerous thing to validate the notion that in hindsight one can declare oneself to have felt forced and gain instant sympathy status by blabbing about it. For years, society has mocked religious people by saying that what two people do in the privacy of the bedroom is no one else’s business. Now, that same society is promoting the idea that, retroactively, possibly scarred, scorned and rapacious women should be encouraged to make those actions everyone’s business. I worry that last week, I might have acquiesced in that idea.
It is difficult in an increasingly immoral society to cling to morality without withdrawing from that society. Withdrawal, however, means giving up and abandoning the idea of positive change or helping even a few people learn that there is an alternate, better, way of life. Like so many of you, I struggle to keep a moral compass without putting on blinders, a Herculean task.