T here are times in history when winds of change blow through human society, bringing with them what seems like a foretaste of yemos haMashiach. Unprecedented events come cascading one after another, bringing a radical transformation that we think will last forever. But it doesn’t.

One such era was the fall of the Soviet Union, which crumbled in a virtual instant with nary a shot fired, freeing a dozen countries from its iron vise-grip. Imposing idols came toppling down, the statues of Lenin and Ceausescu and all the despotic rest, in city squares across that land. Lenin’s Tomb, its occupant surely spinning within it, had suddenly been revealed as nothing but a Communist plot.

Anyone observing those scenes with a Jewish sense of history surely heard a soundtrack playing in his mind set to the stirring words of the V’ye’esayu poem, V’yiznechu es atzabeihem, v’yachperu im p’sileihem [And they will reject their idols, and be mortified with their statues]. Unfortunately, the culmination of that poetic depiction of the End of Days — the v’yatu schechem echod l’ovdecha and the v’yishme’u rechokim v’yavo’u v’yitnu lecha keser meluchah [They will turn unanimously to serve You… and distant ones will hear and come and present You with a crown of Kingship] — never came to pass. Not even two decades later, that empire had been substantially resurrected, this time under the wicked thumb of a former Communist thug.

Surely it was a time, too, of Yosheiv baShamayim yischak, Hashem yil’ag lamo, when the Eibeshter in the Heavens above sat and laughed at what He had wrought in his kleineh velteleh down below — at the resha’im who had inculcated denial of Him into generations of untold millions for 70 years, and the great “chachamim” who never dreamed this superpower could disappear overnight with a whimper.

Now, in the so-called Free World, another season of idol-smashing is upon us, with its own intimations of a future time of l’ha’avir gilulim min ha’aretz. The icons — this time, living, breathing ones — are being felled one after another, across the worlds of politics, entertainment, media, academia, the arts, and letters. It’s anyone’s guess who will be next, when it will end, and where this will all lead.

These aren’t dictators of entire countries, but men of great power and prestige, degenerate little tyrants who terrorized the vulnerable women over whom they held power in their private fiefdoms. We’ve always known about the rot that pervades society and how so many of its greats in every field were morally abhorrent in their personal lives; anyone who doubts it need only consult the biography section in the local public library. Sometimes one of those scandals would make it into the public realm, but most never did.

But now, to our astonishment, these men are being dethroned literally overnight, with the same merciless rapidity that the Soviet politburo bosses disappeared from the scene. One day, they are basking in public acclaim, flush with fame and money; the very next day, they have already been unceremoniously removed from their mighty positions, booted from organizations, had awards rescinded and entire magazines and artistic projects canceled. Nothing quite like this has ever happened in my lifetime, nor, I believe, ever before it.

This is a pivotal moment, in which the moral compass of society is being tested like never before, and not with a simple one-question, yes-or-no quiz. This exam has been exquisitely designed to be complex and bewildering, as only a Divine test can be, the better to try the moral mettle of those tested.

The ranks of the accused include liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Some are seeking office, others’ alleged offenses occurred before taking office. The claims range widely in severity, frequency, type of victim. This mix of variables creates fertile ground for rationalizations and moral relativism, born of bias and tribalism, to thrive.

The results are coming in, and they are decidedly mixed. The private sector, even in fields dominated by liberals, has acted decisively to throw the scoundrels out regardless of their value to the franchise. Perhaps that’s the free market at work, or an example of liberals being shamed into action by their own feminist rhetoric. Or perhaps, as others have observed, it’s that, unlike in politics, the scoundrel will be replaced by another reliable liberal, which removes the tribal instinct to protect the balance of power. Even the New York Times must be given credit for breaking the initial story about a major liberal donor, which caused the floodgates to open.

In the political realm, by contrast, the episodes have ground forward agonizingly, as credibly accused politicians in both parties either apologize or deny and trash their accusers, try to salvage their careers, and force the electorate to play the roles of judge and jury. Some on both sides have risen to the occasion, like most Republican senators — who’ve eschewed “whataboutism” to denounce one of their own — or the plurality of Minnesota’s Democratic voters who’ve abandoned their senator.

Others have failed miserably, like the Alabama governor and pastors who’ve said they would put even a proven child abuser in office if it benefited the Republican agenda. Do they have any sense of what their words do to actual victims of abuse? Nancy French, who was a childhood victim of a pastor’s abuse, wrote in National Review both before the 2016 election and again now about the experience of living through these times: 

When the Trump videotapes broke, I watched the news and Twitter feeds of prominent evangelicals to see justice be done. But what I saw was… shocking. It’s hard to describe the effect 2016 has had on… abuse survivors. I believed the men in my party when they shrugged off the constant liberal accusations of being anti-woman….

I realize now — only now after all these years — it’s all been a facade. The “religious right,” which I’ve defended my whole life, abandoned the posture of “family values” when they had the chance to gain a seat at the table.

On the whole thus far, society is not emerging from this test with anything approaching a perfect score. We know that because we have the answer key provided by the test’s Creator. It’s called the Torah. And when we look to it for the answers, we find that even those who are doing the right thing in the circumstances have not drawn the lessons this strange time and these episodes are intended to teach.

No one has spoken these truths to the world: First, these monstrous behaviors will not disappear as the result of harassment laws or workplace sensitivity training or promotion of women to positions of prominence; such measures will, at best, temporarily contain the monster within. So long as society doesn’t include among its primary life goals the transformation of the human being through refinement of character traits and reining in of the ego, it will continue to produce barely restrained animals in business suits, no different in essence from their ostensibly more primitive ancestors.

Second, it doesn’t absolve male perpetrators one iota of their guilt for us to say that all of society is complicit in their behavior so long as the objectification and degradation of women continues to be normalized, if not glorified, by both men and women — in fashion, in advertising, entertainment, and media and in the so-called consensual relationships that ultimately leave many women scarred and humiliated. It’s perfectly consistent to say, at once, that men are responsible to act like humans, but that women, too, are responsible to view themselves similarly, not in order to avoid triggering men (although in Jewish terms they have that obligation, too) but because they owe it to their own human dignity, to their essence as souls enwrapped in bodies.

Lastly, the convulsions our society is now experiencing ought to put the lie to the notion that humankind can figure out a code of moral behavior for itself without the guidance of He Who created humans and the moral impulse alike. There’s a notion prevalent in society that not only can one be good without religion but that achieving goodness itself is easy, that one can achieve moral clarity and freedom from bias at will. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the thicket in which our vaunted civilization is now entangled is proof positive of that.

And as He awaits society’s great awakening, surely the Yosheiv baShamayim is laughing once again, and scouring the landscape, looking for a sign of moral seriousness, a glimmer of intellectual honesty somewhere, anywhere. Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 687. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com