Parashat Noach - #metoo
21/10/17 19:14 Filed in: sermons
Rabbi Steven Folberg
October 20, 2017
Yesterday morning, I decided that I wanted to talk tonight about the current “#metoo” Internet hashtag through which women have been identifying themselves as victims of sexually abusive male behavior. But there are two things that nearly persuaded me to find something else, something more benign and less disturbing, to talk about tonight.
The first is that reading those “#metoo” hashtag posts of female friends on Facebook and Twitter has left me stunned and heartsick. Learning of the traumas, the creepy, unwanted attention, the physical and psychological abuse, the crime and devastation of rape, the disrespect and objectification that these women have shared on Facebook and elsewhere – people I know personally, people with whom in some cases I interact regularly – has left me feeling sickened, hopeless and sad.
I have come to realize that my understanding of the world I live in has been incomplete. Up until this moment I have only been partially awake, oblivious to what women regularly endure.
Many of the stories I've read online over the past few days have been raw and appalling, and the choice to share them must have stirred up a great deal of anguish and frightening memories for the women who have written these posts. Not wanting to further hurt someone in the congregation who is already in pain over these kinds of memories nearly caused me to avoid this difficult topic altogether.
There’s another reason I was apprehensive about writing this sermon. I wondered whether any male Rabbi has any business talking about experiences that he has never, and will never have, trauma that he will never experience. The risk of “mansplaining” or God forbid lecturing or interpreting the experiences of the women in our congregation tonight almost impelled me to instead find something nice and noncontroversial to say about Noah and the Ark – this week's Torah portion – and just be done with it.
But then it hit me that even the story of Noah and the ark raises these painful issues. Noah's wife in the Torah text has no name – she is simply referred to as eshet Noach - “The Wife of Noah.” She has no dialogue, either – no voice in the entire story. Who will listen to her? Who will honor her voice? There is no escape from #metoo.
I spoke about my trepidation with some women rabbinic colleagues earlier today, and I also posted about my sermon dilemma on the Reform Rabbis' Facebook page, and, to my surprise, I received nothing but encouragement. One of my colleagues wrote, “As one of the myriad ##metoo women, I think it's enormously important for men to speak out. So often, our comments, complaints, and concerns are brushed aside as ‘that's how the world is’ and ‘what did you expect?’ You don't have to lecture or mansplain. Please just be a role model for other men to stop, listen, truly hear, reflect, care, and be a part of the change that is needed.”
So, thus bolstered and reassured, hineini, here I am.
There are many ways that Judaism speaks to the absolute and unequivocal wrongness of what Harvey Weinstein did to his victims, and the absolute wrongness of the experiences of disrespect and abuse that have been documented via the #metoo hashtag. We could talk about the teaching from Genesis about all people being created b'tzelem Elohim, in God's own image. We could talk about the fact that the foundation supporting all of the Jewish wisdom on interpersonal relations consists of the imperative to protect the dignity, the kavod, of other people, while carefully avoiding causing anyone busha, shame or embarrassment. We could reflect upon the rabbinic teaching that violent or exploitive sexual behavior, gilui arayot, is considered so terrible that it is one of only three prohibitions in all of Jewish law for which one should willingly die a martyr’s death. We could also study the Biblical book Song of Songs, in which men's and women's sexual desire is equally privileged, consensual and unabashedly celebrated within the context of a respectful and loving relationship.
But those are easy affirmations to make, and they don't ask anything of us, with the danger that nothing changes. So, as Jews, let's go at this a different way.
Earlier this week, I was teaching our Living a Jewish Life class. We were learning about the holiday of Yom Kippur, working our way through the Reform machzor, Mishkan Hanefesh, unpacking some of the most famous passages.
We looked at the vidui, the public confessional. There is the shorter version, where we chant an alphabetical Hebrew list of sins, call and response, with our Cantorial Soloist. We do this together, I pointed out, everyone chanting every word, pressing our fist into our chests with each sin, praying for a softening, an opening of the heart. And then we get to the longer vidui, the confessional in which every line begins, al chet she-chatanu l’fanekha, “for the sin that we have committed before You…”
And I said to the class, “The most obvious question to ask about this ritual is why I should publicly confess sins that I know I haven't committed. What if I haven't shown disrespect to parents and teachers? What if I haven't been dishonest in my business dealings?”
All of the students' answers were thoughtful, moving and creative, but two of them might especially speak to us about #metoo.
The first interpretation is that although I may not have committed every sin in that lengthy catalog of bad behavior, I still bear some responsibility for those misdeeds. Perhaps I didn’t speak up when I witnessed the wrongdoing of others - the sin of remaining silent. Or perhaps I was complicit in the sin by consciously turning away from bearing witness to that wrongdoing - the sin of not asking questions whose answers I did not want to hear. One is reminded of news reports that Harvey Weinstein's behavior had been “an open secret” in the movie business for some thirty years.
This is why the most common syllable in the Hebrew text of the vidui is “nu,” which means we, us, our. These wrongs, this abuse, this shameful, violent behavior is being perpetrated against women in our society and our world, each and every day, and all of us – men, especially – have to reckon with that, speak up about that, own up to our own active or passive complicity in that, and do teshuvah, sincere and active repentance and turning, for those sins.
But for men, there is a more pointed, urgent “#metoo” teaching embedded within the “we” language of the Yom Kippur confessionals.
A woman in the LJL class said, “I may look at some of the sins on the page and initially think, I don't have to say that, that's something I haven't done. For example, one of the lines says, “I have enslaved others,” and as far as I know, I don't actually own any slaves. But then – she continued - I think, “Yes, I may not own slaves, I may not actually be involved in human trafficking, but I probably own consumer goods made in the Far East with slave labor, don't I?”
This kind of deep, thoughtful, personal engagement with the words of the prayer book is what our rabbis meant, I think, when they said that one of the mitzvot that “has no limit” is iyyun t’fillah, praying with depth. At first blush, I may think that this sin, this wrongdoing, this inflicting of shame, fear and indignity on the women with whom I interact every day, does not apply to me. But when I look deeper, I may learn otherwise. This is why it's important for men to have the courage to look ourselves in the mirror and ask these hard questions. Like the person who sees an egregious sin in the Yom Kippur liturgy and thinks, “That doesn't apply to me,” men may look at the scope and flagrant violence perpetrated by a Harvey Weinstein and think, “I'm nothing like that, I certainly haven't done anything that terrible, so I’m off the hook.” What we need to be thinking is, “Where is the Harvey Weinstein – the arrogant male gaze, the crude presumptuousness, the violence, the disrespect – in my behavior? How have I sinned, in ways great and small, in ways that have disgraced or hurt women? What can I do to atone for that?”
It doesn't stop there, though. As Jews, we need to look at women's oppression and objectification not only individually, but also communally.
The CNN website recently asked readers to share their experiences of harassment and abuse, and it published some of those anonymous recollections earlier today. This particular one, which I want to quote in full, may be very hard for us to listen to, which is precisely why we need to hear it:
“She walked into rabbinical school and entered a boy's club, never mind that half her classmates were women.
The homiletics professor, an esteemed scholar, taught this lesson her first week there: “The length of a sermon should be like a woman's skirt -- long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting.”
The school's director only invited male students to special meetings and dinners. He reserved for her and other women advice about “presenting yourself in the best possible light,” which included tips on makeup, manicures and heels. That he was -- and still is -- this way was no secret. She and other women complained. Those in positions of power knew.
“The thing about the Jewish community is we work so hard to make it feel like a family,” she said. “What they'd say back to us is, ‘He's like a kooky old uncle. That's just the time he’s from and the way he is.’”
An internship at a synagogue during the High Holidays proved the boy's club extended beyond school. She donned her robe and was prepared to face the congregation for the first time during Judaism's holiest time of the year, when the head rabbi who'd just hired her pulled her aside.
“I'm going to have to get you longer robes for Yom Kippur because your legs are really distracting to me when I'm trying to lead the congregation in prayer,” she remembered him saying. “And it was like a gross, really disgusting voice. It was not that he was going to order me new robes but that he wanted me to know he was looking at my legs.”
Yes, too many of my female rabbinic colleagues have their own “#metoo” stories to tell – stories that, like this one, took place within the walls and even the sanctuaries of our synagogues and seminaries. And for me, just reading this story unleashed a shameful memory.
That line about “a sermon being like a woman's skirt” was oddly familiar – I realized that I had heard it before. I don't remember now who said it, but the fact that I remembered it at all meant that the anonymous author of that post likely attended my alma mater, Hebrew Union College. It also means that I, too, must have heard those belittling, inappropriate comments – and I said nothing, because at the time, I saw nothing wrong with them. I am ashamed of my complicity, my silence in the face of those demeaning, dismissive, misogynist words. Ashamed, yes, but also grateful that someone had the courage to tell that story – because from that shame, I can work at being better, more awake.
You know, the Internet is a strange place. In response to the “#metoo” hashtag, a man somewhere suggested that men respond to women's #metoo posts with the hashtag, #Ibelieveyou. Of course, it was quickly pointed out to this person that this was a pretty patronizing hashtag – as if users of the “#metoo” hashtag needed men to validate the truth of their experience.
Instead, suggested one of my women rabbinic colleagues, perhaps, given that the words Shema Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel,” are so important to us, perhaps the better hashtag response would be “#I_am_listening.”
Shema Yisrael – Listen closely to women’s voices, O Israel.
And may listening lead to empathy.
May empathy lead to respect.
May respect lead to compassion.
May compassion lead to personal responsibility.
May personal responsibility lead to atonement.
May atonement lead to justice.
And may justice, at long last, undo violence and oppression, silence and shame.