Sexism: Shabbat Shuvah Sermon from Rabbi Andi Berlin at Fairmount Temple, Sep., 22, 2017

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the remarks on Shabbat Shuvah 5778, of Rabbi Andi Berlin, Guest Rabbi on the high holy day clergy team of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio. We encourage you to share comments below and to post the link to this sermon on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to continue the important conversation it engenders.

Around the year 1100 BCE, Israel was under the cruel reign of King יבין, or Jabin, of the Canaanites who had conquered the land some years before. The Israelites suffered at יבין’s hand. Yet, as is often the case, two heroes rose up and, in a dramatic display of wisdom and strength, were able to defeat the Canaanites and restore Jewish autonomy to the land.

One hero was a judge who, while commanding the army, developed and implemented a brilliant battle plan that killed all soldiers apart from the captain of the Canaanite troops, סיסרא or Sisera. Sisera fled for his life to the other hero of our story, who had to act alone in the spur of the moment. Amazingly, this second hero was able to kill Sisera by driving a stake through his skull.

The first hero is Deborah, the great judge of Israel. The second is Yael the Canaanite. Women. Both heroes are women.

This is not even the best part. What is fascinating is that the text barely mentions their gender. We must assume then, in the absence of remark, that there was nothing remarkable about women in these roles. It would seem that 4,000 years ago women leading a nation was normal.

Yet, this was oh, so long ago. Lately, it feels this natural assumption that women lead their people is one we might never return to.

By the Hebrew Calendar, something happened exactly a year ago today. It was something that forced me to question a long held practice of mine: I do not, and have never, preached about sexism. I know that when a woman speaks out about sexism, she is labeled over-reactive or hysterical. I know that a woman speaking about sexism has a hard time continuing to play with the big-boys. I know that a woman speaking about sexism loses her voice in other matters.

For twenty years I avoided this topic.

Last year, though, just before Shabbat Shuvah began, the Washington Times released a video from Access Hollywood. We have all seen it. In the video, then candidate Donald Trump and then television host Billy Bush joked about women in general and specific women’s body parts. President Trump made cracks that since he is famous, he is able to get away with assault. Billy Bush laughed and egged him on. They were taking a bus to meet Arianne Zucker at her workplace. As she came into view, President Trump said, “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful women—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” I will not finish this quotation. We are all quite familiar with it.

After Billy Bush and the President climbed off the bus and greeted Ms. Zucker, Mr. Bush said to her with a leer, “Oh, go on…hug him” and threw the President a knowing look.

What was Ms. Zucker to do but give the President a cringe-worthy hug?

Obviously, the whole thing was horrifying. However, what ripped me up inside was Mr. Bush’s encouraging Ms. Zucker to hug President Trump. Ms. Zucker knew she was the butt of a joke. She knew the boys were sharing some secret guffaw at her expense.How do I know? I know because things like this are regular occurrences. Some men behave this way around women so often that it becomes predictable. These men might think they are being sly, but we know.

Admittedly, it has not happened to me in a long time. It used to, and trust me, Ms. Zucker knew. I cannot tell you how she felt, but I will tell you how I did. I felt reduced. Utterly reduced.

As a younger rabbi, I could get reduced in an instant. After delivering a serious and compelling sermon, I would great visitors to our synagogue. Invariably a man would say something to me like, “Gee, if my rabbi looked like you when I was growing up, I would have gone to temple more often!” Reduced. No longer was I walking in the shadow of Deborah, the fierce and wise leader of our people. No longer was I the religious authority who had just challenged my community to acts of justice or deepened their spiritual lives. No, I was an object whose attractiveness was up for judgment by some stranger come to town.

Why would a man feel the need to comment on my looks at my workplace? Was Ms. Zucker forced to hug a leering, condescending man at her workplace simply because Mr. Bush got a kick out of it? Maybe. But, there is more going on. Commenting on a woman’s looks is a way to escape a woman’s authority and instead assert your own right to judge her. Imagine if Deborah had said to the captain of the Israelite troops, “Boaz, get up! This is the day God will deliver the Canaanites into our hand!” And Boaz had replied, “Oh, Deborah, your beauty is so captivating, I don’t need to hear your prophecy, I’ll just sit here and look at you.” I would like to think it would have been Boaz whose skull was driven through with a stake.

When, in a professional setting, a man chooses to share his pleasure at a woman’s appearance he makes himself the authority over her, over her looks. He is stating that the enjoyment of her looks is far more important than her professional impact or what she might have to say.

I believe most people who do this, do it subconsciously. They are not aware that they are diminishing and reducing a woman’s professionalism. Rather, we all have been conditioned to do this from the time we become aware of the world. Those of you on social media will have seen post after post about girls being sent home because of their outfits. Overwhelmingly girls.

Some of you may be thinking of a boy or two who has been sent home as well. Let me be absolutely clear, when speaking of feminism and the way women are treated, sharing the scant examples one can think of when the same thing happened to a man or boy is irrelevant. The issue is not that something has happened to girls; it is that it happens overwhelmingly to girls.

Most of the posts about girls getting sent home are accompanied by a picture of a young woman…in clothes; just normal clothes. The stories, though, are horrific. Male and female school authorities tell these young women that they are a “distraction to the boys”, that they are “too busty to wear t-shirts,” that “plus size girls need to dress differently than others” or that their bodies look “too good” in a particular outfit.

Telling a girl to leave her educational setting because of something she is wearing is an example of the conditioning that leads to men thinking it is just fine to diminish a woman by commenting on her looks. When a girl is sent home, she is told that she exists to be judged by these ‘men-in-training’ and, if she is judged too attractive, then what she says does not matter. She is told that rather than teach boys to pay closer attention to a girl’s achievements, it is perfectly fine for boys to concentrate so much on girls as objects, that the girls have to be sent home so boy’s can concentrate instead on their education and their achievement.

As this continues into adulthood, we end up hampering women’s ability to rise in their professional setting.

How many of you know about the Graham Rule? This is an unofficial rule that a few conservative Christian men impose upon themselves in the workplace. They will not dine or meet alone with a woman who is not their wife. Karen Pence explains that her husband, Vice President Mike Pence, has “rules to avoid any infidelity temptations.”

“Infidelity temptations.”

Professional women serving in Washington DC, professional women with experience, knowledge, and vital insight are reduced to “infidelity temptations.” Had Boaz seen Deborah as a temptation, rather than the mouthpiece of God, the history of our people would have ended before the First Temple was even destroyed. In short, we would not exist.

The beliefs that give rise to the Graham Rule do not belong to just a few isolated men in government. In 2012 the Iowa Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling condoning the termination of an employee, “simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.” The employee brining the suit had rebuffed the boss’s advances time and again. The boss continued to pursue her relentlessly. Her saying “no” was not enough to stop her boss. So the courts ruled that boss had every right to remove this object, this “irresistible attraction.” The ruling was unanimous. All seven justices were men.

What does “irresistible” mean? It means that a human being is unable to resist. Unable to stop what is about to occur. The woman said “no.” However, since the court ruled she was irresistible, the male boss was not responsible for continuing to try to bed her. Thus, logic dictated that she had to be removed. After all, she is just a woman, not a contributor.

We have to stop raising our children to accept this. We have to.

Pirkei Avot, The Sayings of Our Fathers, reminds us that it is not incumbent upon us to change the world, but neither are we excused from trying.

We will not solve sexism tonight, but there are three steps we can take now; three things we can begin doing so our children stop receiving the message that women are to be admired, not followed:

Here is what we can do:

  • Dress codes. We have to get rid of them. Please speak to your school districts! All a dress code should say is, “Students must wear clothing that allows for their full participation in school activities. Such clothing must not contain offensive or hateful language.” Dress codes should not distinguish between genders. Not only does it ignore students who are gender fluid, it invariably perpetuates gender stereotypes at the expense of student’s authentic personalities.
  • Name sexism when you see or feel it. When people make a comment or statement that demonstrates their own stereotypes about gender, or when someone comments on a woman’s appearance in a professional setting, point it out! The most effective question in any situation is, “why are you telling me this?” More daring is the question, “would you say or assume this if she were a man?” Sexism is insipid and subtle. Awareness of sexism is 90% of the work to combat it. Which also means we must be able to notice it and name it in ourselves.
  • When I was first studying to be a rabbi, I had trouble picturing myself as a rabbi. I had never seen a woman rabbi on the bimah or in a congregational setting. I noticed at a convention that when I met female rabbis, I saw them as less valid than their male counterparts. I became aware of my own sexism. I do not want to be afraid of it. I continue to catch myself making assumptions about both men and women. If you grew up breathing the same air I did, then I guarantee you make gender assumptions, aware of it or not. Each time I am willing to admit to myself that I have made a gender assumption, I eradicate one more implicit bias that exists within me.
  • Bring women back into history. How many of you knew about Deborah and Yael from the Book of Judges? How many of you hear Book of Judges and assume it is about male judges? Do you know who Grace Hopper is, or Maya Lin? Their contributions to history are experienced every single day. Women’s impact on history tends to get ignored the same way women’s contributions in the workplace get ignored. I know many women here tonight have seen their accomplishments attributed to their male colleagues. I know I have. Let us not perpetuate this by continuing to erase women’s contributions to history.

Deborah repeated divine wisdom akin to Elijah and military strategy like Joshua. Yael’s decisive action saved us the way of the Maccabees. Deborah and Yael of strength and wisdom, Deborah and Yael of leadership and power. We have no idea what Deborah and Yael looked like. We only know what they did. They saved us. We need saving again. If we spent less time judging women on their looks and made more room to notice their skills, they would advance to more positions of authority and power. Doing this would only add, wisdom add experience, add insight.

Then together, maybe we could complete the task of repairing the world.