Doing What We Must Do About #metoo

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Rosh Hashanah, 2018.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

Our sages warn us not to rush to judgment on the Rosh Hashanah Torah portion. We are to set aside our concern that Abraham bound up his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  Keep reading, they say. The critical moment is when God sends an angel, a messenger to intervene and help Isaac get out of harm’s way. For the longest time, I found solace in that idea. It seemed right. I wasn’t the first one to believe that people created in God’s image shouldn’t hurt one another. Jews don’t look away when someone is being victimized. Right?

I wish I could be certain. But the year we conclude this morning has left me rattled. The year 5778 altered the way I respond to stories I read about coercive, violent and sexist behavior. When it comes to our Torah, I’m especially concerned with any commentary where a sage explains away the behavior of men in power harassing, degrading and physically harming women whose futures depend on them.

This past year, nearly every week a person stood up and bravely told her story about sexism, indecent exposure, harassment and sexual assault committed against them. In numerous instances, the men responsible denied that they were demeaning the accuser. They said, “I was mentoring her, teaching her, coaching her, praying with her and even showing love to her.” Just last week, the world watched as singer Ariana Grande was groped in public view by a pastor leading Aretha Franklin’s funeral. Earlier in the year, the spotlight was on famous men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby and a U.S. Olympics physician named Nassar. But all year long, women told us, that such men were only headlines in a story that should include thousands of others abusing their authority over women in every industry.

A phenomenal number of women opened up to say “me too.” They said, “It happened to me. My boss exposed himself. My professor grabbed me. My coach said he’d bench me if I told anyone. My doctor molested me. My boyfriend threatened me if I didn’t let him do what he wanted.” These examples of toxic masculinity result in a situation where many young women believe there is a good chance their body will be disrespected by men around them. What’s worse? Many women who spoke up this year told their story before but were told to shut up. They “should’ve known better.” They “should’ve dressed better.” They were warned how our culture routinely blames a woman alleging harassment, implicit bias or sexism.

One story you may have seen was about the youngest daughter in a large family, with many brothers. This young woman traveled from her home to a nearby women’s festival. En route to see her friends there, the son of the mayor of the city in which she was traveling encountered her and forcefully raped her. I was shocked that the writer of the story did not reveal any of the details of the assault and how it had affected the young woman. No. The story stressed that the man who raped her was attracted to her. He loved her and, in fact, wanted to marry her. Believe it or not, the woman wasn’t quoted at all, while her brothers and her father and even the father of the rapist, the Mayor, were interviewed.

Did you see this story? Probably not. It wasn’t in the paper. It is the story of Dinah, raped by Shechem, the son of a Hivite chief and it was written centuries ago in the Book of Genesis. At no point in the narrative does an angel intervene as it did when Dinah’s grandpa Isaac was bound up as a sacrifice. She is not even given an opportunity to share her own message and say to the women who came before her:  “Me too. It happened to me.” The Torah dwells instead on the responses of the men in her life.

I am a man. I can only imagine what women feel after being assaulted, understanding that the perpetrator of the assault is going to get away with it. But she may have wondered, “Where’s my angel? Who will intervene? Who will stand with me?” Answering Dinah’s questions is hard, but we must. For the number of articles, editorials, and posts this past year of women saying “me too” was staggering. They echo Dinah’s narrative, one of many times in our Torah when a man with greater privilege victimizes a woman.

In the Book of Samuel Ch. 13, we read of Amnon, the firstborn son of King David, and his half-sister Tamar. Amnon knowingly conspires with a friend to get Tamar alone and unwitnessed. She does not consent to Amnon’s advances. In fact, she begs him to marry her rather than force her to be with him sexually. The narrative that follows is terse and all-too-familiar. It says: וְלֹא אָבָה, לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹלָהּ; וַיֶּחֱזַק מִמֶּנָּה וַיְעַנֶּהָ, וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ. “He refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.”

Tamar’s story is so hard to accept because we don’t remember our rabbis teaching us this story. No one taught us how King David’s son traumatized his sister and left her desolate. Had we been taught about such a moment, we would have expanded our idea of what coercion and assault of women look like. When I went to college at Michigan State, the women I knew were warned against attacks committed by unknown monstrous persons hiding on campus waiting to leap out to hurt them. I was taught to walk in groups with women to help deter such attacks. This can help, for there is violence that occurs this way.

But the truth is that most degrading behavior toward women at Michigan State is happening the way Amnon treated Tamar. The person to fear is someone you admire and know. It might even be the person you trusted to help you stay safe. As an alumnus of MSU, I was ashamed to learn this year how the culture at my alma mater has gained a reputation as a place where women can expect not only to feel physically unsafe, but also to be leveled with shame as though they should be held responsible for preventing violence and not the person they trusted who is assaulting them. It’s one of many campuses, workplaces, and settings with so much to learn. I pray they will take this to heart.

For the reality is that, according to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), upwards of 70% of the time a sexual assault occurs to a woman, she knows the perpetrator. It is an employer or an educator, an athlete she admires, or even a religious leader of her community who believes he is entitled to be gratified by her. That’s one of the things this year’s “me too” movement revealed. The women saying “me too” weren’t seeking sympathy from men. They wanted to be catalysts for change! They were calling for a culture that would not condone such behavior. They wanted political leaders, university administrators, athletic directors, and religious leaders like me to speak openly about how women are being treated, to believe them and advocate for measures to help them be safe!

A lot of leaders heard about the #metoo movement, but never allied themselves to the cause. Others are waiting to see what will be required of them rather than taking assertive steps to actively block future mistreatment. On Rosh Hashanah this year, even if you’re sure you never harmed another human being, it is fair to ask that we scrutinize our conduct to ask:  “What did I do when a woman I know was described as an object for their titillation, a thing and not a person with feelings or emotions? When a person told me about being bullied or catcalled or the subject of bias, what did I say?  What do I wish I said?”

I know there are times I’ve been in a position to shut down sexist behavior and I’ve failed. I imagine many men here today look back with regret for things we have said or left unsaid, things we expected of others but not ourselves. On Rosh Hashanah, I realize how any of us could mistake the utter humility we express before God, articulated in our high holy day prayers, as an excuse for failure to act swiftly and with determination. “Our origin is dust,” we say, “Each of us is a shattered urn…a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by…a dream soon forgotten” [Gates of Repentance, p. 314-15]. 

 These are humbling images. They tell us on Rosh Hashanah how small we are next to the vastness of God’s creation. But when it comes to ending discrimination and violence damaging women in our midst, we cannot mistake our tininess in a vast cosmos for a lack of agency to affect change. We CAN do something about this moral stain. We CAN stand in partnership with brave women in our culture who seeking to combat a culture of misogyny and abuse.

Our people especially know that repenting for wrongdoing is only the first step to heal what ails us morally. Judaism tells us we must go further. Beyond repentance, Jews commit to change. 5779 can be the year we commit to change what #metoo revealed.

On Rosh Hashanah we are taught to hear the shofar calling us to change our conduct in the world. Hearing the Shofar cry today, we can be prompted to raise conversations about how women are treated in our families, workplaces, and communities. That may seem daunting. But if you are looking for a role model to emulate, look no further than a young woman named Aly Raisman. Do you all recognize Aly’s name? Not everyone recognizes that Aly, a medal-winning Olympic gymnast, also grew up hearing the shofar from the bimah of her temple in Boston.

I first spoke of Aly on this pulpit in 2012 after her gymnastic performance during the Summer Olympics. I spoke about her grit, her resilience, and her pride in her identity as a Jewish woman from America.

I even went so far at that time as to call Aly a malach, a messenger of God. For the definition I hold for a malach is not some angelic cherub flying around the heavens. Rather I believe that an angel, a malach, a messenger of God, is someone doing exactly what God wants them doing in this world.

This past year I learned about Aly’s fiery commitment to live her life permanently altered by the need to combat harassment, abuse, and sexism. Aly is speaking here in Cleveland to the National Council of Jewish Women. But she is hoping to inspire all women to expect to be treated with dignity and as whole persons without fear of obstacles placed before them. She believes that the problems we face are greater than bringing to justice any single abuser. That’s why her campaign Flip the Switch trains thousands of adults how to prevent sexual abuse. At the ESPY awards this summer, she stood with fellow survivors to say what Judaism teaches:  “The ripple effect of our actions — or inactions — can be enormous, spanning generations.” She continued: “Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this nightmare is that it could have been avoided. Whether you act or do nothing, you are shaping the world that we live in.”

In our community, I know we can shape an environment where women need not be victimized by toxic behavior and left alone to respond. Aly Raisman need not be the only Jew standing up to say we can do better. There are resources to help us. For example, our community is served by the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. In addition to direct support for assault victims, I am glad to announce we are working with the staff of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center to bring new training to our parents, school faculties, staff, clergy and members. I am also working with our Jewish community’s Know Abuse program, expertly headed by temple member Leah Weiss Caruso, to schedule a live dramatic teen-led performances demonstrating how abuse of power in many relationships affects the dignity and self-esteem of others.

Beyond special trainings, I know our synagogue must create opportunities to wrestle openly with the troubling messages the Torah radiates about gender, sexuality, and equality. While Judaism as we know it clearly prohibits the unethical and often criminal behaviors that #metoo has revealed, our text itself rarely includes responses other than men threatening acts of vengeance against perpetrators. Surely there is a place for feeling rage against those who inflict violence. But acting with vengeance doesn’t truly help.

So what can we do? Debby Tucker, co-founder of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, says the first step is to truly listen to women. She said this cause only gained traction when we “learned to listen to each other. [We] drew strength from understanding that what happened to individual women was not isolated. At first we just wanted to help…but later we began to hear about women’s experiences and see commonalities and not only in the abuses they suffered but in responses to them.” Ms. Tucker pointed out that some of the deepest resistance to believing women came from…clergy. This is a truth that hurts.

Professor Shira Epstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary has advised that Jewish institutions respond to the #metoo movement by actively addressing  “the hidden curriculum of our communities, “things we teach that are never written down anywhere in any explicit way, but consistently and steadily send messages about values, and beliefs about power.”  For me, as your Rabbi, this means scrutinizing patterns of behavior I may not have previously realized I communicate to women and girls, as it relates to their full agency, equality and value. I believe I can do this. I believe we all can do this!

I especially want you to know that our clergy are your allies. If you are living under the duress of sexual violence or discrimination, we are here for you.  We believe you and we believe 5779 can be different. It can be the year we acted to address what ails us. It can be the year, to borrow Aly Raisman’s term, that we flipped the switch. It can be the year we began to do exactly what God needs us to do right now.