December 4, 2023 -
This message on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the sermon shared by Rabbi Andi Berlin, guest rabbi for the Fairmount Temple clergy team during the High Holy Days, and was shared on Yom Kippur, 2018. We encourage you to comment below or to share the link to this sermon on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to continue the important conversation it engenders.
Our power can positively change the world… If used well. We can also use our power, though, to disrupt the world. We can do this by our awareness and nefarious use of power, and we can do this by our refusal to accept the power we have.
In October 1991, the nominee for Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas, was publicly accused of sexual harassment. It was stunning. Not that a powerful man had used sexuality to intimidate and dominate a subordinate woman, but that this woman was willing to come forward.
I was 22 that year, attending Hebrew University and working on my application to rabbinical school. One evening, some American friends and I crashed an Israeli’s apartment to watch the Senate questioning Anita Hill. Having never been a professional, I had not yet experienced that type of sexual harassment. But, I would. And sitting there in my friend’s living room, dipping my chipsim in humas and drinking weak Israeli beer, I learned exactly what I should do when it happens.
KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT.
Any young woman paying attention in 1991 learned that if she spoke about the pervasive and continual harassment we experience, she would be ridiculed, belittled, called a liar, humiliated, and would have her career derailed by the powerful men who at best could not understand what the experience was like for a woman and at worst, did everything they could to protect one of their own.
This sermon was crafted before the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh. I can only pray we take this opportunity to do this thing right this time. I can only pray we tell young women something different. But, I digress.
We all have power. We do. Not only must we know our power so we can harness it to fight injustice, but we must know our own power because unless we recognize how much power we have over another person, we are apt to abuse it.
Anita Hill was a professor at the University of Oklahoma Law School. She had power over her students; she had power as a lawyer, as someone in a certain socioeconomic class. But, to say that she had equal power to her harasser would be to deny how power works. After the humiliating and degrading hearings, Oklahoma state legislators passed bill after bill threatening the existence of the Law School until Professor Hill finally resigned, the second job she had to leave as a result of being sexually harassed by a more powerful man. More powerful. We all have power. However, we have to recognize that we all have different amounts of power.
In the era of the #metoo movement, we have been hearing a great deal of sexual harassment. As we know, sexual harassment is not about sex. It is not about attraction, not about romance or relationship. It is about one thing and one thing only: POWER. It is about one-person taking advantage of a power imbalance. It is about one person lording his or her power over another; either consciously or subconsciously.
King Saul, the first king of Israel, was guilty of forgetting the power he possessed. As ruler of all Israel, this became quite dangerous. If a soldier in an army makes a mistake, those around her are put in danger. If the ruler of an army is careless, nations are in danger. The prophet Samuel chastised Saul 1st (Samuel 15:17) by saying, “You may be little in your own sight, but are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? God anointed you king over Israel!” In other words, Samuel begged Saul to realize how much power Saul had. It did not matter that Saul felt small or insecure, he was still imbued with enough power to destroy an entire people.
I have thought a great deal about power over the last decade as I have served on and now chair the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s Ethics Committee, the committee that holds Reform and Progressive rabbis around the world accountable to a Code of Ethics.
We have seen time and time again that when those vested with religious authority do not realize how much power this gives them, they can be dangerous. Not realizing we have power over someone means that we do not realize that our requests, our anger, our compliments and complaints, carry such meaning and such weight that they can become harassment and abuse.
One does not have to have religious authority to abuse power. Many of us in this room manage other employees, teach students, coach sports, and lead teams. One of my executive coaching clients repeatedly gave a woman who worked for him advice on her personal life, her clothes, her relationships, her financial decisions. I was brought in to try to coach him out of this. At first, he explained to me that this was okay because, “I didn’t tell her as her boss, I told her as her friend.” I had to teach him that this distinction was not his to make. He had power over her. He is always her boss. She could seek out his advice. However, as the one with less power, she would not be in a position to correct him if he initiated a more personal connection. Even with the best of intentions, it would be an abuse of power. This executive’s lack of awareness about the power of his position caused several employees to leave the organization. My client had to come to terms with the amount of power he had. Once he did, he realized that initiating conversations about his employee’s personal lives was actually harassment.
All of us must be aware of how much power we have over each other. In one of the most profound moments in Amy Tan’s book, The Joy Luck Club, the character Waverly tries to explain to her mother the power the mother has over Waverly. Waverly tells her mother, “You don’t know, you don’t know the power you have over me. One word from you, one look, and I’m four years old again, crying myself to sleep, because nothing I do can ever, ever please you.” How many parents in this room realize the power we have over our children? How many of us are conscious of the weight with which our critical words land? Parents have power, immense power. Having power is not bad. Parents are supposed to have power. Forgetting our power, though, is dangerous.
On Yom Kippur, we struggle with repentance. How do we repair? How do we forgive?
Our tradition is very clear. True repentance is evidenced by the perpetrator’s ability to keep from repeating the transgression. We cannot hurt another, apologize and move on. We have to work on ourselves to understand what led to the transgression in the first place so we are able to keep ourselves from behaving that way in the future. If our Ethics Committee judges a rabbi to have violated our Code of Ethics, we proscribe a path of teshuvah, of resentence. Most often, this includes psychological evaluations, therapy, and coaching. One goal is helping the rabbi understand the power dynamics involved in clergy relationships.
While we do not know if Justice Thomas has gone through this vital introspection, we know that one of the senators who allowed his colleagues to treat Anita Hill like the perpetrator did go through some introspection. Vice President Joe Biden apologized to Ms. Hill. While his apology included his own sense of powerlessness, he did say, that if he could do it again, he would have brought forward the subpoena for three other women who had allegations against Justice Thomas. Joe Biden said just last night that, given what still happens to women when they are willing to come forward, we should also presume they are telling the truth.
On this Yom Kippur it is imperative that we all take time to consider how we understand power. What power do we have? Have we been careful about how this power affects others? If we answer these questions with flippant confidence, there is a good chance we have accidentally abused our power and made others uncomfortable, or worse. If, however, we are willing to challenge ourselves to think through these invisible and often subtle dynamics, then we can ensure that those around us remain emotionally safe.
Power exists everywhere. It exists in our offices, in our homes, in our places of worship…it exists in us. Inside each and every one of us. We must recognize it. We must experience the power that rests within. If we ignore it, we can abuse it. If we embrace it, we harness an energy for justice and compassion.
Let us wear our power as a mantel of goodness, as a force of love. Cein yehe ratzon.