# ME TOO…#US ALSO
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch, D.Min.
This morning, twice we have heard the calls of the Shofar and the final blasts will follow this sermon—100 blasts in total. We are commanded l’shomah kol shofar –to hear, hear the sounds of the shofar directly. According to Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Mishna 7, “One who blows (a shofar) into a pit or a cistern or a jug, if he heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation, but if she hears the echo [also], or if she hears it while walking by a synagogue, she has not fulfilled her obligation.” For us today, hearing the shofar blasts while on our I-phones, tablets or televisions does not fulfill the mitzvah lishmoa—to hear. Why does one have to be physically be present—it’s all about intentionality. One could have the TV on and be doing dishes or emails when the shofar is sounded. According to the Rambam, Maimonides, “There is a hidden message we are supposed to infer by listening to the shofar. It calls out, ‘Sleeping ones! Awaken from your sleep! Slumbering ones! Awaken from your slumber! Examine your deeds. Remember your Creator and do teshuva…'” –turn in true repentance. (Aish, “Hearing the Shofar Calls”, Yaakov Astor, August 21, 2004.) The shofar blasts must resonate in our kol p’nimi, in our inner voice…the one created by God. It must be our Makom Kadosh—our personal sacred, holy other, place.
The first set of Shofar calls we heard this morning linked us to memory—specifically our Torah reading this morning–Isaac’s ordeal on Mt. Moriah—a Torah reading ,commonly read in Reform Jewish congregations. The traditional Torah reading though, takes us to a different biblical remembrance. As I mentioned during the Torah service, Rosh HaShanah is Yom Harat olam—the day the world was created. Creation, both God’s and humanity’s, is a central theme to these Noraim, these Holy Days, therefore, the traditional Torah reading focuses our attention on the beginning verses of parashat va’yeara—on the birth, and early years of Isaac’s life; not the verses that nearly ended his life prematurely. The Traditional Torah reading begins, V’adonai pakad et Sarah—And God remembered Sarah, who was barren, and Sarah conceived, similar to how God heeded Hannah’s plea to end her infertility in the Haftarah. In the traditional Torah reading we are privy to the tension, the jealousy that builds between Sarah and her maid-servant Hagar whom Sarah gave to Abraham as a surrogate wife. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. But once Isaac is born, Sarah orders Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. She said, “Expel this servant-woman and her son, for the son of this servant-woman will not share the inheritance with my son, not with Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10) Abraham, reluctant to acquiesce, inquires of God who tells him to obey Sarah’s request. Sarah, our Matriarch, displayed no compassion when Hagar is evicted. God, though, does not abandon Hagar and Ishmael—God provided for Hagar and Ishmael, in the wilderness. Although ‘bareness’ is a common theme in Torah, women speaking out loud, let alone complaining, are indeed rare occurrences in text. With the exception of this story, Sarah never speaks to Abraham…not when they leave their cushy home in Haran, not when twice he is willing to give her to another man as a wife, not even when Abraham takes her precious Isaac up that foreboding mountain as a sacrifice. Similarly, Hannah, a seeming nobody, cries out marat nefesh- with a bitterness of spirit—and has a one on one audience with God and acquires new life.
We must note that while Sarah and Hannah and other biblical matriarchs are cast in a positive light, there are other women who do not fare so well, no one more infamous than the Torah’s first lady, Eve. In both Jewish and Christian traditions, Eve is one not to be trusted, rather, she is the one who seduces and betrays—she is to be subordinated, and by extension…she set into motion the subordinated role of women through the millennia.
We know in the Purim story, Vashti is banished because she was unwilling to appear before the drunken king’ and his lecherous male courtiers. Biblical text provides little background on Vashti and rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud portray Vashti as evil. Tamar Gadari, biblical scholar wrote, “The Babylonian Rabbis tend to cast Vashti in an extremely negative light, as wicked, a Jew-hater and wanton…and Vashti’s punishment was merited, middah ke-neged middah: measure for measure “(Jewish Women’s Archive, Encyclopedia, Vashti: Midrash and Aggadah) Let’s face it, how many girls or boys dress up as Vashti on Purim.
The early rabbis would not interpret Vashti’s banishment as wrong any more than they did Hagar’s exile. In the book of Deuteronomy the basis for granting divorce rests in the verse, “If a man acquires a wife and he finds something displeasing in her, he may write her a bill of divorce. “ (Deut. 24:1) In Talmud, Gittin 90-a-b Bet Shammai declared: “ a man can divorce a woman because she spoiled his dinner or simply because he finds another woman more attractive, and the woman’s consent to the divorce is not required.”
Within today’s traditional Jewish world, although causes for divorce may have changed, it is still only the husband’s prerogative to initiate Divorce and women’s voices, like their biblical foremothers, are silenced or ignored.
In Pirkei Avot (ch.5) the disciple of Hillel, Rav Ben Bag Bag, wrote, “hafoch ba, hafoch ba, de’kula ba–Turn it, turn and turn it, for everything is in it.” Ben Bag Bag was speaking of Torah…we must keep ruminating over text…especially texts and narratives that cause discomfort…texts and narrative that have laid an uncomfortable foundation…texts and narratives that must be turned on their head. to reflect a new moral compass.
On this Rosh Hashanah Morning, I want to address the sea- change we have experienced in this country–regarding women’s voices and The #MeToo Movement, the many responses including an appropriate and needed Jewish response. Let us discover our kol p’nimi-our -inner voice —men and women and those who define themselves as they, let us struggle with the reality that in our biblical texts, women get a bad rap, and, until this past year, women’s voices, women’s pleas were rarely heard or taken seriously, or worse refuted or dismissed as lies. Let us acknowledge that women’s voices have been silenced too long. #Me Too does not emerge from a vacuum, rather, it was a groundswell response, a crescendo Dayenu-enough, to decades, yea centuries, of women being victimized and ignored. The #MeToo Movement has planted deep roots. In his piece on morality a half century ago, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” And, as a Jewish community, we cannot become Jewish ostriches and bury our heads in the sands of denial. When we read through the list of alleged perpetrators and offenders, those accused of sexual misconduct in the entertainment, news and business spheres, the high percentage of accused Jewish men cannot be ignored: Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrew Weiner, Ari Shavit, Woody Allen, Matthew Weiner…the list goes on and on. And just yesterday, Les Moonves, CBS CEO was fired for allegations of sexual misconduct. Although we can try to gloss over the growing list and attempt to rationalize that Jews are more visible in certain industries than the 1.8% Jews represent in the US population statistics, we must own the reality that Jewish men, are reared on the same values and sexual assumptions as all men, and equally guilty of missing the mark. (Pew Study 2013). In July, the prominent HUC sociologist, Dr. Steven Cohen was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, spanning decades. He did not deny the charges and offered a public statement of apology.” (The Jewish News, 7/26/18) And, just two weeks ago, Steven Cohen became one of his own statistics as he resigned from HUC for his misconduct.
There are those who in death, like Aretha Franklin and Fred Rogers, who leave us enormous legacies of hope and inspiration. Accusations of sexual misconduct also penetrate beyond the grave. Melanie Lidman, regarding Rabbi Slomo Carlebach (TOI December 20 2017) “In the 23 years since his death, at least eight women have publicly accused the “rock star rabbi’…of sexual misconduct in the 1960s and ’70s. One researcher said he had spoken to 15 different women claiming to be victims.” So, what are the consequences for one who has died? How can the #Me Too Movement extract justice in these cases? The Village Temple, like so many congregations, have relied on so many of the Carlebach ‘standards’—Esa Einai, Return Again, V’harer Einainu. But, following the public humiliation, as Cantor Bach knows, there was a flurry of posts on Jewish professionals’ Facebook pages. Thoughtful sermons have been given. Some clergy, including me, have for the time being, removed Carlebach’s music from our worship services.
Indeed, The #MeToo Movement has cut through years of denial and dismissal with laser precision. Bill Cosby, whose first jury waffled, saw a swift and decisive jury decision just 11 months later—just months after #MeToo erupted on social media. Out of curiosity, I recently watched the video of the first day of the Anita Hill testimony and Judge Thomas’ response. Let me clear, I have no facts to suggest innocence or guilt, and, I cannot help but wonder how our Supreme Court might be different today if Anita Hill’s voice and complaint were heard in 2018 and not 1991.
Although #Me Too focuses on women, we, this morning, must cast a larger net. Like men, who are diagnosed with breast cancer, who appear invisible when compared to the percentage of women who fight that horrific disease, #Me Too has ignited a more expansive flame for justice, an expanding flame not only for women. Hafoch Ba—we need to look beyond #Me Too—we need to cross the gender boundaries. We must hold in one hand the courage of women who have said #Me Too, and increase the call for justice for those boys and men who are subjected to bullying, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and rape. Those whose outcries have fallen on deaf ears, or, worse, they consciously remain silent, cloaked in profound embarrassment and shame. I can only imagine the courage it took Anthony Rapp to point the finger at Kevin Spacey, who toppled like his own, House of Cards. Recently, there was the case Nimrod Reitman, a NYU graduate student, who accused superstar NYU professor, Avital Ronell, of sexual misconduct. The NYU title IX Sexual Assault investigation found Ronell guilty. (NY Times, August 13, 2018)
And if Jimmy Bennett’s sexual misconduct accusation against Asia Argento is true–Argento who was the first accusatory nail in Harvey Weinstein’s professional coffin, must succumb to the sting of consequences. News articles have reported the use of hush money paid to Bennett. As we have seen in other sectors of our society, rarely does hush money have a good start or finish. (The Wrap, Rosemary Rossi, August 19, 2018 ) Perhaps, sadly, Ms. Argento’s story may be like that of some male abusers—the abused becomes the abuser.
Religious figures and institutions are also guilty both of sexual misconduct and blinded cover-up. Just last month new accusations and reports once again rocked the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. From Boston to Philly to every major city in between, the Catholic Church has had to utter b’kol p’nimi—in its inner voice—and b’kol ram—in a loud voice–Chatanu—we have sinned. Hundreds of priests are now being ‘outed’ as having molested more than 1000s of children spanning decades. The Church can no longer find sanctuary in a deafening silence.
And, less than two weeks ago, a story appeared in the Jewish press (The Forward, Ari Rosenfeld, August 28, 2018: How A Jewish Educator Preyed on Children for Half-a-Century) regarding Stanley Rosenfeld, a Jewish educator, now age 84, who over a period of decades molested 100s of NY students, at Ramaz, SAR, Westcheter Day, Hebrew Institute of Boro Park, Cejwin camp and a synagogue in Rhode Island. 100s of boys—who are now men. Boys, who in all likelihood never gave voice to their abuse—families riddled by -busha—embarrassment– did not step forward, until recently. #MeToo gave them the courage to say Hineinu, here we are, too. Psychologists can delve into the causes for becoming a sexual predator. Our red light must flash, not just at the perpetrator, but at the institutions and administrators that remained silent, despite complaints, despite knowledge.
I don’t believe there has been a more respected rabbi in New York—across all Jewish denominations, than Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, rabbi emeritus of Kehilat Jeshurun, who served as principal of the Ramaz Day School for 50 years. He is a scholar, past president of the Board of Rabbis, and most recently gained notoriety as the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump. It has recently come out, that Rabbi Lookstein learned of Stanley Rosenfeld’s sinful behavior after he left the school, as well as having known of other staff who preyed on students during his tenure as head of school—and did nothing. Rabbi Lookstein never informed other educational institutions of known sexual predators. He allowed these teachers of children to move from school to school, similar, to Catholic Bishops who passed predator priests to unsuspecting parishes.
And other Jewish institutions are also guilty—must say Pashanu—we have transgressed, in putting on blinders regarding sexual misconduct. The Reform Rabbis Ethics Committee, on which I served for 5 years including 6 months as its chair, grapples each year with strengthening its Code of Ethics, striving to find a balance between justice and mercy—weighing all sides. And it, too, has not always hit the mark, but not from a lack of trying. We can’t just point the finger at Joe Paterno, who turned a blind eye to Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse, or, hold the University of Michigan accountable for Olympic gymnast abuser, Dr. Larry Nassar. Although, they are guilty all must be responsible for protecting those most vulnerable in our midst—especially our sons and daughters.
In April, Jewish currents Sarah Seltzer in an April article entitled Birthright Israel and #Me Too (Jewish Current Birthright and #MeToo-Sarah Seltzer.) printed an article about Julia Peck, a Columbia University student—an engaged and active Jew–who went on Taglit Birthright Israel. The article reported, “The day after she was sexually assaulted by an Israeli soldier on her trip with Birthright Israel, she had thoughts of jumping in front of a bus. Wracked by pain and guilt as she arrived at the Western Wall, she says she slipped a note between the stones. The note read, “I’m sorry.” Peck returned to Columbia and a formal complaint was submitted to Birthright Israel and Hillel…it included testimonies of her two roommates and an apology from the perpetrator. She waited and waited, and months passed. More than a year later she received a vanilla response assuring her that Taglit Birthright and Hillel were working with the appropriate people to implement policies and procedures to report and respond to sexual assault. Reports indicate that prior to 2016, there was little if any sexual assault training for Birthright staff. Today, the needed training is taking place and It is heartening to know that critical steps are being taken to ensure the safety of all Birthright participants. But…one cannot help but note that it took 3 years for Julia’s story to be told…Julia’s voice to be heard.
#MeToo has allowed the reporting of sexual misconduct to bubble to the surface and boil over onto the headlines…it has seemingly forced, the once perceived impenetrable towers and the walled cities of —universities, Hollywood, Television, Washington, Wall Street—like the walls of Jericho to come toppling down with the soulful and alarming blast of victims’ Shofar of memory and cry for justice. The Shofar warning must also sound inside the conference and board rooms of Jewish organizations. “The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in June, that one in four female fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment at work, and 96 percent of those who harass them are men. (For Jewish Organizations, the Unique Challenge of #MeToo by Lara Moehlman, June 8 20018)
500 Jewish Organizations have joined the #Gam Ani –the Jewish #MeToo Facebook page. In Feb (Jewish Week), Hannah Dreyfus reported a list circulating in the Jewish not-for-profit arena, of men who have been identified as harassers or predators.
Some Jewish organizations don’t have sexual misconduct policies because, as Jewish institutions, they assume they don’t need them.
In her article “For Jewish Organizations, the Unique Challenge of #Me Too,” Lara Moehlman, quotes Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, president of The Wexner Foundation. Rabbi Abrahamson, on a panel stated, “You’ll hear Jewish organizational executives and board members say: ‘We don’t need that, sexual misconduct policies. We’re a kehila kedosha, right? We’re a holy community. We can handle it.” She stated, “that change is contingent on Jewish communities recognizing harassment policies as they would any other lawIt’s not contrary to the spirit of a holy community to have policies,” she said. Folks, we are a people of law. We do rules really, really well. This should not be an exception.”
I am pleased that our Village Temple congregation has an Ethics policy including sexual misconduct sections, for both staff and lay leaders. It is in the process of being updated in order to reflect current societal norms.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Chief Education and program director for Moving Traditions, an organization that works with Jewish teens, who in 2009 , was named one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America, wrote a JTA Opinion piece entitled, Jewish Men Need to Talk about #MeToo. (Jan. 22, 2018),
As men dominate leadership in Jewish organization, Rabbi Brenner suggests that all men, consider the following 6 questions. I believe they are questions to be grappled with by all. We, like listening to the Shofar, must be intentional in the needed conversations these questions prompt.
- What are the cultural, religious and communal factors that influence how Jewish men think about sex and sexuality?
- What messages do Jewish men give one another about what is “right” and “wrong” in terms of sexual activity?
- What is our responsibility when we suspect that another man is behaving inappropriately or abusing his power?
- What role do we play in helping those who have been victims of abuse?
- How might the fantasies men have been presented about sex contribute to harassment and abuse?
- And, most important, what can we do to help create a more equitable and safe environment for everyone?
Rabbi Brenner cautioned, that policies are not enough. Men have a responsibility to work with people of all genders to bring about cultural change. In the Jewish community, that means that men who lead, work within or serve on the boards of Jewish institutions should be advocating for clear policies regarding sexual harassment across all levels of the organization. They should learn to watch out for common signs of harassment and abuse and encourage efforts that make for safer workplaces and volunteer organizations.” (Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Medium January 19, Are Jewish men pigs?)
Indeed, all of us are responsible for ensuring that our sons and daughters, our grandchildren do not become victims of denigration, abuse or shame. We must find and highlight those sources in our rich tradition that provide inspiration and direction. The Talmud includes the following story: (Menachot 44a)
“A Jewish man travels to a far-away land and pays four hundred gold coins to sleep with a beautiful foreign prostitute. She ascends a tower of six silver beds and lies naked on the top bed. He ascends and takes off his clothing. As he takes off his ritual undergarment, his tzitzit — the strings that hang down from his ritual undergarment — hit him in the face. He jumps down from the bed and he says to her that he cannot go ahead with the act because the tzitzit are “witnesses” that he must act in accordance to God’s will. She is impressed. She converts to Judaism and becomes his wife.” Honest-it’s in the Talmud, written centuries ago by rabbis—the same rabbis who demonize Eve and Vashti, the same rabbis who would sanction a divorce for a burnt steak. Human actions, they teach, must be in accordance with God’s will. The tallit fringes served as witnesses to the mitzvot….those commandments that speak of uplifting the fallen, not cursing the deaf, respecting the image of God in each human being. And these are the mitzvot that must beckon to us still.
As human beings and as Jews, our response to #MeToo must be –#UsAlso…..We—all of us…commanded on this day to hear the blasts of the Shofar– we must awaken ourselves to marat nefesh—the bitter souls that that harbor shame, hurt, anger and disgrace. We must listen to the kol p’nimi, our inner voice of conscience. My colleague, Rabbi Mary Zamore in response to #MeToo wrote the following vidui—confession.
Al cheit shechatanu
For the sin we have committed before You . . .
by not believing the victims
by being silent while women were bullied, harassed or undermined
by claiming to be ready to listen when we were not
by claiming equality exists for all
by not supporting victims
by not providing sexual harassment prevention training
by accepting the sexist comments made every day
by blaming the victims
by claiming our workplaces, synagogues, and organizations were safe
by contributing to an environment that allowed harassment
by explaining away harassment
by believing the victims but not acting to make change
by worrying about our community’s reputation instead of the victims’ needs
by not reflecting on the past and present behavior within our community
by denying that gender harassment has many faces
by allowing victims to suffer retribution
by not noticing when women simply walked away from our community or institution
by making the reporting of harassment difficult and hard to engage
by promising change and not fulfilling this promise….
Al cheit shechatanu–For the sin we have committed before You, we ask forgiveness…from you O God and for those whom we have ignored or denied.
Like Channah, these women and men have spoken from the depths of ther anger…from the greatness of their grievance.” Like Hannah, first scorned and then heeded, may we come together on Rosh Hashanah to seek renewal of life and hope for ourselves, and may we pledge to help all those who suffer the wounds of sexual misconduct—who wear the scars of pain, anger and embarrassment—that we become intentional, holy vessels of hearing and healing and may we help these women and men transform their lives and work to make this year, a good year for all.
Keyn Yihi Ratzon.