This piece is the rabbi’s message from the October issue of the Shofar, newsletter of the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. http://www.oraynu.org
As my social media feed was flooded with #metoo messages, I was really struck by how this is a Jewish problem. For context, actor Alyssa Milano started a twitter/facebook post called “me too” and asked women who had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted to post “me too” as a way of highlighting the prevalence of violence against women and girls. It was very effective and effecting. A lot of women I know shared their stories and experiences, and it made me deeply sad to realize how every one of us has a story, has countless stories.
If you read Jewish media, you can see Jewish responses. Actor Mayim Bialik wrote a terrible op-ed in the New York Times that suggested that she didn’t experience this type of harassment and threat because she isn’t traditionally beautiful. Here’s the thing though: this type of abuse of power isn’t about beauty. It’s about power itself. And blaming it on how the woman looks, dresses, or behaves, continues to take the focus off of the perpetrators. And who are these perpetrators? They are the people in our own communities.
Here’s a recent “me too” story of mine: I was officiating a baby naming this past summer. I was standing in the kitchen of the home before the ceremony was set to begin, speaking with the mother of the baby. Her father, whose granddaughter was about to be celebrated and named ceremonially, said this to me: “You’re the rabbi? I was about to make a pass at you!”. What were my choices in this moment? There were a lot of things I wanted to say to him. And if I had been in a different situation, I would have. But I didn’t want to embarrass his daughter and I didn’t want to create tension at the simcha. So I let it go. But guess what? I can’t let it go. It’s part of my experience now as a rabbi, as a woman, as a human. I have to wear it. I have no doubt that he has forgotten this moment and has visited this type of “joke” on woman after woman both before and since.
I’m sure right now you’re thinking something like: “this isn’t really such a big deal. Who cares? Men of that generation grew up thinking this sort of thing was ok.” Notice how we are completely conditioned to find a way to either make the woman in a harassment situation responsible (“stop being so sensitive”) or to excuse the harassment (“boys will be boys”). Guess who is getting off the hook? The harasser. And because that’s the way the discourse works, more serious forms of harassment are equally excused. Women don’t talk about these experiences because they are so often minimized, dismissed, explained away or, worst of all, we are told we did something to “invite” it and/or are overreacting. The whole culture around harassment makes it safe for harassers to keep harassing and unsafe for women to object. So we really shouldn’t be surprised when such silence surrounds other forms of harassment and assault. The dynamic is set up to protect the perpetrators and blame the victims.
What’s the function of that “joke”? It is about him putting me in my place. I have no doubt that my male colleagues in our movement and across the Jewish world have never or rarely had anyone say anything similar. And if they have it still isn’t equivalent. As a woman, I have had so many such jokes, comment, thinly-vieled threats thrown my way that it has become commonplace. What is this “joke” really about? It is about questioning my authority. Mostly, I believe, it is about this man intimating that he has the right to make a joke at my expense. And my job, if I want to go along to get along, to not create a scene, to not be the “type of woman/feminist” who just “can’t take a joke,” is to laugh. I gave a little chuckle. I chuckled at my own expense.
What is the cost to all this? There is a cost to me. There is a cost to his daughter who was standing there (the one I didn’t want to embarrass but was embarrassed by her father all the same). There is a cost to the baby girl who was named that day. All women and girls lose when, in the subtle and countless ways we are made to participate in our own marginalization and oppression, we undermine our very humanity.
I’m sure if you ask most people about this man they would tell you that he is a “nice guy.” That’s what struck me about all the “me too” posts I saw. Most perpetrators of these moments of harassment, assault, and abuse would never acknowledge, may not even realize, the harm they are causing. We have all of these “nice guys” out there visiting terrible pain on the women they often love and, certainly, the many women and girls for whom they harbor contempt. And, yes, I’m singling out men. I know sometimes the perpetrator is a woman. But if we do not acknowledge that this is an expected and encouraged aspect of masculinity, that the vast majority of perpetrators are men, we aren’t going to get at the root of this problem.
Harvey Weinstein, whose fall from grace began this particular cultural moment, is Jewish. Notice that we so often celebrate the Jews who are successful and note with pride that they share our culture. We don’t do that with people whose reputations are not so good; who are infamous as opposed to famous. I am not for a moment suggesting that Weinstein’s predatory impulses stem from his Jewish background. But I am saying that we need to check in about our attitude to this type of behaviour when it is happening by people we know or people who are “one of our own.”
Years ago I was facilitating a women’s self-defence class and a Jewish woman raised her hand and said that there is no problem of violence against women in the Jewish community. It is a myth I have heard repeated many times, even among Oraynuniks. I want to be clear: violence against women and girls is happening in every community. If you think it isn’t happening in yours, it means no one is talking about it. And if no one is talking about it, that means that the perpetrators are not being held to account, women and girls are not being taught to resist, and the culture itself is permitting and promoting the predatory behaviour. I worry that Jewish culture, especially because of external threats, has made it hard for victims of sexual harassment and assault to come forward. In tight-knit communities, you just don’t name and out one of your own. And in traditional communities where/when women had little power, there was no point to making a disclosure as one’s own life would certainly only get worse.
Many people knew of Weinstein’s actions and said nothing. I have sympathy for the victims who said nothing to avoid tanking their careers. I don’t think the burden falls on the victims of sexual harassment and assault to stop it. I think it’s all the bystanders, those who knew and had power and protected him, that deserve some scrutiny here. There are times that some of us have known someone who crossed the line. Did we say something, even if it was awkward or difficult? Can we speak out, even when it outs someone we like or love?
There are stories of sexual assault from our earliest Jewish sources. The biblical Sarah is forced into the harems of Pharoah and Avimelech, and Abraham does not object (but God does). Similarly the biblical Dina is raped (some cool revisionings of the text ascribe her more agency though), and so is Tamar. Vashti and Esther in the story of Purim are seen as feminist heroes but are objectified terribly. And so it goes.
Why are these stories important? For women readers of Jewish texts, they can serve as a sort of “me too;” a reminder that these stories have been part of the lives of women forever. They also remind us that Jewish culture is no different from other cultures. These problems are our own. And it is within our own communities that we must combat them.
I know that at Oraynu we have female leadership and a long history of standing up for equity and gender justice. And yet I hate to think we might submit to a “you’ve come a long way, baby” attitude around gender justice. There is more work to do. Here are some questions to discuss with your partner/family/community of friends and neighbours to get ideas going about how to work towards a world where my daughter, and the little girl from that baby naming, don’t all have their own “me too” stories:
Do you talk to your children (if applicable) about consent? Do you make sure no one can hug or kiss them without permission? Do you honour their “no” and their bodily autonomy every time?
Who does the bulk of the housework and childcare (if applicable) in your home? Even if you think it’s equal, check in. Sometimes people are surprised by all the invisible work that gets done.
Who is responsible for creating family gatherings, special events, remembering birthdays, etc?
Who leads the organization of the household: coordinating appointments, knowing what events are coming up, keeping everything on track?
Who takes care of other people’s emotional lives? Is everyone receiving equal care?
Does anyone feel overburdened or overlooked?
If someone has or does experience(d) harassment or assault, is there space to discuss it? Are they taken seriously? Are they heard and believed?
Does everyone agree that things are fully equal?
It is my belief that all families and communities can work to create a better balance, to foster a truer equity. As Jews, Humanists, and citizens, this is our job. And, as all of those “me too” posts tell us, the time has surely come.