The moment turned awkward. The men tried not to smile. One, unable to control his curiosity, asked "Why is the male brain so much more expensive?" The doctor answered, "It's standard procedure. We mark down the price of the female brains, because... they've actually been used!”
We gather this morning - in light of #metoo. We are, just now, coming to terms with the extraordinarily widespread phenomenon by which men (not always men, but mostly) use their positions and authority to abuse women (not always women, but mostly).
We come to this reckoning on Yom Kippur, when our liturgy includes Ashamnu, an alphabetical acrostic of our misdeeds.
This year, we add “An Acrostic for #metoo” by Danya Ruttenberg, S. Bear Bergman, Leah Greenblum, Emily Becker, and Abby Citrin:
We Abused our power, we didn’t Believe survivors, we were Complicit, we Demeaned. We Echoed the majority, we Focused on our own self-interest over safety, we Gave abusers opportunities to further harm, we Humiliated survivors, we Ignored our impact, we Justified inappropriate behavior. We Kept abusers in power, we Laughed at jokes that supported rape culture, we Marginalized narratives that weren’t easy to digest, we Normalized problematic behavior, we Ostracized victims, we Participated in the erasure of survivors’ voices. We Questioned survivors’ motivations, we Reinforced harmful myths, we Silenced voices trying to come forward, We Trivialized. We didn’t Use safe protocols, we Violated boundaries, we Waited too long to take action, we eXonerated perpetrators who didn’t repent, we Yielded to our basest impulses, we Zealously defended perpetrators of harm.
Like an epidemic, the abuse of privilege linked to power has spread from A to Z.
In the news industry alone, we’ve seen the downfall of the likes of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, and Ryan Lizza. I wonder: what in the world were they thinking?
t’s important to acknowledge that our own Jewish community is not immune. In recent years, the late rabbi and musician Shlomo Carlebach, the Israeli author Ari Shavit, and our Reform Movement’s own scholar and sociologist Stephen Cohen.
As a clergyperson, I hold myself and fellow clergy to an even higher standard. We should be humbled by the trust that our communities invest us with. I watch with deep concern when colleagues don’t share that humility.
I’m left particularly speechless by the ongoing cataclysm within the Catholic priesthood. This morning we pray for the healing of all of those hurt by #metoo perpetrators, including the untold numbers of those suffering within the Catholic community.
As a man: I’m ashamed by the choices of offending men. As a human being in relationship with female relatives, friends, and colleagues, I’m deeply concerned about our culture’s atrocious misogyny and the toll it’s taken on the ones I care about. And as a self reflective person, I’m concerned about how I’ve unconsciously contributed to this brokenness.
But I primarily come to this as a father of a daughter and of a son.
We have an interpretive principle in Judaism known as ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim. The actions of the parent are a sign - a role modeling in today’s parlance - to the child of how they should grow up to behave.
None of us can fix the world’s problems alone. But we can all accept responsibility for how we raise our children and grandchildren. God-willing: through them, we can help heal this broken world.
This morning, let’s consider what it could mean to raise Jewish children in this #metoo moment.
First, we should acknowledge when there’s a problem. We transcend millenia of silence when we bravely speak out.
We can’t just teach kids to speak out about today’s injustices. We must begin by teaching them where these problematic behaviors come from.
It is God, after all, who tells Eve:
“Your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.”
We witness this idea in action in three related stories in Genesis. In chapter 12, Abraham goes to Egypt. As he arrives there, Abraham thinks: wow, Sarah is so beautiful. Surely, the men here will be interested in her. If they find out we’re married, they’ll kill me to get me out of the way. Therefore, I’ll convince Sarah to lie and say she’s my sister. The result is horrifying.
Unbelievably, it happens again in Chapter 20! And in Gen 26, proving that the actions of the parent are a sign to the children - Isaac does the same thing with his wife Rebekkah!
It’s a nightmare. We have unrestrained male ego. And two objectified matriarchs, whose consent is neither sought nor given.
To make matters worse: our commentators avoid criticizing these stories or the retrograde ethics on display in them.
One exception is the gloss offered by Nachmanides of 13th century Spain:
Know that Abraham inadvertently committed a great transgression by placing his […] wife in a stumbling block of sin […] Because of this incident the decree of galut [exile] in the land of Egypt at the hands of Pharaoh was imposed on Abraham’s seed; [Abraham’s descendants shall suffer at the site of his wrongdoing].
My colleague Rabbi Sarah Reines observes: If we can’t figure out a way to report Abraham’s offense from thousands of years ago, how will we find the courage to speak about the incidents we witness, or experience ourselves?
We learn from this about the danger of silence. Our other commentators should’ve called Abraham out. We can only speculate: would that strategy have made our community less tolerant of abusive behavior down through the ages?
We, too, must articulate when the Torah is problematic. We can love the text and lovingly critique it simultaneously. It’s a necessary approach if we are committed to acknowledging the forces that hardwire perpetrators into believing this behavior is acceptable.
A second thing we ought to teach our children is that gender roles aren’t absolute.
I wonder, for example, about American machismo, which we might define as a masculinity of power, often disregarding a sense of responsibility. How is machismo connected to metoo behaviors? We need to intentionally broaden or transcend that definition of masculinity and our other inherited gender stereotypes as we seek real change in our world.
In the Jacob and Esau story, Esau is described as “a man of the field.” Jacob is a scholarly nerd.
The text seems to be of two minds about masculinity. Gen 25:28 notes specifically that Isaac prefers Esau because of his outdoorsiness. And yet, bookish Jacob is rewarded with the birthright.
Interestingly, the birthright is never rewarded to Jacob for being himself. It’s only when Jacob hid inside an Esau Halloween costume that Jacob managed to merit reward. The story teaches that a Jewish masculinity includes a bit of Esau and a bit of Jacob. To be a Jewish man is to be a blend of both.
That sensibility suggests that we should be encouraging our kids to break down gender stereotypes. We should encourage boys to become nurses and preschool teachers, and girls to become mathematicians and accountants (to invoke a few gender binary stereotypes, if you will).
We can also apply this boundary-pushing sensibility to gendered presumptions in romantic relationships.
When Amy and I got engaged in 2000, we debated the question of an engagement ring. We were pretty countercultural regarding the hetero practice of a woman wearing a ring while the man didn’t. We agreed that I would wear one too - and I have ever since.
Back then, my friends thought it an odd gesture of egalitarianism. But I wonder whether it takes on newfound moral urgency today. There are contemporary #metoo ramifications if a groom thinks his fiancee should be “off the market”(because she has a ring) but he needn’t be.
It’s powerful to explore these questions with engaged couples. Obviously, it has nothing to do with jewelry, and everything to do with raising awareness of gender roles and partnership in marriage. Who will do the dishes and laundry? Will one be a primary breadwinner? If there are kids: how will you support a son who paints his nails, or a daughter who plays football? Will you teach your daughter to mow the lawn, and your son to cook?
(Again: I’ll note how ingrained these roles are, that I have to use stereotypes to illustrate this…)
We need to teach our kids that roles and labels are meant to be transcended. Jacob and Esau were two sides of the same coin: they each embodied virtues worth emulating.
Finally, we need to teach our children to foster both physical and ethical strength.
This year marks Israel’s 70th birthday.
The Israel Defense Forces have successfully built an image of unbridled strength. Miraculously, Israel repeatedly overcame attacks by her Arab neighbors. (Attacks which, by the way, continue. Several hundred rockets from Gaza have fallen in Israel since January 1st.)
How grateful we are for the courage of Israelis who defend Israel’s right to exist daily.
Israel continues to explore the question of its power. We should be proud, for example, of the IDF’s “Purity of Arms” regulations, which inform how Israeli soldiers engage ethically in combat.
The modern Orthodox rabbi Danny Landes expands on this:
Deuteronomy 21:10 reads: “When you take the field against your enemies, […] you shall take captive those who are captives.”
Commenting on the odd, doubled use of captives, Rabbi Landes notes: “The double use […] refers reflexively to the double capture that our [soldiers] endure. They are in the dual captivity [or obligation] of [needing to show physical power] and their own menschlikheit - both of which we, parents and teachers, have evoked and demanded. The loss of either one would spell disaster […] for them and […] the nation.”
Landes suggests a new paradigm for thinking about Jewish Power.
It is a power rooted in physical strength on the one hand, and ethical strength on the other. According to Landes: the ideal Israeli soldier embodies both.
In this post #metoo parenting moment, we should be striving for this embodiment. Our kids should be empowered to stand up for themselves, and they should be good and righteous whenever their power can be used.
Near the end of our service this morning, Cantor Becker will sing K’racheim Av. It’s a liturgical piece based on a verse in Psalms that lauds God as a Father whose Fatherliness (or masculinity) is bounded by Rachamim or motherly compassion (rechem is the Hebrew word for womb). K’rachem Av is a parallel term to the more familiar Av HaRachamim in our prayerbook.
How fitting that on Yom Kippur, our rabbis emphasize God as Heavenly Father…but that that Jewish masculinity is balanced by the motherly, or feminine (again: acknowledging that our ancestors relied on outdated stereotypes to make this progressive point). On Yom Kippur - and every day - God is not just power and strength. God is also compassion and sensitivity. We should be raising children and grandchildren to embrace all those virtues.
As we seek to end the silence, think more broadly about gender roles, and raise children to be physically and ethically powerful, let’s also be honest with ourselves. What we want most in the world is for our kids to be menschy versions of their best selves.
Jewish tradition provides a moment to ritually bless children on Shabbat. Historically, those blessings have drawn on gendered presumptions. Boys are blessed to be like Joseph’s sons: Ephraim and Menasseh. But girls: don’t be like them! Be like Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel, and Leah.
In the twenty first century, it’s time to think more broadly.
In her Book of Blessings, Marcia Falk offers a formulation for all children: “Be who you are - and may you be blessed in all that you are.”
Falk argues that parents should worry less about their children embodying particular values or virtues. Instead, parents and grandparents should be: “thankful for their [kids’] being, accepting of who they are, hopeful that they will blossom into their best selves.”
We know we want to build a different kind of world, and we know that we’re going to have to change how we think about gender and ethics in order to get there.
Imagine what that idealistic future could be. A society where people lived harmoniously, and behaved virtuously and with respect, regardless of power or gender. A universe where every person is honored for who they are. What a remarkable world that would be.
May our children build that world beemheirah v’yameinu - speedily and in our own day. And let us say: Amein.