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Rosh HaShanah Morning Day 1 5783 On Gender and Power

09/29/2022 10:23:30 AM


Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, D. Min.

A woman brings special fabric to her friend the tailor and asks for a custom pair of pants. She returns a week later, only to find that the pants aren’t ready. Two weeks later - they still aren’t ready. Finally, after six weeks, they’re ready. They fit perfectly. Nonetheless, when it comes time to pay, she can’t resist needling her friend.   

“You know,” she says, “it only took God six days to make the world. It took you six weeks to make a single pair of pants.”

“Ah,” the tailor says. “But look at these perfect pants, and look at the state of our world!”

Hayom Harat Olam.  Today is the anniversary of Creation, the birthday of our imperfect world.  And the Torah’s story of that Creation is complicated, sending us mixed messages on several different fronts, including the question of gender roles, and how gender is intertwined with power and its abuse.

According to the Adam and Eve narrative (which we will read tomorrow morning): women are second class citizens. Genesis 3:16 reads: v’el isheich teshukateich, v’hu yimshol bach.  Your desire shall be for your man, and he shall rule over you.

That gender-based discrimination is echoed in the traditional commentary on the verse too.  Abraham ibn Ezra, of 12th century Spain, reads teshukateich not as “your desire” but as “your obedience,” underscoring the power hierarchy. 

This verse, like our world itself, is broken and imperfect.  It speaks of a worldview that is fundamentally unjust to women everywhere, and it cries out to us for mending.

Even if you question literal readings of the Bible as I do, we grapple with it here because our ancestors relied on it to create culture and meaning in their lives.  Which trickled down to the next generation.  And the one after that.  Until here we are, 5783 years later, inheriting a story that has perpetuated a power dynamic between the genders that is offensively toxic. 

During the last year, I’ve been struck by the prominence of this sexism – particularly regarding the abortion debate, and the persistent culture of sexual harassment in our society.

I stand before you this morning troubled, to be sure, by our society’s casual acceptance of the notion that women can and should be dominated by a patriarchy. 

But as a Jew, I am also troubled that our secular world’s embrace of these offensive ideas was unwittingly justified by traditional Jewish texts like Genesis 3.  I fear that the Adam and Eve story has, for millennia, given cover to those who would rob women of equal rights.

On this Rosh Hashanah, we seek to write new Torah, and create a more inclusive and healing narrative about the essential equality that ought to exist between people of every gender.

Let’s begin with abortion, and the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year.  In one fell swoop, the High Court dismantled a woman’s right to choose how to navigate an unwanted pregnancy, silencing women’s voices and autonomy, just like the misguided Biblical Author of so long ago.

For many of us: the High Court’s decision created a pressing political problem.

But for Jews, it also created a religious problem. 

Conservative Christian beliefs about the status of a fetus are well-known, such that we’re no longer surprised when we hear that the State of Georgia wants to permit pregnant families to claim a fetus as a dependent on their tax return; or the case going through the court system in Texas about a woman arguing that her fetus allows her access to the carpool lane on the highway.  We understand where the Religious Right is coming from, and we understand that the inevitable consequence of their thinking is that abortion will be equated with homicide.

Far less well known is the Jewish view on the subject, which fundamentally differs with this worldview.  

Two thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud taught: If a woman is struggling in childbirth, the mother’s life takes precedence over the fetus.  But if [more than half of the baby] has emerged, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person's life for another.

The Talmud makes clear: a fetus is not a child.  A fetus only becomes a person midway through the birthing process.

And yet: our rabbis understood that a fetus was potential life, and ought to be treated with humility.  Jewishly: abortion is a complicated medical procedure that ought to be pursued only after a pregnant woman has considered the other options available.  

But our values are clear: it is the woman, and not anyone else who gets to make that decision.  As Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler wrote back in 1974: “Since it is the woman who bears the risks and discomforts of pregnancy and, in this society, assumes the lion’s share of child-care responsibilities, a decision on abortion should result from her own confrontation with Jewish tradition.  If I may usurp a famous [American Jewish] phrase, her husband and her physician should possess “a vote, not a veto.”[1]

Like you, I am confused.  How is it possible that an American woman’s established right (since 1973) to decide for herself how to manage her own health, as Rabbi Dr. Adler affirmed, is suddenly unsettled?

As the father of one daughter, and the uncle of two nieces: I am newly anxious about the world that they are now being asked to navigate.

As a Jew, I am expressing outrage over the sense of being silenced as a religious minority, because the current Supreme Court has privileged the ideology of the Religious Right over other faiths, and over a larger secular legal precedent.   And as Justice Thomas’ abortion opinion made plain: I am concerned about the other areas of settled law that might soon be on the chopping block. 

Unfortunately, the end of a federally protected right to an abortion was not the only evidence of sexism during the last year.  There were also notable transgressions in the realm of MeToo – behaviors that hit close to home in our American Reform Jewish community.

In the last year, the congregational arm of our movement, the rabbinical association, and our seminary each hired outside counsel to investigate transgressive behavior that played out under those organizations’ respective watches.   Their reports are difficult to absorb because they implicate rabbis and other leaders who acted disgracefully, inconsistent with the expectations we associate with Jewish leadership.   

As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently noted: “At this season, especially, our Jewish tradition instructs us to make time for cheshbon hanefesh, to take stock of our lives, recalling the times we succeeded, but especially when we fell short. […] Not only are individuals required to do t'shuvah, institutions also bear this obligation. […] To that end, the URJ takes responsibility for the sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse that took place on our watch. […] We are committed individually and institutionally to repair, when possible, and to do better in the future. […] The Days of Awe do not wipe the slate clean, but rather, summon us to walk the path of repair and healing.”[2]

This Rosh Hashanah, we are called to walk that path toward repair and healing.

Rabbeinu Bachya, of medieval Spain, once wrote that: “Days are scrolls.  Write on them what you want remembered.”

I don’t want the gender inequity of the Adam and Eve story to be the value that is ultimately remembered by my daughter and nieces.  And I certainly don’t want my son, and my nephews, to learn about masculinity from that part of the story either.

That means that new readings of the story have to be emphasized, and that new steps are taken, to bring a tikkun or mending to our broken world.  So that the scrolls of our days in 5783 might record that which we truly want remembered.

That work begins with lifting up a different part of the Creation story.  Instead of learning about gender from Genesis 3, we ought to turn to Chapter 1, verse 26: vayivra Elohim et ha-adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto. And God created humankind in the divine image, creating all of humanity in the image of God—creating them male and female.

The message here is the polar opposite of Genesis 3.  Every single person, regardless of gender identity, is created in the image of God.  One person’s self-worth isn’t privileged over another.  Every person is equal in the eyes of God.

          Responding to the notion that God’s likeness is encoded in every person, we learn from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary that “These tantalizing attributes are uniquely bestowed upon humankind as a whole.  They introduce a new way for the divine to be manifested in the world through every human being.”[3]

          Genesis 1, and its insistence that all people are equal, is the foundation upon which our future vision of the world can be built.  But to bring about that change, we will have to take concrete action.

There are three things we can each do differently in the year ahead.

First, we can commit ourselves to listen differently.

Listening is an act that is deeply rooted in Rosh Hashanah, when we are commanded lishmoa kol shofar - to “listen” to the sounding of the shofar. 

David HaCohen – writing in Palestine 100 years ago - noted: “The ten days of returning are meant to reawaken our inner understanding, for it has fallen asleep and needs to be aroused.  […] True understanding derives from hearing, for its source is the listening that is accomplished with our inner ear.”

The current state of our world requires intentional listening.  Particularly for me and the men in our community: listening is an essential pathway toward trying to understand the unique life experiences our mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters have had to navigate.  In the coming days, we will be distributing resources so that you can get more involved.  Included among them will be a link to an informal conversation guide on gender.[4]  I want to challenge each of us to have several of these discussions, with someone of a different gender identity.  It is a powerful way to learn of others’ experiences.

But it’s not enough to listen.  Now is the time to make our voices heard, by involving ourselves in political activism surrounding abortion rights.

Our movement’s Religious Action Center has set up a webpage[5] with an exhaustive set of resources that we will also share out.  On it you’ll be able to find links to lobby Congress to pass legislation that will firmly establish a woman’s right to an abortion.  Additionally, you’ll find links to abortion providers, to funds which support individuals seeking an abortion; the chance to assist clinics by sending them much-needed supplies; and tools to have heart to heart conversations about abortion (and perhaps your own experience with abortion) with people in your lives so as to promote destigmatization.

Finally: what does it mean in the year ahead to give serious thought to harassment and how gendered power structures persist in the communities we are a part of?

In attempt to model this, our synagogue’s leadership undertook consideration of this issue over the last year.  We convened a task force to re-examine our harassment policy, and concluded that it was no longer adequate to ensure a safe 21st century Jewish space that reflects the best values of our Tradition.  Our congregation deserves a harassment policy that fully reflects the notions of equality, mutual respect, and inclusion which form the bedrock of our sacred community. 

To that end, our clergy and staff, in partnership with the Task Force and our Board of Trustees, revised and updated our harassment policy so that it doesn’t just address employment harassment in the workplace (which of course remains critically important), but also expands our understanding of harassment and the ways it can be perpetrated by clergy (God forbid) toward congregants; by congregants toward staff; and harassment that can take place under synagogue auspices between one congregant and another.

I hope you’ll join me, Executive Director Fawn Mendel, and members of our lay leadership on Tuesday October 18th at 7:30 PM via Zoom for an open conversation about the policy, and about the Jewish values that stand behind it.  More importantly: I hope that this conversation inspires you to serve as activists and change agents in the other circles of your life – whether at other non profits you are affiliated with, your workplace, country club or neighborhood association.  The reports of our Reform movement, and the recent history of MeToo, have taught us that this work needs to be done in every sector of society.  The onus is on us to work together to make our communities safer.

          “Days are scrolls.  Write on them what you want remembered.”  What will we write on our scrolls in this new year?  What do we want remembered?

Jewish theologian Dr. Judith Plaskow teaches us: “Feminism, I believe, aims at the liberation of all women and all people, and is thus not a movement for individual equality, but for the creation of a society that no longer construes difference in terms of superiority and subordination.”[6]

May 5783 be the year in which that vision becomes our new reality. 

Related Resources:

Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784