After a year of swirling emotions, accusations, charges, mea culpas, convictions and vocal defenses, the #MeToo movement has created a cultural eruption that some say is unfair, while others say, “It’s about time.”
But during such cultural shake-ups rabbis often must meet the changes head-on and look for ways to spiritually counsel congregants, finding teachable moments and guiding lights among the lessons of the Torah, Talmud and the rich tapestry of Jewish literature.
For Rabbi Sonya Starr of the Reconstructionist Columbia Jewish Congregation, Reconstructing Judaism has identified the Jewish principal of b’tselem elohim to guide people seeking answers to how Judaism deals with the issues of sexual harassment or assault.
“B’tselem elohim refers to the belief that all human beings are made in God’s image. As such, we must respect and honor the good in all people,” Starr said. “When we force ourselves on another person against their wishes, we are treating them as if they are less than, rather than honoring their legitimate right to determine when and how their own body will be sexually active.”
Starr said that CJC’s congregation went through a process a number of years ago, rewriting the shul’s bylaws and policies “to make this a safe place for people,” through a national program called JSafe that included education and training for youth, adults and parents.
“At CJC, most congregants have not been confused about Kavanaugh or the #MeToo movement. Instead, it has been a celebration that this important issue has been brought to the forefront of our contemporary discourse,” she added. “We should have been discussing this a long time ago. I hope that this will not fade from the headlines. Our congregations and communities need to look hard at how we treat other people in our midst, what is acceptable behavior and what is not, how do we want to enforce our new norms, and how will we educate our children and teens to live healthy lives, including, but not limited to, a healthy sex life.”
At the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, Rabbi Jay Goldstein said the synagogue is addressing the subject of sexual harassment by beginning to develop new policies, although not because of any specific issues within the congregation.
Goldstein said the website Ken Means Yes, which deals with the idea of consent as a Jewish value — ken is the Hebrew word for “yes” — was helpful to him in building a Kol Nidre service around the ideas of community responsibility for forgiveness and repentance. Founded by Merissa Nathan Gerson, a trained rape prevention worker and sex educator, the Ken Means Yes movement endeavors to shine a light on physical safety and intimacy and increase consent language in the Jewish community.
“As far as addressing the current climate, it is much more exacerbated, given events over the last few weeks,” Goldstein said. “And I think there needs to be significantly more time to develop considerations of the many different issues. But on Kol Nidre, I was trying to use Ken Means Yes to begin the process of bringing up some of the questions that exist.”
He said traditionally, rabbinic Judaism offered women “great protections … when the rest of the world didn’t really care about the needs of women, or what their issues were. So, historically, for more than 1,000-plus years, we have tried to be very traditionally sensitive to that.”
“We should have been discussing this a long time ago. I hope that this will not fade from the headlines.” — Rabbi Sonya Starr, Columbia Jewish Congregation
However, Goldstein said he has heard from many women colleagues about things said to them “that are wholly unacceptable and often horrifying to hear.” He hopes the #MeToo movement will begin to change people’s perceptions and sensitivity.
At the modern Orthodox Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation, Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro said the congregation began addressing sexual abuse a few years ago by hosting a “Shofar Shabbat” with CHANA, a Jewish community organization that offers support to victims of abuse, trauma and neglect, as well as community education.
“It is called the ‘Shofar Shabbat’ because it sends the message, ‘Don’t hide, but sound the shofar to wake people up to this issue and to your story,’” Shapiro said. “I was amazed at how many of my older congregants approached me privately in the weeks following the event to tell me their stories. It was our #MeToo moment before #MeToo.”
For spiritual guidance, Shapiro said the Torah, specifically Deuteronomy 22:23-29, “explicitly addresses sexual assault with solutions that made sense in their time. The main thing is that the Torah addresses sexual assault publicly and grapples with the issue.”
Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform shul, said that as an ever-evolving tradition, Judaism is in a “moment of real possibility — the possibility of change. I hope we can embrace that change for the benefit of all humans.”
Sachs-Kohen said that although the #MeToo movement has not come up within the congregation institutionally, and she has not addressed it from the pulpit yet, women have spoken to her privately about their experiences.
She referenced one of BHC’s first female rabbis, Rabbi Julie Spitzer, who wrote her rabbinic thesis about domestic violence in the Jewish community in the early 1980s.
“She wrote eloquently about the way that Jewish values uphold each individual’s intrinsic value and humanity and she did so when no other Jewish voices and certainly no other rabbis were speaking out,” she said. “I am heartened to see and hear colleagues around the country speaking out about #MeToo. Not just my female colleagues, but my male ones as well.”
Sachs-Kohen supports the movement and said she believes women “who come forward and bravely say what happened to them.”
“I cannot imagine the courage that must take. I think that a culture of shaming women for the things that happen to them is not a culture that embodies Jewish values of human dignity and worth,” she added. “Too many people still, unconsciously or consciously, believe that a woman or girl who is sexually harassed or assaulted is responsible for what happened to her because of what she wore, how she flirted, how much she drank, etc. The numbers of women who are now sharing their stories says that this problem is not about flirting or short skirts. “
She said that there are stories, teachings and assumptions within Jewish texts and Jewish culture that promote and support male power over women, so Jews “need to wrestle honestly and openly” with those pieces of tradition.
“I was amazed at how many of my older congregants approached me privately to tell me their stories. It was our #MeToo moment before #MeToo.” — Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation
“However, the core of Judaism affirms human dignity, inherent holiness and worth,” she said. “Those things stand in absolute opposition to sexual harassment and assault.”
At Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Rabbanit Bracha Jaffe is a community educator and director of the Mercaz Dahan Center for Jewish Life & Learning. An Orthodox spiritual leader, Jaffe is a 2017 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat. She has taken a proactive approach to dealing with the issues of sexual harassment, abuse and the #MeToo movement.
“When the #MeToo movement exploded with Harvey Weinstein, I did not wait for it to come up in my teaching without preparing for it,” she said. “I spoke with professionals about how to couch it within my teachings as well as how to respond when and if it triggered women (or men).”
Jaffe said she takes seriously her responsibility to attend to people’s spiritual and emotional needs, including telling female students that she is available for pastoral help or guidance.
“Looking back at my notes, I see that it was just this Shabbat one year ago that I brought it up in my women’s parshah class on Parshat Noach,” she said.
The movement “brought up very visceral and strong emotions and memories and brought the conversation about sexual harassment, sexual assault and impropriety to the forefront,” she added. “It has called upon men to speak up, to take responsibility for their actions and took many people by surprise to see how absolutely widespread this phenomenon is.”
She noted a number of stories in classical texts, especially in Genesis and the Babylonian Talmud, addressing sexual abuse and abuse of power.
“We should look back on these stories and understand them again and again through the lens of our own culture,” she said.