[This was my Yom Kippur morning sermon… I wrote it early in the morning, because I had to. And yet, I realized that I don’t have answers, and so at the end, I opened it up for discussion, and it was a good discussion.}
I’m wondering how many women in this room can say, “Me Too.” And indeed, how many men.
Sexual harassment. Sexual assault. Different degrees.
Then the aftermath—who believed you?
Last week, at my job, we were discussing Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation (btw, I believe her more likely than I believe Kavanaugh, who has apparently lied a few times before, to the Senate, I can only imagine, among others). Two women, both in their 90s, recounted tales of men accosting them in their youth—one was 15 and a neighbor ran his hands up her thighs, and another had been followed on the NYC subway at age 9.
Both told their mothers. Neither believed their daughter.
A few months ago, when I asked another group of seniors what their “Esther moment” was—when they stood up to power at personal risk to themselves, three different women told their #MeToo stories. One, a young single mother, had to leave a job finally after she couldn’t stop her boss from hitting on her. We didn’t call it sexual harassment in her day—but that’s what it was.
Whom could she report it to?
My boss, 31 years ago, kept hitting on me, until I told him I had a boyfriend. I had to “belong” to someone else before he would leave me alone. But he did, and no more was said about it. He did the same to the other woman project director, and she managed to fob him off. Neither of us thought to tell the Board of Directors, his boss. A couple years after that, we watched the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, and knew we would likely be ignored. After all, the President of the Board usually referred to us as “sweetie” and “honey.”
I’ve been wondering of late what makes some men think it’s okay to do this, because it’s more than just a few “bad apples,” as it were.
And certainly Jewish tradition has a lot to answer for in relation to thinking that women are lesser than men. It starts with Chava, or Eve, and the midrashim in relation to her can make a feminist’s hair stand on end.
Then there is the whole exemption from timebound mitzvot—when we say the Shema, for example—women were exempt, putatively so that we could take care of the children, especially the babies. But women don’t spend that much time in our whole lives tending the children. In the old days, so many women died in childbirth.
And then the whole mechitzah, and kol isha issue—that just the presence of women and especially hearing our voices in song prevent men from being able to focus on prayer. Since I think a large part of what Judaism is about is being able to control ourselves in the world, the mechitzah and kol isha seem more about men controlling women than men learning to get a grip on themselves.
There is a story about Golda Meir. When Israel was experiencing an epidemic of violent rapes and someone at a cabinet meeting suggested women be put under curfew until the rapists were caught, Meir shot back, “Men are committing the rapes. Let them be put under curfew.”
The men could not have come up with that…
I keep wondering how exactly men got it into their heads that it is okay to do the various things that are done by men to women. Why didn’t someone teach them it wasn’t okay? Why don’t they worry about punishment?
And this brings me to the Torah portion for today, about choosing life…
I want to share this story, from the RadioLab podcast, that I find myself coming back to again.
A man—let’s call him Frank—had epilepsy so severe it caused so many seizures that he required two brain surgeries to control them to lead any kind of a life. The second surgery DID decrease the seizures—so you might call it a success. However, after it, Frank suddenly became voracious—he ate everything in sight, and then wanted to have sex ALL the time—initially with his wife, and she was relieved when that let up somewhat. That is, until the day, the FBI showed up at his house, and took him and his computer into custody. It turned out that he had progressed from wanting to have sex with her to watching child pornography on his computer.
During the trial, the defense claimed that the surgery had caused a brain injury, and therefore he wasn’t responsible for his actions. And indeed following the arrest, Frank was prescribed medication that completely stopped his compulsion.
The prosecution, meanwhile, claimed that he COULD control himself, as evidenced by the fact that he had never looked at porn at work. Hence, it was not related to the surgery. The judge split the difference and gave him a shortish sentence, which Frank himself felt he deserved.
Then, a neurobiologist, Robert Sapolsky, described how fear can work, even in the context of a brain injury.
He told us that—just as a bonobo ape, who would mount anything in sight, will not do so in front of the alpha male—so too will we humans control our behavior in the face of powerful fear. Because of our fear of being fired or exposed at work, we don’t do things we would do at home—express rage, for example. Accepting fear can be a good thing.
As I listened to Sapolsky, I flashed on our stories, our Jewish bible stories—and our liturgy for these high holy days, when God, the all-powerful Sovereign, has such power. Our tradition has always emphasized yirat shamayim—fear of heaven. Yira is one of those great Hebrew words—it means both fear and awe… I’ve always preferred awe of the wonders of the universe to fear of what will happen if I break a commandment. I would like to believe that I “behave” because it makes for a better world, not because I would be punished otherwise.
But, in light of the story, I realized that fear of heaven, of God, was psychologically brilliant on the part of our ancestors. A God who punishes and rewards would keep us in line, able to live successfully in community with each other. Indeed, Maimonides, in the Guide for the Perplexed offered two objectives for the Torah—
the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body… The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as [w]e please, desire, and are able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes toward the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state.
So how to get us to the place where we remove all violence from our midst and not do everyone as we please? Our ancestors believed it was through yirat shamayim—fear of God’s power. The Torah regularly reminds us of the illnesses, plagues, punishments and death that came when we displeased or disobeyed God.
But here we are in 2018, 5779… And does fear of God’s punishments work on us to make us behave more civilly, more kindly, more compassionately? I think not… for most of us. And this might be because we have seen that it doesn’t seem to work in real time. A man who bragged about being able to get away with sexual assault and is credibly accused of sexual assault by about 15 women sits in the White House. A woman who accuses a man of sexual assault to show that he might not be the “really good man” Republican senators say he is has to flee her home because of death threats.
As we know, most rapes aren’t reported, and most that are go unpunished. So the fear of prosecution is gone. So what might work?
Let’s take a look at key verses in today’s torah portion:
רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֨יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע:
See I put before you today life and blessing and death and evil. (Deut. 30:15)
And a few verses later, God asks us to choose life so that we and our progeny may live. (Deut. 30:19)
Rav Yizchak Blazer, a student of Reb Yisroel Salanter, the founder of modern Mussar, the Jewish psychospiritual practice, quotes the Talmudic sages, who taught that one cannot give a gift of no or negative value, something no one would want, or want to touch. So the whole “choose between life and blessing and death and curse” has to be between two things of relatively equal value: death and curse have to be appetizing enough to make the choice genuine.
Death has to be as inviting as life…I have to say, this blew my mind.
So it can’t mean physical death—because physical death is just NOT nearly as inviting as physical life for most of us… So, it’s got to mean spiritual death. Blazer describes that as lust, iniquity and sin.
What are we talking about here, for us, in 5779?
Addictions: drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling, dangerous relationships, food, the internet…
Bad behavior—lying, being unkind, cheating at business and in relationships, violence, especially sexual violence, abuses of power, oppressing your neighbor.
We may think these are good choices—after all, they provide enjoyment, some degree of satisfaction. Taking revenge can feel sweet in the moment. The high from a drug can blot out pain…Having power over someone seems to feel good to some people—else we likely wouldn’t have Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs and Charlie Roses.
Spiritual death has its own degrees, just as the sinswe describe in the 13 attributes of God have levels—נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶֽשַׁע וְחַטָּאָהnosay avon vafesha v’chata’ah.
- Chet [חטא] – an error; mistake; wrongdoing; straying; veering off track; failing; falling; missing the mark.
- Avon [עוון] – to sin deliberately; to sin with the intention of satisfying a lust; to rationalize, hide, distort, or pervert the truth of one’s wrongdoing, knowing that it is wrong, and yet making excuses that it really isn’t so bad, or that one is incapable of overcoming the impulse to do wrong.
- Pesha [פשע] – iniquity, outright rebellion, obstinate violation, hardened crime, unmitigated evil.
After all, my boss hitting on me wasn’t as bad as the drunk teen who attempts to rape a 15 year old. What happened to Anita Hill isn’t as bad as what happened to Christine Blasey, but none of them are merely missing the mark.
I am still struggling with the question of what makes someone head toward the spiritual death of hurting another person—a woman, a trans person, a gay man, a person of color, a child—and get away with it with impunity—that somehow you/we/I have the right to it.
Would fear of heaven, or fear of the police and jail, or peer pressure convince you otherwise? Or does being in a culture where doing as we each choose have such an effect on us? Does it take white people standing up to white people to put the genie of racism back in the bottle? Do the men who are woke have to stand up against the men who perpetrate violence or harassment? Do the courts have to step in more vigorously? Or do we need a serious sea change where the mechitzah comes down and men have to see women has full members of Jewish and American and world society? That sea change, to me, has something to do with yirat shamayim—you don’t have to believe in God’s wrath pouring down from heaven, I think, to believe that we can build a society in which we believe the women and in which the men stop making us need to.
And how do we do that? And how long, dear God, how much longer?
Please choose life everyone of us—men, women, children. Turn away from the spiritual death of hatred, disrespect and violence. See each person as filled with tzelem Elohim, the divine spark.
[The discussion included the ideas that things for women ARE getting better, considering the long arc of history, and maybe we are too impatient; we need for education for girls AND for boys; the next generation will see more models of men treating women better and gradually it will change; women need to speak up more, but the costs of speaking up (as seen in the case under review) are very high. It was not as horrible as I’d feared not having a closure, and engaging people in the discussion.]
Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed (mobi) (pp. 263-264). MobileReference. Kindle Edition.
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