How has this sexual harassment and assault season of “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” had an impact on the way you think about our society, your social and professional circles, and your Jewish community?
It has been important to see high profile men held accountable for the abuse of power manifested in their sexual misconduct. Yet, with so much reckoning occurring in celebrity circles, I believe we need to be cautious against allowing ourselves to respond as if it were their problem. Sexual harassment and assault, and the imbalance of gender power which is at the root of it all — for these issues are not about sex, they are about power– is all of our problem. The imbalance of gender power devalues women and robs men as well as women of choices in their work and in their lives. It is all of our problem– it’s in our own neighborhood, our own school, our own workplace, our own office, our own desk chair. We all have growth and learning we need to do in order to take steps to dismantle gender power imbalance.
In her recent article in The Jewish Forward, “The Inner Scream: Rabbinic Voices on Sexual Assault,” Rabbi Aviva Richman refers to an illuminating text which differentiates between an illicit sex act that occurs in a public or private setting (Deut 22:23-26). In a town, a betrothed woman is considered complicit because she should have screamed out to stop the advance. In a field, she is considered innocent because even if she screamed out, it would have been to no avail — no one would have come to her rescue.
The implication that the silent woman in the field should be blamed is tragically problematic. The lack of a scream is not equivalent to consent. Taken a step further, I would suggest it is not a woman’s obligation after sexual assault to call out the man. And to extend to all genders: I do not believe it is a victim or survivors obligation to call out a perpetrator. With great respect to the brave women who have spoken out, I do not believe women should carry the burden to repair the damage from sexual misconduct and abuses of power. I believe we all carry that burden.
Here’s where the Deuteronomy text can be not only problematic, but also profoundly instructive. As problematic as is the potential blaming of a woman in the town, consider what the text says about the townspeople. Rabbi Richman teaches: “The rabbis interpret the scream as an indication of the critical role of a third party–the person who is supposed to hear the scream and intervene to prevent this act of violence.” The burden is on the third party.
Who is the third party? Who is the bystander? The town. All of us.
Each of us has the power to turn inward to determine the behaviors we need to change, and the power we have, to bring change into our spheres of influence. Our congregation is moving forward with three initial steps to prevent sexual harassment and assault and to dismantle gender power imbalance.
First, our staff will engage in a proactive, preventative sexual harassment prevention and gender power dismantling workshop.
Second, our Board of Trustees will engage in a similar workshop. Each of the workshops will be co-led by an employment attorney and an organizational dynamics expert, as well as clergy who will offer a Jewish values lens. From the very first moment I proposed the idea to our president Michael Hauptman, to our Officers and to our Board of Trustees, our leadership has shown tremendous support. Men and women, older and younger, saw a need and expressed the desire to raise our consciousness. I am grateful to have such thoughtful leadership partners. I am grateful too, that the added expense brought by engaging our expert consultants will be generously funded by our congregant Lynne Gold-Bikin, who, when I shared with her my ideas, immediately responded “How can I help?”
Third, our RS Women, guided by the visionary leadership of Julia Engel, will this May offer a related Gender-Based Power Imbalance symposium for our community.
The burden is on the third party. Who is the third party? Who is the bystander? The town. All of us. As we move through these important challenges, how blessed we are to do so together.