Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Maimonides, the great 12th-century Spanish-Israeli philosopher, and sage taught that true t’shuvah or repentance, has happened when you are given the opportunity to wrong the same wrong and you don’t. While it is too soon in the process of the #MeToo movement to enact forgiveness, it is not, in my opinion, too soon to do the necessary work to prepare the ground for that process to occur. When it comes to #MeToo, or Black Lives Matter, or Islamaphobia, or the Poor People’s Campaign, or any other movement attempting to rectify a failed system which has resulted in the repeated degradation and harm of others, we have all played a part. Real forgiveness is not only between perpetrator and victim, but on all of us to create a new system where none of what has occurred may ever ever ever occur again.
Here is the thought experiment I would like for us to engage in today. Today, right now as you read this, someone, in a now post-MeToo world, is sexually harassing someone else in the workplace. In a Jewish institution no less. What have we learned and what do we still need to learn to ensure that this situation is handled right? If at some point in time, we want a Tikkun, a full repair, from this situation, what do we need to? From the moment of reported transgression to the end, what do all parties need to do to make room for forgiveness to be a possibility at the end?
Someone who is a victim of harassment must come forward. According to the Chofetz Chaim, a 20th century Russian legalist and ethicist, in his Prohibitions Against Gossip (9:1-3) “If one sees that their friend wishes to enter into partnership with someone, and they feel that they will certainly be harmed by this, they must tell them to rescue them from that harm…” Meaning if you know someone has hurt you and will likely or possibly harm someone else, you have an obligation to say something to protect them. Even, or perhaps especially, if the person you are protecting is yourself from future harm.
For organizations, communities or even just groups of friends, hearing of these accusations, the accuser needs to, at the minimum, be able to come forward without facing further harassment, without having his/her sanity or motives questioned as an expected outcome and without anyone suggesting he/she asked for it. New organizations are emerging like B’Kavod, which means With Honor or With Integrity, and offers a reporting system, an infoline, and a support team for people reporting harassment within Jewish institutions. At the maximum, upon hearing an accusation of harassment, the accuser should be offered whatever support they need as they define it.
The accused needs to no longer have access to the power or to the people. Once someone is accused, especially of multiple, life-long offenses, they need to be removed from their positions of power. Organizations in which harassment occurs must have protocols in place to handle these situations. There is, at this point, no excuse for not having them.
Responding to the accuser and the accused in the ways I have suggested above is of course tricky. We have lived through decades of insidious violence where the accused is protected because of their power, and the accuser is blamed for upsetting the apple cart. This shift above is perhaps the most obvious and perhaps the hardest. Norms and biases are ingrained in all of us. Men and women alike. We like to maintain existing systems. But this cannot stand. The danger here, of course, is sometimes someone might be making it up, might be using the system, might be managing regret by making an accusation. We must trust the institutions investigating the accusations to do this right and well.
Which brings me to the next group: Institutions who investigate accusations need to be exceptional. We do not live in a time when there is room to mess this up. As a populace, it is our job to hold those organizations accountable. If they are blowing it, that needs to be said and loudly to anyone who will listen. And if they are doing it well, It is also our job to trust them and to get out of the way.
This part is also a challenge. In a world where current events are one salacious scandal after the next, we are walking the edge all the time between information and gossip. It is our jobs to know enough and nothing more. Our inner curiosity needs to be held in check. We may be tempted to think we need to know all the details of this sex scandal or that. But we don’t. We need to trust the people who do need to know to do right and for the rest of us to leave the horrors of other people’s lives to them. One of the great traumas of sexual assault and harassment is needing to relive it again and again. When we decide to make the intimate details of other’s lives topics of dinner table conversation or the object of our own scrutiny, we revictimize and retraumatize.
Which brings me to the rest of us. To be a good bystander, you must not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). This is the biblical version of “If you see something, say something.” I know a person who was in a long and violent marriage. She tells me that she can spot spousal abuse from a mile away. She has a business card to hand to people she suspects are being abused offering to help. We all can do this. We all must do this. It is hard. I know. But who are we if we do not? We are raised to stay out of other people’s business; to talk about it amongst ourselves but never to walk right up to it and speak TO it. This must end. Humanity is our business. Be nosy without being a talebearer. Do not investigate the odd you see because you are curious, but because you are called to help. As Plato said, qui tacet consentit, silence gives consent. For all these years, all these people have been harming all these other people. It was allowed to continue for so long because so few spoke up, especially other people in power.
Truthfully, what I would like to imagine is a world where none of this even happens. Is there room for prevention? Can we hope to live in a world where sexual harassment or even may I be so brazen to even think, sexual assault and sexual violence, are a thing of the past? To make it so, much needs to change including how we educate ourselves and our children about sex, sexuality, sexual violence, boundaries, consent and so on.
Currently, there are a series of Title IX lawsuits out against college campuses, because for years they kept doing assault prevention programs where they only told women not to be raped. Don’t walk home alone, don’t take a drink you do not see made, cover your drink so no one can slip something in it. What they did not say was: don’t rape or assault women, Yes means yes, and anything and everything else means no; don’t drug people’s drinks and so on. In the world of CSEC, (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children), and human trafficking, there are two approaches: Serving victims and decreasing demand. In my eight years of anti-trafficking work, I have encountered only two or three organizations which really work on ending the demand for paid for sex. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If people are going to stop harassing each other, then teaching another way must also be part of the path to t’shuvah.
Ultimately, repentance will be or should be, between victim and perpetrator. And that will happen between each victim and each perpetrator in their own time. Public apologies on the part of a perpetrator are nice and appropriate, but are not the place where the t’shuvah happens. Someone who has harmed many does not owe the public an apology, they owe the individuals an apology and a blast apology to “Everyone I may have harmed” just doesn’t cut it.
For the rest of us watching the drama unfold, once that has happened, we will need to consider if, or how, to let chronic offenders, one-time offenders, suspected offenders and the like back into the public space in a way that feels safe and good for us as well as for them. We are not there yet, but for this EVER to be possible in a real and meaningful way, we all have work to do along the way to prepare the ground and plant the seeds which may one day allow for true transformation to occur.