For the Sin of Silence in a #MeToo World
She remembered sitting in Yom Kippur services when she was little. She remembered the sound of the shofar at the end of neilah when all the adults would rush out to eat.
And she remembered the sound of the haftarah— the lilting, warning, mournful sound of the prophet Isaiah saying:
K’ra v’garon! Al Tachshoch! “Cry from the depth— says God. Don’t hold back, lift up your voice like the shofar!”
The first time was the time she came home from kindergarten, downtrodden.
“They were laughing at me. They said my voice was squeaky and silly-sounding, like Mickey Mouse.”
The next time was on the soccer field. Eight years old and the best kicker on her co-ed team. With the score tied 4-4, she waited for the perfect shot, and as the inside of her cleat connected with that soccer ball, her heart soared along with it as it arched through the air—-
And landed squarely in the goalie’s hands.
“They didn’t even say it was a good kick- they just made fun of me for crying.”
By the time she’s 11 she doesn’t even say anything if the teacher doesn’t call on her to answer the math problem, and at age 15, she’s taken on the habit of upspeak— sounding as though she’s asking a question? Even though there is no doubt? … that she has solved the problem correctly.
K’ra v’garon! Al Tachshoch!
“Cry from the depth— says God. Don’t hold back, lift up your voice like the shofar!”
The people around her tell her she can do anything, that girls and boys are equal— she’s been raised on a steady diet of feminist slogans on t-shirts, including her favorite, “Nevertheless she persisted”.
But still, by the time she’s in middle school, there is a 43% chance that she has been sexually harassed by a peer, and by high school, a 30% chance that she has already experienced relationship abuse. If she has a disability or identifies as LGBTQ, the risk is even higher. If she is a person of color, the likelihood that she will not be believed, and that instead, she will be blamed, increases as well.
This young woman may go off to college— and, it’s likely that she has already integrated a whole set of unconscious behaviors into her life to protect herself: she never parks between two large cars or trucks, when walking back to her dorm she keeps her keys woven between her fingers, she sleeps with the windows closed, and perhaps more importantly: she has already learned that what she wears, what she drinks, how she speaks and whom she looks at will all affect the likelihood of whether or not she will be harassed or assaulted.
And if in a country where one of out of five women are assaulted in their lifetime, and she is indeedthat one— then what happens?
Chances are likely that she will be told:
“You’re reading it wrong. He was just flirting because he likes you.”
“…What did you eat that day?
What were you wearing?
When did you drink?
How much did you drink?
Why were you going to the party?”
(or, why did you wait twenty years to say something?)
Our culture isn’t quite ready to listen to women: there is no simpler way to say it. Women are too loud and too shrill, or else, too quiet and need to speak up. We apologize too much, use too many filler words, are twice as likely to be interrupted and then apt to apologize for it. We misread the situation, we’re being hysterical, we’re blowing it out of proportion—it’s not what it looks like.
What’s a girl to do?
What happens to the girl who remembers sitting in her synagogue, hearing that prophetic call to cry out— not to hold back, but then is told ‘don’t talk so loud…don’t lift up your voice’?
Our haftarah this morning hasn’t changed in thousands of years: the prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God reaches out from the pages of the book, and seems to remind all of us to use our voices and to cry out! Taken in concert with our Torah reading for this morning which reminds us that this covenant includes all of us— we might think that our Jewish community would be ahead of the curve. Certainly, none of us goes out of our way to silence and disempower young girls any more than we would knowingly discount and invalidate the voices of women in our community.
So the question we must grapple with now is in a #Metoo world, armed with a tradition steeped in justice and equality, how will we do better? How will we cry out, mightily with a full throat as the prophet demands, and not fall into the trap of silent complicity?
Over these holy days, many of my colleagues have chosen to speak on this issue from their position of influence as the rabbis, cantors, and educators of congregations. And those of us who are female, approach it with equal parts confidence and trepidation.
Speaking about issues of gender, as a female rabbi is sure to elicit a reaction— we only hope one of relief that we’re not silencing the issue. Talking about gender is complex to be sure— it can feel divisive or polarizing.
As one colleague said on Rosh Hashanah,
‘merely describing women’s lives, and how they are different from men’s lives can feel like an attack on a particular gender, or even on a particular political perspective”
But only if we forget that gender does not simply mean “women” or “women’s issues”,any more than “race” refers only to people of color. So today I am talking about a human issue.
Here in this community, men and women alike understand that violence against women is unacceptable.
Here, we affirm the diversity of human experience. We strive for equity.
Here, people of all genders are responsible for teaching and leading.
Here, we know that masculinity is not the enemy nor are men.
I both live and work with men who lead by example in their menschlikeit, their parenting, their partnering, and their willingness to engage in this work.
However, our best efforts are not a fortress from the world, and we are not immune to the entrenched, systemic, subtle, intricacies of misogyny.
So my question for us on this morning of brutal self-honesty:
What are the consequences of our silence? What does it mean to watch the stories of abuse (both physical, and abuses of power) come to light— to see men, many of whom you may have admired, accused of wrong-doing—and to shrug, turn the page of the newspaper, take a sip of your coffee, and move on?
As the famous Sondheim song reminds us— “children will listen”, and our silence is deafening.
Who here remembers Snuffleupagus?
What you may not know is that in 1985, the decision was made to finally reveal Snuffy—Big Bird’s previously “imaginary” friend—to the grownups on the show.
In an interview, Snuffy’s performer, Martin P. Robinson, revealed that Snuffywas finally introduced to the main human cast mainly due to a string of high-profile and sometimes graphic stories of…sexual abuse of children, that had been aired on shows such as 60 Minutes and 20/20. The writers felt that by having the adults refuse to believe Big Bird despite the fact that he was telling the truth, they were scaring children into thinking that their parents would not believe them if they had been sexually abused and that they would just be better off remaining silent.
Shtikah k’hoda’ah damya. Silence is akin to complicity, warns the Talmud.
Our Torah underscores our obligation to speak out, in a verse that while excerpted from this mornings’ reading, is found in parashat Nitzavim. Moses, girds the people for the realities that lie ahead, reminding them of their obligation to the Torah; an obligation that rests with everyone: from the woodchopper and water drawer, to each man, woman and child.
A bit later, in chapter 29 we read:
הַ֨נִּסְתָּרֹ֔ת לַיהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ
Concealed acts concern the Eternal our God;
וְהַנִּגְלֹ֞ת לָ֤ׄנׄוּׄ וּׄלְׄבָׄנֵׄ֙יׄנׄוּׄ֙ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם לַעֲשׂ֕וֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת
But with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.
Those things that are nistarot— concealed, those are for God.
But— that which is revealed, that which is nigla— that is on us— lanu ul’vaneinu.
Us and our children.
This issue of things that are concealed, and things that are revealed has been at the heart of the revelations over this last year, first with the story of Harvey Weinstein’s years of abuse, and then with the groundswell of the #Metoo movement.
On Sunday afternoon October 15th of this past year, the actress Alyssa Milano used her Twitter account to encourage women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to tweet the words #MeToo, in order to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem.
Those powerful words of recognition and solidarity that make us realize that we are not alone in our silent suffering. Originally used in this context by a black woman named Tarana Burke, who was left speechless after an encounter with a young survivor of abuse. That moment is where the Me Too campaign was born. Why it took twenty years and a famous white woman to popularize the message, is a sermon for another time.
Within 24 hours of Milano’s post, the hashtag had been reposted over a half a million times.From October 15th into October 16th, more than 12 million Facebook posts, comments, and reactions appeared with the #MeToo. Many of you probably remember waking up to a Facebook feed dominated by women discussing their experiences of harassment and assault that Monday morning. Some of you might have used the hashtag yourself and re-lived a painful memory. Those of you who are not on Facebook or Twitter might recall hearing about this movement in the news.]
#MeToo was like a worldwide tidal wave of silence breaking.
A collective exhale of pain and long-held breath.
It warrants being said out loud that it took a LOT of silent people to keep those secrets going for all those years.
Confronting the wounds of patriarchy over this last year was just the first step. And this is about so much more than violence against women: it’s about power and its misuse, it’s about the systems that were in place long before us that keep the scales imbalanced, and it’s about recognizing what’s at stake.
This is about violence and rape culture,
about what it means to break away from the confines of toxic masculinity
as well as toxic femininity;
this is about pay equity, early childhood education,
maternal care, family leave,
sexual harassment policies paired with real consequences,
and freedom of reproductive choice.
I realize that this might all sound like a pressure cooker of insurmountable problems;
I prefer to look at it as a well of opportunity, if only we could listen to women and not just the ones who look like us, or are our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.
I think about that piece of Torah, that tells us that when it comes to things that are concealed, those will be judged by God— but once weknow? Once those things are revealed it’s on us and our children.
And here’s the thing: this is what keeps me up at night.
I don’t want this on my daughters.
I don’t want it on your kids or grandkids.
I don’t want them bearing the burden of these open secrets carried over another generation.
When we look back on this moment in history, what will we tell our children we actually did to change the conversation?
A few suggestions:
Step 1: Step Up, Or Step Back.
Only you can figure out which one you need to do.
If you are usually the one talking, try to listen.
Believe what you hear.
If you know you have stayed silent, it’s time to get loud.
Remember the call of the prophet– K’ra al garon, al tachshoch! Cry mightily, don’t hold back.
The children are listening.
Step 2: If you see something, say something.
Even when you know it’s not just “locker room talk”, and even when you know that saying “boys will be boys” is insufficient- how easy it is to stay silent.
We should no sooner stand idly by as a neighbor bleeds
than we should as another is humiliated and harassed.
Demonstrate for the people around you that the type of language that leads to abuse, inequity, and violence is simply unacceptable.
Talk about these issues with young people. Engage in the conversation, and don’t let your silence be mistaken for complicity.
And finally, step 3:
Recognize that this isn’t about women and girls alone.
This is our problem.
This is an American problem, and this is undoubtedly a Jewish problem.
We must be unflinching in our calls to accountability— from the halls of academia, to the philanthropic bargaining table.
Beyond the issues of abuse and harassment that continue to come to light even just this week, we must continue to strive for equity.
I’m worried that in our progressive Reform Jewish bubble, we have declared “mission accomplished” too soon when it comes to our commitment to the panoply of issues that girls and women face.
Yes–we have phenomenal Jewish women in positions of lay leadership, and serving as rabbis, cantors, and educators. And, we have yet to see a woman lead any one of the national or international institutions that make up our movement.
There is no doubt in my mind that the moment for reckoning has arrived in the Jewish world— how we respond and how we react matters.
Children not only listen, but they see, too.
The next generation is no longer patiently waiting for us to fix things– in many ways, they have already modeled these steps toward repair for us.
There’s a classic Yiddish folktale that Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, the preeminent thinker on feminist theology, retells in her book Engendering Judaism:
Once upon a time, women began to resent that men seemed to own the world. Men got to read from Torah, and had all the interesting mitzvot and privileges. The women decided to present their grievance directly to God. They appointed Skotsl, a clever woman and a good speaker as their representative. But how was the messenger to be dispatched? They decided to make a human tower. Skotsl was to scale the tower and then pull herself into heaven. They scrambled up on one anothers shoulders, and Skotsl began to climb. But somebody shrugged or shifted, and women tumbled down every which way. When the commotion died down, Skotsl had disappeared. Men went on ruling the world, and nothing had changed. But still, the women are hopeful, and that is why when a woman walks into a house, the other women say “Look, here comes Skotsl.” And someday, it might really be she.
While at first pass, this tale might feel disappointing, Rabbi Adler suggests instead that this is actually a subversive feminist text:
“The storyteller slyly implies that it will be easier to climb into heaven and talk to God than to try to get a hearing from the tradition’s human (i.e. male) representatives.”
The story reminds us that this is a tale as old as time— for centuries, women have tried to lift each other up, to try to amplify their voices, and create change.
And here comes Skotsl.
Skotsl has spoken to us over this past year in a thousand different ways— through the voices of young women like Parkland survivor Emma Gonzales, through Jewish scholars like Keren McGinity, journalists like Jodi Kantor, and through the 12 million women who stepped forward and said “Me Too”.
And unlike in that Yiddish folktale, where Skotsl has to climb up to bring these grievances before God, we have heard the echoes of all the Skotsl’s in our world talking to us: to every one of us.
And that which is revealed, is on us.
Rabbi Diana Fersko
With thanks to Rabbi Sari Laufer for pointing this out; Four Things About Mr. Snuffleupagus,” Kottke.org, October 13, 2010 http://kottke.org/10/10/four-things-about-mr-snuffleupagus
Adler, Rachel. Engendering Judaism. P. 22.