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 another's 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.”
This week, Skotsl finally had the chance to speak out.
I want to share with you all the painful and ultimately hopeful story about a report issued from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion this week. HUC is our movements’ venerated seminary which ordains and trains Rabbis, Cantors and Jewish educators. It is where Rabbi Hirsch and I both studied and were ordained, it is where our rabbinic intern Dan Reichenbach is currently a student. The report published found credible evidence of sexual misconduct, as well as harassment, discrimination, and bullying on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race and disability over the past five decades. The investigation was conducted by an outside investigative law firm, Morgan Lewis.
The story has made its way to the mainstream press already, with a headline in the Washington Post proclaiming “Reform Jewish seminary report uncovers 50 years of sexual misconduct”. The headlines are bold, but not inaccurate--- the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published the story as “6 men and a ‘good old boys’ culture harmed students at Reform movement’s rabbinical school, report concludes”
Over one hundred and fifty alumni of HUC-JIR as well as former staff and faculty took the opportunity to share their stories with Morgan Lewis, the law firm doing the investigative work. The report is truly painful to read: story after story of students, mainly, but not only women, sharing stories of sexual misconduct, bullying, and discrimination--- stories of lauded and celebrated rabbis and professors grooming and gatekeeping.
Many of the women interviewed described facing critical comments about their weight, appearances, pregnancies and very presence in rabbinical school. Students and faculty alike recalled discrimination against queer students. Other interviewees said they felt that official complaints of harassment would not lead to accountability. “The pain that many witnesses have harbored based on their experience at HUC — some for decades — was palpable,” the report says.”
As I read the report this week, and had some time to reflect on it--- I felt compelled to talk about it with you all here tonight. First, I want to name that for me, and for the majority of my colleagues and friends whom I have discussed it with: not one word was surprising.
Some of the stories shared in that report are grotesque and shocking- others reflected the more common experience of casual, everyday misogyny: or, as the report aptly describes it: “the good old boys club”. By the time I was a student at the college, many of the most named offenders were long gone. In my time there, however, casual everyday misogyny, the male privilege and good old boys club type of behavior was experienced by most female identified students. Perhaps most disappointing in reading the report was realizing the ways in which beloved teachers and mentors of mine were bystanders--- knowingly allowing some of the most egregious behaviors to continue for years without consequence.
I am grateful to the current leadership of the college for their willingness to step into the deep on this issue: to finally take these claims seriously, and to begin the tremendous process of teshuvah. I share this with you all tonight because as members of a Reform congregation,and as individuals who attach yourself in some way to the idea of Reform Judaism, I think this is a moment for truth telling- and for not looking away. HUC-JIR has committed to putting forward a proposal within the month, with specific suggestions for ways to attempt to repair the irreparable damage caused by the perpetrators and the bystanders.
As I have learned from my colleagues and my own experience, part of the power of this moment is naming what happened. Until the behavior gets called out as abuse, it's easy to push off that foreboding sense that something is wrong. Here, Jewish legal thought steps in to remind us about the importance of categories: if a person comes into your house and takes an object that belongs to you, it's only theft if you have the idea of theft already established for you and have some way of making the claim that the article was yours and has been taken.3The power of this moment is that the behaviors have finally been recognized for what they are: abuse.*
A few years ago, when I spoke about the #MeToo movement on Yom Kippur, I shared that I was worried that in our progressive Reform Jewish bubble, we had declared “mission accomplished” too soon when it comes to the panoply of issues that girls and women face. I thought of that again when reading the Morgan Lewis report on HUC this week.
This coming year will mark the 50th year of the ordination of women--- a milestone to be celebrated for sure. For the earliest women rabbis, like Rabbi Zecher - beloved by our own congregation, they quite literally know what number they were--- as in Rabbi Zecher knows she was the 49th female rabbi ordained.
This anniversary now presents a dynamic challenge as we begin to understand just how much more difficult the path was for so many of those women who became rabbis, along with those rabbis whose gender identity or sexual orientation or disability and now race excluded them from that “good old boys” club.
So what do we do with stories like these? Stories of betrayed trust and trauma?
How do we reconcile these stories with who we believed our teachers and rabbis to be?
The story of abuse of power and people coming out of HUC-JIR is painful, to be sure. It unearths stories that we wish were not true, about people whom we were trained to revere and respect.
Perhaps, this is our Skotsl moment---except this time, so to speak, Skotsl’s story finally reached the heavens. In the original Yiddish tale where Skotsl never reaches her destination; the women in that human tower shrug-- they shift around, not fully able to stand firmly in their power, and Skotsl falls down. This week’s report was the result of generation after generation of HUC-JIR alumni standing on each others’ shoulders, speaking the truth. However, this time, that human tower that we stand on is sturdy--- as we lift ourselves onto the shoulders of all of the women and individuals who came forward, and told the truth about their experience at HUC-JIR. This is a moment for elevating and celebrating the bravery of those who stepped forward and said “this is no longer my burden to carry alone”.
I want to conclude by sharing the beautiful Torah offered by a colleague this week, Rabbi Iah Pillsbury, who wrote:
So now that we are here in this painful place together I hope we can take it as a learning opportunity. A growth opportunity for all of us, as painful as it is. We can build a better world. A better, healthier Jewish people. That’s why we’re all rabbis. And that means opening our eyes to new truths that appear differently in different years and different lights. Each of us has our own Torah to bring and our piece of the puzzle to help clarify and build and bridge. I keep thinking about my favorite midrash in the Talmud. When God is tying crowns on the Torah and Moses asks why. Why bother? You’re already finished with the words themselves. And God says, no! One day there will be a great man, Akiva, and he will make mountains of Halacha, mountains of learning out of each crown. And Moses was confused for obvious reasons and so God takes Moses to Akiva’s beit midrash many generations later (as you do), and Moses can’t understand anything. He gets upset and worries about his work and his legacy. But then Akiva continues, explaining that all of his teachings are built upon Moses’. We too stand upon the shoulders of one another. In beautiful ways and in problematic and painful ways. We are part of one chain of tradition. May each of us do our best as we move forward, to make this chain a chain we can all be proud of.
* I learned this from a post shared by Rabbi Kari Hofmaister Tuling who was referring to the work of Max Kasudan.