By Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
I have spent the past year fairly involved in the #metoo movement. From the week that the #metoo movement went viral, I’ve heard stories. I’ve heard and shared whispers. I have cried. A lot. I have argued. I have advocated. I think that I have been able to help some people. I have participated in conversations, groups, alliances, etc. to try to be both proactive and reactive.
Throughout the past year, and in years past before the #metoo movement, the onus of fixing and changing things has tended to fall on the victim or survivor. Not only have these individuals needed to bear the brunt of being harassed, assaulted, and mistreated, they also had to deal with the judgement, the need to prove their case as being bad enough to warrant action. What type of harassment should be tolerated in our midst? What type of harasser should go unchecked? Who is responsible for ensuring that members of our community are able to recognize wrongs and know what to do when they find themselves in that situation. It is not a matter of if, my friends, it is a matter of when.
While a number of people are asking about the teshuva, the repentance process, for predators or aggressors, Merissa Nathan Gerson shines the light of the weight of responsibility on all of us in her ELI Talk which was released this past week. You see, when it comes to #metoo, it is not about one or two individuals. It takes a village. Merissa makes it clear that this year, although we think that our hands are tied, “A lot of us this year feel that way, like our hands are tied, and we have no action. Avinu Malkeinu, I’m gonna beg of you to think a little differently that we do.”
There are two ways in which members of the Jewish community are responsibile for eradicating #metoo from our midsts. Firstly, we need to take the obligation of “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa,” a Biblical commandment which can be translated “Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man.” When someone discloses information to you, to us, you are now responsible for helping that individual and preventing the aggressor from harming others. Until you are confident that victims have been assisted and that the future will not allow for future victims, you are responsible, we are responsible. It does not matter how little power or influence you think you may have, you and we hold the power of truth. Use it.
Merissa powerfully and eloquently addresses the other prong in prevention, that of education. “I didn’t learn about my body and I didn’t learn about consent, and no one taught me, they said, ‘oh, go find a Jewish husband,’ but they never said, ‘hey, here’s how he should treat you.” The gemara offers wisdom and progressive stances when it comes to consent in regard to sex. Merissa asserts that the rabbis needed to call out rape because it was happening. In fact, it is happening and as she delivered her talk in Detroit, attendees were shaken when she frankly stated, “One in six women in this room right now, according to American statistics, is a survivor of rape. Or sexual assault. Or molestation. Or any kind of boundary violation which we are ripe with in the Jewish world right now. Those are forbidden values.”
While much of the #metoo movement leaves people feeling helpless, there are action items that we can and should be taking. We can make sure that Jewish organizations are safe places. We can make sure that we have strong policies in place including timely responses that protect and address past or future potential wrongs. We can practice transparency in these processes. We can provide various types of trainings including bystander training. We should be following the laws, protocols and guidelines of the EEOC. Jewishly, however, we can be doing something additionally.
We are now in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This is a time for individual but also communal atonement. According to Maimonidies, we need to engage in verbal affirmation of our wrongs as a part of the repentance process. In Jewish liturgy, we confirm our wrongs in plural language, as we are all responsible for each other. Sometimes it is the act of verbally acknowledging our role, our wrong, that heeds change for a better in this case a safe future. I ask that we allow Merissa’s words to wake us up, that her words act as the piercing cry of the shofar, to wake up and add new language and new responsibilities to our confessions this year. As a part of her ken (Hebrew for yes) means yes campaign, be brave enough to make certain that your community is joining the Yom Kippur pledge. This pledge calls for the reading of your community’s version of a one-minute Talmud-based script on Yom Kippur. In doing so, we can declare that consent is a Jewish value.
After a year of being enmeshed with the #metoo movement, what makes Merissa’s plea different? Merissa has a clear call for action that is inspired and grounded in Jewish text. There is no major leap of faith necessary here. Merissa is asking us to stop standing idly by, and take the necessary, required steps forward. May we all truly care for all members of our communities by keeping them safe, starting with this step.
Sharon Weiss–Greenberg is Director of Development and Communications at ELI Talks.