After a year of swirling emotions, accusations, charges, mea culpas, convictions and vocal defenses, the #MeToo movement has created a cultural eruption that some say is unfair, while others say, “It’s about time.”
But during such cultural shake-ups rabbis often must meet the changes head-on and look for ways to spiritually counsel congregants, finding teachable moments and guiding lights among the lessons of the Torah, Talmud and the rich tapestry of Jewish literature.
For Rabbi Sonya Starr of the Reconstructionist Columbia Jewish Congregation in Maryland, Reconstructing Judaism has identified the Jewish principal of b’tselem elohim to guide people seeking answers to how Judaism deals with the issues of sexual harassment or assault.
“B’tselem elohim refers to the belief that all human beings are made in God’s image. As such, we must respect and honor the good in all people,” Starr said. “When we force ourselves on another person against their wishes, we are treating them as if they are less than, rather than honoring their legitimate right to determine when and how their own body will be sexually active.”
Starr said that her congregation went through a process a number of years ago, rewriting the shul’s bylaws and policies “to make this a safe place for people,” through a national program called JSafe that included education and training for youth, adults and parents.
At the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation in Maryland, Rabbi Jay Goldstein said the synagogue is addressing the subject of sexual harassment by beginning to develop new policies, although not because of any specific issues within the congregation.
Goldstein said the website Ken Means Yes, which deals with the idea of consent as a Jewish value — ken is the Hebrew word for “yes” — was helpful to him in building a Kol Nidre service around the ideas of community responsibility for forgiveness and repentance. Founded by Merissa Nathan Gerson, a trained rape prevention worker and sex educator, the Ken Means Yes movement endeavors to shine a light on physical safety and intimacy and increase consent language in the Jewish community.
He added that traditionally rabbinic Judaism offered women “great protections ... when the rest of the world didn’t really care about the needs of women, or what their issues were. So, historically, for more than 1,000-plus years, we have tried to be very traditionally sensitive to that.”
However, Goldstein said he has heard from many women colleagues about things said to them “that are wholly unacceptable and often horrifying to hear.”
At Beth Tfiloh Congregation outside Baltimore, Rabbanit Bracha Jaffe is a community educator and director of the Mercaz Dahan Center for Jewish Life & Learning. An Orthodox spiritual leader, Jaffe is a 2017 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat. She has taken a proactive approach to dealing with the issues of sexual harassment, abuse and the #MeToo movement.
“When the #MeToo movement exploded with Harvey Weinstein, I did not wait for it to come up in my teaching without preparing for it,” she said. “I spoke with professionals about how to couch it within my teachings, as well as how to respond when and if it triggered women (or men).”
Jaffe said she takes seriously her responsibility to attend to people’s spiritual and emotional needs, including telling female students that she is available for pastoral help or guidance.
“Looking back at my notes, I see that it was just this Shabbat one year ago that I brought it up in my women’s parshah class on Parshat Noach,” she said.
The movement “brought up very visceral and strong emotions and memories and brought the conversation about sexual harassment, sexual assault and impropriety to the forefront,” she added.
“It has called upon men to speak up, to take responsibility for their actions and took many people by surprise to see how absolutely widespread this phenomenon is.” JN