Louis J. Sachs
"At the same time impetuous and curious."

Chatati Lefanecha: I Have Sinned Before You

I find that I must begin with a confession. I love the Cosby show, I love Jell-O pudding, and in 2014, when the first of the string of accusations against Bill Cosby came out, I did not believe her. I cannot remember if I ever called her a liar in conversation, but I certainly thought it in my head. I thought that it was a ploy for attention, for media time, for a number of other possible reasons. However, not once did I think that the reason behind the accusation was simply that it was the truth. It never crossed my mind that Bill Cosby assaulted that woman.

Now, after dozens of women have come forward, public opinion has turned against him. Earlier this year he was found guilty of an assault committed in 2004, and just this week he was sentenced to 3-10 years in prison. At some point along this timeline, others like myself began to believe this woman and the dozens of others who all told the same story. Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them, America’s Dad assaulted America’s daughters.

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After more than a dozen women came forward with accusations against the comedian, NBC canceled plans to work with Cosby on a project. Chairman of the studio, Robert Greenblatt, was asked by reporters the question that has been on my mind this week, “How many women must accuse a man of assault before they are believed?”

He responded, that they had been willing to work with Cosby until the number of accusers reached a “critical mass.”[1] Asked to define what that means, Greenblatt responded “15, yes. Two, no.”[2]

This line of thinking disturbs me, but this is a confession because I myself thought the same way.

The dozens of women who have now come forward, speak of crimes dating back to 1965. The reason they offer for why they did not come forward sooner is that they feared they would be shamed, called liars, and worse if they shared their stories. This week, America again proved this true.

Many of you likely watched, as I did, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate Committee on Thursday. She brought forth allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee to sit on the bench of the United States Supreme Court. A lifetime appointment, as one of nine who will decide the most important matters of law in the years to come. A position the fifty-three-year-old judge will likely hold for decades if appointed.

Dr. Ford spoke fiercely, and eloquently, about a crime she alleges took place in 1982, when she was 15, and he was 17. To borrow a phrase from Maimonides, Ani Ma’amin, I believe her.

I am not the same person today that I was in 2014. Since then, I have heard countless stories from women about what they have experienced. I have heard stories from congregants, about what it was to be a nurse in the 70’s or a secretary in the 60’s. Stories of what it was to be the only female lawyer at a firm. The verbal and physical harassment that women put up with because to say something would only make things worse. The silence they held for fear of being called liars and publically shamed.

I have heard countless stories from my own friends about their experiences in High School, University, and professional careers. Not to mention the stories I have heard from their perspective of how men act towards them at bars and other social settings.

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I believe her. I believe the dozens of women who have come forward and accused Bill Cosby. I wonder how things would be different if, in 1965, Kristina Ruehli had felt safe sharing her story. If other women had felt their stories would be heard. How many women could have been spared being victims of his crimes? I believe her.

Now, I am not ready to convict Judge Kavanagh of a crime. We must be wary of public mobs and witch-hunts. We have not have reached the standard of evidence beyond a doubt for criminal sentencing. Still, I believe her.

After watching the hearing, including the testimony of the accused and accuser, I looked to our sources for guidance. This morning I want to share with you what I found.

The obvious place to start was the Torah, in Devarim 19:15, the text states, “One witness shall not arise against a person for any sin or guilt that they may commit; according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses a matter shall stand.[3] The meaning here is obvious, it takes at least two witnesses to convict a person of a crime.

We find the same answer in the Mishnah, Talmud, and halakhic codes, it takes the testimony of two witnesses of a crime in order to convict someone. However, the answer is more complicated than that. Simply because the threshold of evidence required for criminal matters is elevated, to protect the innocent, does not mean that a single witness is not to be believed. It does not mean that we are free to dismiss her story, or those of others.

Regarding a prayer leader, the Shulchan Aruch asks, who is fit to serve in this role as the representative of the community before God? The answer, among other requirements, is “one who has never had a poor reputation, even in their youth.”[4] No talk of witnesses, or a trial, simply to serve in such a role, one needs to have a good reputation. Again, the application to present day seems simple enough.

In tractate Moed Katan, of the Talmud, there is a discussion of what to do with a person suspected of having done something wrong when there is not enough evidence for a criminal offense. The answer given is that a person is not suspected of doing something wrong unless they actually did something wrong.[5] The message is poignant; accusations do not arbitrarily arise from nothing. Ani Ma’amin.

The rabbis argue with this point, claiming that surely baseless rumors can arise about a person. But the response the Talmud offers is that such rumors will die out on their own if there is no kernel of truth in them. Ani Ma’amin.

The Talmud goes on to say, that particularly when a rumor arises a second time, we should take it seriously. Ani Ma’amin.

But here, in the most recent case on everybody’s minds, we stand in a difficult position. There is at present, not enough testimony to convict Judge Kavanaugh of any crime, yet I find it reasonable to believe that he did commit one. Reason to believe Dr. Ford, that her fellow teenager assaulted her at the age of fifteen years old.

Bari Weiss, a writer for the New York Times, had a very interesting take on the Senate hearing, which she spoke about Thursday night at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. She noted that she finds herself in the position of feeling empathy for both the accuser and the accused. Her comments made me pause and think about what should we do with someone who did something terrible more than three decades ago. Someone who did something dumb and foolish as a kid, but has since done good things with their life. This is not to minimize the act, sexual assault at any age is much more than a simple teenage mistake, but still, it feels different than a lifelong predator, and at present, there is no suggestion that he has engaged in these crimes in the past three decades.

We just finished celebrating the High Holidays, talking about the possibility of teshuvah, and atoning for one’s sins. At my class on Yom Kippur afternoon, someone asked if one can really repent and be forgiven for any crime. I stand by my answer, which is that this is exactly what our tradition teaches. Anyone can make atonement for anything, but the key is that the penitent must truly go through the process.

I came across on Facebook a post, which shared what Judge Kavanaugh might have said to begin this process:

“I am so incredibly sorry for the pain I have caused this woman, that this memory would be with her after all these years. I don’t remember this night in question, but I am mortified to think I might have done this. I don’t know because I binge drank too much in high school. I didn’t know how to handle all the pressure. It got to me. I come from a religious family and didn’t know how to deal with sexuality. No one did. I’m ashamed when I look back. I have deep regrets. From now on, I will be a part of the solution so that my daughters don’t have to grow up in an environment like my high school. I will do whatever it takes to change the way young men and young women come of age in this culture.”

If he did commit this crime, this would have been the first step to atonement. Yet, I am not a judge or jury. I do not know if he committed the crime he stands accused of, and I truly feel sorry for his family, and what they are going through. I also feel sorry for him. The Etrog, one of the central symbols of Sukkot, the rabbis of the Midrash teach represents the heart.[6] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that the heart is the “wellspring of every emotion, every aspiration, and every endeavor.”[7] Now is the time to use our heart, whatever he did, first he is a person. He was a kid, he may need to atone, but he certainly needs love.

That is not to take away from the gravity of the crime, which he is accused of committing. Dr. Ford needs our hearts too. She has had to undergo very publically something she should have felt safe sharing as a child. This week, the FBI will investigate the allegations, but right now, after hearing her share her story, Ani Ma’amin.

There is another discussion in the Talmud, relevant to this topic, which I have been saving. There is a disagreement between Rav Huna and Rav Yehudah regarding investigating the claims of a poor person.[8]

Rav Huna teaches that one who begs for food should be questioned, but one who begs for clothing should not be. His reasoning is that someone standing in torn dirty clothing is exposed to humiliation and contempt, simply by how they are dressed, and so they should be believed.

Rav Yehudah teaches the opposite. One who begs for food should not be questioned, but one who begs for clothing should be. His reasoning is that a hungry person is suffering, and should, therefore, be believed.

Though they differ in the end, both base their opinions on the dignity of the person before them and what they are going through.

Dr. Ford, and every other woman who has experienced sexual assault is suffering and in pain. Dr. Ford, and every other woman who has come forward to share their experience of sexual assault has faced humiliation and contempt.

They meet the criteria; it is time to believe them. It is time for women to feel safe sharing their stories.

As I mentioned, the Etrog symbolizes the heart, we must use our hearts in these situations. We cannot let other emotions take the lead, empathy must be our starting point. That same Midrash also assigns a role to the lulav, teaching that it represents the spine, and that we must serve God with our backbones[9]

We serve God with our backbones by standing up for something important, by standing up for what is right.

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False accusations do happen, and rumors can ruin a person’s life. These issues must be handled delicately, and the court of public opinion should not have the final say. A criminal conviction should, and does, require a high bar of proof to prevent the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Nevertheless, to hold a public office, to be a role model and representative of the people. Our tradition is clear; such a person should be of unimpeachable character.

We must use our hearts for the accused and the accuser. We must also stand up and say enough is enough.

Atonement is available to all if we are willing to walk the path of teshuvah. The first step on that journey is confessing one’s crimes. I confessed to you this morning because I feel ashamed I did not believe the women who came forward against Bill Cosby.

Someday, I hope to have a daughter, I can only imagine the shame I would feel if I do not do everything I can to make the world she is born into one in which women do not fear to share their stories. I know the shame of looking my female friends in the eye if I continue to be the problem.

The same is true of your daughters and granddaughters, the young women of this community, who I have the privilege of teaching and working with. For many of them, I help them in preparation of their bat mitzvah, to find their voice. To compile their thoughts and feel confident sharing them with this community, teaching them that they have something meaningful to say, something meaningful to add to our tradition. How can I look them in the eye if I continue to be part of the societal pressure to keep their voices quiet?

That is the second step, changing one’s behavior in the future, Ani Ma’amin, I believe her.

This morning I confess publically before you all, and before God. In the past, I was a part of the problem. Today I walk the path of teshuvah. I pledge I will act differently in the future. I ask for forgiveness, and I ask God to help me to hold the images of both the lulav and etrog.

To remember to use my heart, and to stand tall for justice.

Ani Ma’amin b’Emunah Sheleimah

 

 

[1] https://www.thewrap.com/nbc-brass-talk-giving-up-on-bill-cosby-allegations-reached-critical-mass/

[2] https://www.thewrap.com/nbc-brass-talk-giving-up-on-bill-cosby-allegations-reached-critical-mass/

[3] Devarim, 19:15

[4] S.A. O.C. 53:4

[5] B.T. Moed Katan, 18b

[6] Vayikra Rabbah, 30:13

[7] S. R. Hirsch, Commentary to Avot 2:13

[8] B.T. Bava Batra 9a

[9] Vayikra Rabbah, 30:13

About the Author
Rabbi Sachs is the Assistant Rabbi at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario. A graduate of the University of California Davis, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Twice voted “America’s Cutest Rabbi” by his own mother, though not in consecutive years.
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