I’ve been following the #MeToo movement and I’ve been fascinated by the rise of the counter-offensive against aggressors who have been defaming, attacking, and violating women with impunity for generations
I was proud and happy to see how these unabashed womanizers finally are being put in their place and made to taste their own medicine. But at the same time, I have been wondering about my Jewish values and heritage, and I question whether we’ve not become overly merciless in our pursuit for vengeance.
I’ve been debating whether our approach to social justice is any different than that of the society at large?
I enjoyed reading Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader’s article highlighting the example of Judah, Son of Jacob, who in his righteousness condemns his son’s widow, Tamar, to be burned to death because of her unexplained pregnancy. At the stake, awaiting her death, Tamar cries, “Let the man who made me pregnant acknowledge his signet seal, cords, and staff.” Judah recognizes his belongings and although there were no witnesses to what had happened, he belatedly realizes his wrongdoing and declares publicly: “She is more right than I.”
Boaz, who redeems Ruth, the Moabite widow, and marries her, is equally honorable. In both highly celebrated biblical examples, strong men accept responsibility for their actions when it comes to women and they rise to protect them, immediately after violating them, even if mistakenly.
Boaz and Judah are the founders of our messianic dynasty, and I couldn’t help but feel pride that we belong to a tradition that ascends such men to leadership roles.
Still, I await an answer about the limit of our eagerness for vengeance and keeping it proportionate to the misconduct. Are we justified in seeking retribution and going the extra mile to react to injustice? I wondered if, when, and how far are we allowed to do so. I turned to some scholars and rabbis whom I trust, inquiring about this whole phenomenon and looking to see if there is a justification for my violent reaction.
I do not question the conviction of the likes of Larry Nassar, a persistent violator, though I doubt if assigning him a punishment that is worse than that of Charles Manson reflects our true jurisprudence values. But I wonder if it is fair to compare the persistent violations of Harry Weinstein or of our current president, who’s taken pride in his public aggression against women, with that of Charlie Rose or Al Franken, who apologized for apparently far less damning behavior.
Is it correct for our community to condemn Elie Wiesel, on the grounds of a young woman’s lone claim of being traumatized from him grabbing her behind at a photo shoot? Or should we stop singing Shlomo Carlebach’s nigunim because of revelations of some misconduct? Both men are dead and unable to defend themselves against our postmortem litigation.
Rabbi Elly Krimsky replies, “Shaming for the sake of shaming or for a political move would be questionable halachic behavior, if you ask me. I too have wondered what is being accomplished by shaming someone who is dead.”
And outside the Jewish world, is it justified for us to stop supporting or celebrating the achievements of any artists, scientists, and politicians whose past includes some stains on their character? If we proceed with digging in everybody’s past, will there be anybody spared? This is exactly what the National Gallery in Washington proposes to do with the cancellation of the Chuck Close exhibit.
In an interview, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier commented on today’s ills and he suggested that movements that are social media-centric provide negative fuel to the social media system. To maximize the value of that fuel, they become routed in negative reactions, so the people who are the most irritated by whatever is going on are brought together, and often the backlash is vastly more powerful than the initial attempt to correct a phenomenon. His prediction is that the Me-Too movement will succumb to same kind of negativity through social media, which would move it away from its honorable pursuit of stopping violators, to sanctioning more extreme reactions. That would cause it to lose its moral basis, just as the Black Lives Matter movement did when it yielded to extreme factions, attacked people indiscriminately, and attached anti-Israel sentiments to its platform. It is the very mechanism of social media-based reactions, he argues, and we have to be careful in how and where we place our grievances.
One more comment in response to allegation about Reb Shlomo came from a religious woman, whose name I will not disclose. She said, “We are talking about the 60s here, and women knew what they were in for during that time period. They created the Free Love movement; ‘you make your bed, you sleep in it’. It takes two to tango and women have to start taking responsibility for the culture they helped create.” While I agree with the context of loose moral environment, and while I have mixed feelings with all the talk about Shlomo, especially since he’s not here to defend himself, I disagree with blaming the victim. A woman can dress prettily and go on a date, but it doesn’t mean that in doing so she automatically gives permission to be sexually abused. This, no more than in meeting an insurance salesman, and discussing his product, I do not give automatic permission to have my bank account accessed against my will.
In order to return and focus on our own Jewish sources for how to deal with transgressions, I recall Rabbi David Ingber’s petition against former Rabbi Marc Gafni, a once-promising Jewish leader indicted for child sexual abuse stretching back years. Gafni refused to admit his wrongdoing, refused to admit victimizing underage girls, until he had no choice. Then Gafni admitted to being “sick.” But 10 years later, seeking new roles in leadership, he attacks his accusers and refuses to atone for his deeds. This is inexcusable.
Relating to same question, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox from Yeshivat Maharat says, “I talk about ‘ideological separation,’ where it is possible to pull the good parts out and leave the bad parts on the cutting-room floor.” He further adds, “I am more inclined to lean toward protecting potential victims and boxing abusers out of parts of community.”
Rabbi Krimsky adds, “In today’s world, people measure progress and effectiveness by petitions and social media shares. Publicizing a miracle — pirsumei-nisa — such as lighting Chanukah menorahs is a positive side of social media. But imagine if I (God forbid) shame someone who is innocent on social media and that goes viral. The negative power of lashon-hara shows how social media can truly destroy people. The danger of hurting the innocent exponentially grows with social media and people’s desire to share salacious material.”
Lastly, I chose to bring Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s article from a few years ago, where he distinguishes between shame and guilt cultures. They both teach people how they ought to behave, but they have very different approaches to wrongdoing:
“In shame cultures what matters is what other people think of you: the embarrassment, the ignominy, the loss of face. Whereas in guilt cultures what matters is what the inner voice of conscience tells you. In shame cultures we’re actors playing our part on the public stage. In guilt cultures we’re engaged in inner conversation with the better angels of our nature. The biggest difference is that in shame cultures, if we’re caught doing wrong, there’s a stain on our character that only time can erase. But guilt cultures make a sharp distinction between the doer and the deed, the sinner and the sin. That’s why guilt cultures focus on atonement and repentance, apology and forgiveness. The act was wrong, but on our character there’s no indelible stain.”
In shame cultures, if you’ve done wrong, the first rule is, don’t be found out. If you are, then bluff your way through. Only admit it when every other alternative has failed, because you’ll be disgraced for a very long time indeed. In other words, if a non-criminal actor had apologized for their wrong doing, can we move on and give them a second chance? This can incentivize remorse instead of standing one’s grounds, knowing that there is no good outcome to ‘coming out’ and admitting one’s wrongdoing.
My wife and I were blessed with four sons and I never had to be afraid for their safety in the same way parents of girls must be. Thus I cannot put myself in those parents’ place, but in looking at our biblical sources, we have plenty of details about compassion and atonement for sin. There is the story of King David, who sends Uriah the Hittite to die in battle, in order to take his wife Bathsheba, and then is tormented by his deed. While the story has multiple interpretations, what is remarkable is that the all-powerful king, David, ultimately confessed to the prophet Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replied, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you, and you won’t die for this sin.” Again, atonement is rewarded, and it is David and Bathsheba’s son, Solomon, who later is chosen to continue King David’s dynasty.
In reading the Torah parsha from a few weeks that discussed the building of the tabernacle, I am reminded of a midrash that teaches us that everything God created in heaven has a replica on earth. The tabernacle reflected things in heaven brought to help us to ascend to Torah level. While we cannot understand how God operates in this world, we do know that we live with the challenge to echo the heavens and pursue life in a manner that dignifies our tradition. Thus, I think further about Rabbi Sacks’ words:
“Shame has a place in any moral system, but when it dominates all else, when all we have is trial by public exposure, then the more reluctant people will be to be honest, and the more suspicious we’ll become of people in public life, in politics, the media, financial institutions, corporations, and let’s be honest, in religious organizations too.”
We need to make it easier for people to be honest and apologize, which means that we too must learn how to forgive.
Soli Foger, an architect, and his wife, Dr. Tani Foger, have lived in Englewood for 27 years. They have four sons and four grandchildren.