Poison from the Well: Why Words Matter

Over the past year, long standing figures in the Jewish community have faced accusations of sexual harassment and of using their powerful positions to undercut women in our community.  Most recently, when accusations detailed allegations of sexual harassment against a leading philanthropic figure, the article, and the follow up pieces it provoked, quoted Jewish leaders rationalizing abuse because it was not physical, but “only” verbal. Merely words. The women who were demeaned should learn to, essentially, take a joke; the sexually charged and objectifying comments were just old-fashioned humor. Furthermore, weren’t the millions of dollars that had been given away to Jewish organizations more significant than a few misused words?

Jews hold a special place for words, and our tradition has long recognized the power of the use and misuse of language.  In Pirkei Avot, the foundational Jewish text The Ethics of our Fathers, Rabbi Avtalyon admonishes the chachamin, the scholars of the day:

Be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile and be banished to a place of toxic water. The students who follow you there may drink and die.”

Perhaps like no other era in Jewish history we have afforded Jews who have accumulated great wealth disproportionate power. We have given philanthropists the status of wise ones, chachamim, once reserved for the scholars of our tradition, and imbued them with moral, ethical, and communal responsibility. With great power comes great obligation, and this is why the recent, but too short-lived, controversy surrounding the philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and his history of demeaning people, particularly women, has vexed and concerned me.

Rabbi Avtalyon explains that the inappropriate use of words, the resulting abuse of power, and the damage wrought can have extreme consequences. When words are weaponized and language is used to dehumanize others, the poison will seep into the communal well that nurtures us all.  The particular details of misogyny, sexually charged, and objectifying comments we have learned about cannot be written off as merely an inappropriate turn of phrase.

The legacy of moral tradition is as important as any philanthropic legacy. How do we stand as Jewish leaders if we insulate the powerful and victimize the weak? What happens when we don’t admit our mistakes and attempt to make amends? What happens when we exempt our leaders and ourselves from the moral and ethical accountability our tradition demands of everyone?

I feel compelled to protest this circling of wagons. I do this not only out of a sense of personal responsibility — without any pretense about my own imperfections as a flawed human being —but because, as a Jew, saying that words are meaningless goes against the core of how I define what is good in our culture, religion, and values.  I do this also in recognition that this community is not built simply on dollars.  It is built upon the creative talents of those who labor at our communal institutions.  When the power dynamics between funders and professionals devalue this work, the future of our entire community is imperiled.

The horrors of sexual harassment— with which the #MeToo era is finally forcing us to reckon—comes with a set of complexities and pain all their own.  While it is easy to confuse sexual harassment with sex, it is imperative to remember that it is fundamentally an abuse of power.  I understand that speaking out as a middle-aged, privileged, white man might not be welcome. Yet I do not want the Jewish community to speedily move past this moment without recognizing the dangers of our attitudes towards the philanthropic donor class and the impact that language plays in our communal dynamics. I stand in solidarity with the victims, and I sincerely hope that those who insisted on being heard when no one was listening are not silenced and dismissed all over again.

About the Author
Adam R. Bronfman is the President of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
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