Violence and Silence: The #Metoos of Bible
My sermon this morning may be off-putting, or even triggering to some of us. Indeed, I am nervous to give it on the holiest day of the year. But in reflecting on why I’m hesitant, I wonder if I am internalizing some outsider’s idea of what is appropriate for a female rabbi to discuss--worrying too much about what people may want to hear and not what our community needs to share aloud. In the true spirit of Yom Kippur, I believe the job of Jewish leaders is to call out To’e’vot- the communal shortcomings of our people. Not for the purposes of punishment or shame, but rather for Teshuva, a change in our culture that we so desperately need- how we think of, speak of, and treat women in our world.
By now, we are all familiar with the women of the #metoo movement - The silence breakers who spoke out about sexual harassment and assault, from teens to professionals, hotel housekeepers to movie stars. Those who first shared their stories encouraged others: Between Oct 15-16 of this year over 12 million posts with the hashtag #metoo appeared on social media within 24 hours. And while it may appear this movement has sprung up overnight, it has actually be simmering for decades, centuries- dating all the way back to Torah.
The many writers of our sacred stories, presumably all men, devote little time to female perspectives. When women appear in Bible, we are often mute or nameless, pawns in men’s games of war and violence. Our reactions go “unrecorded,” our emotions never described. And, while not all of these stories are of sexual assault or abuse, sadly, many are.
We start in Genesis with the silencing of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob. As Dinah goes out to visit the local women, the Hivite prince, Shechem, sees her, takes her by force, falls in love with her, and wants to marry her - in that order. When Shechem’s father tries to arrange a marriage between Dinah and Shechem, Jacob’s sons seek revenge. They plunder the city, killing all the Hivite men including Shechem and his father. They take Dinah from Shechem’s house and she is never heard from again.
In this narrative we see a woman with no agency, and more importantly, no voice. She becomes an alien in a foreign household, lacking a negotiated marriage. As her brothers rage against her treatment, they do not consider that for Dinah, there is no longer an acceptable place for her in Israelite society. As told, the concern in this story is not Dinah’s fate, but rather the political relationship between Israel and other tribes. As activist and comedian Hannah Gadbsy has noted, “We care more about reputation than humanity.”
We meet another victim of a man’s desire in the book of Samuel. Tamar, a young royal princess, lives with abundant privilege, yet little power. Her ailing half-brother Amnon summons Tamar to bring food to his room, and dutifully she goes, unaware that he has schemed to get her alone. (2 Samuel 13:7-11).
In this narrative, even though we hear a women’s voice, it is ignored. When Amnon seizes and crudely propositions Tamar, she responds with an emphatic No. “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile!” In three different ways she tries to reject Amnon’s advances, But the prince ignores Tamar’s pleas and overpowers her, hurting and humiliating the one he was charged to protect.
In these two narratives from Tanach, we meet women bound to the circumstances set for them by the men in their lives. What happens to Dinah, Tamar, and others both named and unnamed, in the aftermath of their ordeals? We never know. Just as we may never hear from women and girls who have been victims of violence and silence. Dr. Ellen Umansky, professor of Judaic studies writes, “if we are to attempt to create, a non-patriarchal, non-androcentric Judaism — a Judaism in which the experiences of both men and women are seen as central — we Jewish women need to reclaim our voices. In so doing, we need to imagine what our foremothers, like Dinah, might have said, if only they had spoken.
Tragically, these “texts of terror” as named by Christian scholar Emily Scott, may be more resonant than others when it comes to the heartbreaking violence and silence of women. The #MeToos of the Bible reflect the culture of silence at work in our communities. But now, we are finally recognizing that behaviors once considered acceptable between men and women actually carry real casualties and cause long-term suffering. If we fail to truly reflect on the stories of our female biblical figures, we will perpetuate the underlying causes of their silence.
This is not a sermon to tell Good men that they are not Good. This is about hearing women’s voices independent of men and truly listening when what we have say isn’t easy to hear. And sometimes when it’s difficult, we ca turn to comedy to transmit truths. On Saturday Night Live this past season, parody song lyrics exposed realities of how females are asked to act in this world: While the women of the cast sarcastically bemoaned that Netflix’s House of Cards is ruined for us all due the behavior of it’s leading actor, they earnestly disclosed experiences that are also “ruined” for women on a daily basis: Parking and walking, and Uber, and ponytails, bathrobes, and nighttime, and drinking, and hotels, and vans...nothing good EVER happens in a van!
I wish I could say that these examples don’t resonate- but I believe they do-with every woman here. So I want to be a silence breaker too. I have been fortunate to have had positive and nurturing male mentors (thank you especially Rabbi Dennis), but as a female in a male dominated field, my colleagues and I have experienced the full range of microaggressions to abuse that women in the rabbinate receive: We field conversations over and over again about the commonality of women in the rabbinate (it’s been 46 years). We are called by our first names when our male counterparts receive the title of “Rabbi.” It’s assumed that we are the assistants TO male senior rabbis, instead of being Rabbis ourselves. We receive comments about our clothing and weight, even when they’re compliments- or just creepy sentiments like, “If my Rabbi looked liked you, I wouldn’t have dropped out of Hebrew school!” And while I can only describe the world I know about most- I am certain that female lawyers, bankers, doctors, principals, coders, police officers, and CEOs in the congregation find parallels in your own fields. Have you been referred to as “girls, sweethearts, honeys,” and other feminine diminutives inappropriate for any professional? Have you been turned down for jobs or promotions because of fears you may become pregnant, or need to care for family members? Do you earn less than male colleagues, for the same position, in accordance with national statistics? Have you been taken advantage of or preyed upon, by a man with more power? Female Rabbis too. And we get advice to protect ourselves in various ways- leave your door open in one to one meetings- and don't visit a congregant house alone. While these are unfortunately necessary practices that protect congregants and clergy members of all genders from harm, I await the day when we will robustly address the roots of abuse instead of taking defensive steps to protect ourselves.
Addressing these potentially uncomfortable interactions is crucial because it prevents women from having to be the ones who say “NO or Don’t, or Stop.” Who have to spend extra emotional energy defending our personal space and autonomy. In real time, with real people in real life, saying “No” is not that easy. We are all socialized to behave in certain ways based on gender identities.
And what’s even more complicated, these gender identities come with long held biases against women. In an exercise from Harvard Business School, MBA students were given a case study about two real-life entrepreneurs. The case described how each person became a successful venture capitalist by using their personality traits and social skills. The students were then asked to assess the positive and negative qualities to determine who they would want to work for. The descriptions were equal except that one candidate was Heidi Roizen and the other Howard Roizen. The HBS students saw Heidi as selfish, aggressive and not the type of person you would want to work with. Women in leadership of all areas are told to be trailblazers, break glass ceilings, gain power and success... But not too much. We are left with the bias that women who break the norms are also unlikeable. To counteract those prejudices, we are expected to be amiable, polite, dress attractively, and make sure others are happy- even when we are uncomfortable. As a society, how can we overcome these outdated notions?
I believe sharing our experiences and feelings aloud as a teaching tool is the place to start. In my work as a rabbi, I’ve witnessed the ways hearts can open when someone tells a story. I believe empathy will create a different vision for femininity and masculinity in our nation, rooted in love instead of dominance. The Jewish community that I truly envision is one where everyone is respected for the qualities we bring, where everyone feels safe and welcome, where everyone’s voice matters. The #metoo movement has raised just as many questions and challenges for men as women. It has helped us all to look at expired, rigid notions of masculinity and reject those ideas too. Our community is filled with kind and loving boys and men who want more opportunities to feel vulnerable, share emotions, and love emphatically. Each of us here holds outrage, confusion, and a passionate desire to create change. But we each need to reflect on how our behaviors and words can perpetuate a culture that pressures men to hold power while subjugating women. From the television and movies we watch, to the photos and videos we consume and share, to the words we speak, each of us makes a series of seemingly innocuous, daily decisions that can define and determine what the accepted culture is. We each must sit with our own discomfort instead of passing unhealthy ideas about gender and power to a new generation. We can re-write the stories of men and women.
As Jews committed to gender equality, we must also return to our sacred text as a way to make change. If we read between the lines of the Bible, we can detect the narratives of women deleted by uninterested editors, or left untold. When we preach and teach the stories of Biblical women, and find there is no voice, we can start with the simple question, “How do you think she felt?” It’s a question that some teachers have never considered, but many women have. We have challenged ourselves to re-discover our voices in sacred text. When women speak out, we add to Torah through midrash like The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, who reclaimed Dinah’s victimhood as a love story. When women speak out, we claim feminist readings of text. Dr. Andrea Weiss, editor of the Women’s Torah Commentary has used metaphor to better understand Tamar’s use of her own sexual power. When women speak out, we add depth to liturgy. Songwriter Debbie Friedman (z”l) added the names of our matriarchs to prayer, and honored women’s voices in song, expanding the way women relate with God and find meaning in worship. When women speak out we lead our congregations, committees, and make the Jewish world feel more just, safer, and whole. When we limit the story of Dinah to nine words in a book of thousands, we affirm this story is OK to live on.
Tarana Burke, the creator of the coinage #metoo says, “I’ve been saying from the start, this is not just a moment, it’s a movement...A hashtag is a declaration but now we are poised to really stand up and do the work.”
So let’s work on making all voices heard, and work on being active listeners.
Let's work on using power responsibly, honoring boundaries, and practicing consent. A small example is asking before a hug or kiss.
Let’s work on believing stories of sexual abuse that come out into the public. Let abusers see their power go away when the public takes a stand. Don’t patronize their businesses, don’t defend them, and definitely don’t vote for them!
Let us instead continue to vote for policies that support women- equal pay, family leave, choices in regard to one’s own body- Let’s work on breaking down oppressive political systems that have found women without choice.
Let victims and survivors speak out and seek support. Our own congregant Emily Abrams is the director of San Mateo County Rape Trauma Services. This organization is the primary provider of sexual abuse & assault services on the Peninsula. For many, it’s the only place survivors can go for counseling, medical and legal advocacy, and educational resources. Please remember, you are not alone.
Let’s continue to study women’s interpretations of Torah. Let’s use our studies to challenge problematic gender notions that live in our texts.
And finally, to my sisters- just be- who you are, without excuses, without apologies, without fear of being judged or labeled- just be you. As women, we have been polite for too long, we have lived in fear for too long, we’ve worried about our careers, or societal perceptions, or our safety for too long.
This Yom Kippur morning, we stand together and recite: Al Cheit shechatanu l’fanecha b’chozek yad. The ways we have wronged you through abuse of power. But we list these past transgressions as an opportunity to do Teshuva. Today, We can recreate the world anew. And that gives us a choice: we can continue to live in the world of Dinah and Tamar, a world of outdated notions of the masculine and feminine, of dominance, and abuse. Or, we can live in a world in which men and women stand side by side on equal footing, in which our choices of what to say and how we act consistently reflect our grandest values and aspirations, a world in which women’s voices are heard loudly and affirmed. Now, It’s our time. Let’s speak out.
Emily M.D. Scott, “The Bible’s #MeToo Problem.” The New York Times, June 16, 2018.
Rabbi Rachel Bregman, “Getting to No.” My Jewish Learning/Rabbis without Borders, May 23 2018.
“Do and Don’t: An Open Letter to Older Male Senior Pastors Regarding your Working Relationships with younger Women/Femme/Non-Binary* Associate Colleagues. Young Clergy Women International, June 5 2018 .
Rabbi Lisa Berney, “Toward a New Vision of Partnership: Transforming a Rape Culture” Sermon Rosh Hashanah, 5778
Eleanor Barkhorn, “Are Successful Women Really Less Likable than Successful Men?” The Atlantic, March 14, 2014