How can Jewish values inform the national conversation about sexual abuse and power?

 The #metoo movement is a cry for a spiritual revolution. Many Jewish men do not have a proper spiritual grounding when it comes to sex and intimacy. Whatever we are teaching them in synagogue, Hebrew school, and yeshivot is not enough to promote consistent ethical action toward women and children. 

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Yohanna Kinberg, a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, has served the greater Seattle area as a rabbi for 15 years. She currently serves Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. 

Image: Sefira Ross

Jewish men are no less likely to be power abusers than any other men in our society, and this is a distressing reality. Fortunately, we have ample resources within our Jewish tradition to work toward a seismic change in how we treat each other. Now is the time to bring Martin Buber’s philosophical teachings into the bedroom, the boardroom, the breakroom, and the bar. So much of our American culture promotes being in what Buber calls an I/It relationship. The other human being right in front of us is treated as a means to our own ends instead of an end within him or herself. An I/It relationship is unholy, void of Godliness.

Sex is sacred. Bodies are sacred. Relationships are sacred. Intimacy, even casual intimacy, is sacred. Whenever we engage in intimacy — gay, straight, bi, as youth or adults, as married or single — we can engage in what Buber calls an I/Thou relationship. This is to engage with another soul within the realm of the sacred. We have the opportunity and the obligation to really see, hear, feel, and know the other person and to have a holy exchange between two souls, an exchange that is rooted in mutual pleasure, loving kindness, and respect. It is our obligation to future generations to bring Buber’s most basic teachings to the center of our Jewish lives and create a world where all people find safety, love, and acceptance within the context of intimacy.

 

When we hear about someone like Harvey Weinstein, we tend to view him as a sick aberration. But #MeToo has shown he is not unusual. Weinstein is better understood as the consequence of America’s sexist culture. #MeToo is a backlash against that, and our community can learn from this movement.

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Shira Kaufman is a women’s rights lawyer and an advocate in the fight against gender-based violence. She’s also a proud affiliate of many Seattle Jewish institutions.

Image: Sefira Ross

Weinstein exists in an America where male dominance is normalized by concentrating formal power in men. Weinstein was not taught that women are powerful. Instead, Hollywood taught him that women are defined by beauty. This sexual objectification dehumanizes women and is a necessary component of rape. Instead of holding Weinstein accountable, America pathologizes him. He was high functioning, and his crimes were calculated, yet he is considered sick, unable to control himself around such beautiful women, and he was sent to rehab. It’s as though Weinstein’s true victim is Weinstein, tormented by his intrusive thoughts. His actual victims are treated like side effects. They’ve been disbelieved, ignored by law enforcement, blamed, blacklisted, and silenced. Society’s response allowed his behavior to continue.

Sadly, these sexist norms can be found in Judaism. For example, in the Biblical story of Tamar (2 Samuel 13), we are told that a “beautiful” woman within a male-dominated structure is raped by a man “driven ill” by his desire. His attack is premeditated, aided by outsiders, and unpunished by law (though he is later killed). The victim attempts public protest but is silenced and stigmatized.

This is not just ancient history. In my lifetime, many leaders of our Seattle Jewish institutions have sexually exploited women and girls. Like Miramax, our institutions often resolve these matters in secret, never facing the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance over what happened. But stigma begets stigma. There are ways to have community dialogue — about prevention, accountability, sexism — in a way that respects privacy and eschews lashon hara. #MeToo is women creating a different cultural response to sexual exploitation. Let’s join in. Let’s have a #MeJew movement.

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