I wonder about us as a society. I wonder about the civic language that exists but has not yet sufficiently settled within our religious life. A language that should have quickly found its home within the religious-halachic world – but, there is a tendency to reject it, not to want to adopt it and to fear what it is really telling us that is occurring within our existence. A language that, until it was created, we could have thought was not worthwhile, and now that it has been created, it tells us how much shame and embarrassment have filled us with actions causing harm; this, while relying on our holy language, while at the same time, desecrating it. On the other hand, we can strive to instill other behaviors within ourselves.
The civil tools recognize the diversity of offenses that include harassment, abuse, desecration of life and desecration of the body. On the other hand, halachic tools, as we find out, did not anticipate all ways of hunting and temptation. The legal tools do also not contain all the possibilities of trampling the respect for the body and respect for the soul of those facing up to authority within our religious world. We are all in the risk group. We might all discover that acts of harm can be performed even though the abuser is highly aware of the iotas in law and halacha and can create paths of sophisticated attitudes and crushing that were not known previously.
Discussions about acts of abuse have many times been regarded as Shaming, while I believe that the shame should be on the one who knew and kept quiet, and occasionally on the one who knows and tries to act as if nothing happened. The fear within society to tell a story of harassment is clear in every human space, but in the halachic world, the fear of embarrassment and slandering is even more present. Sometimes this fear overrides the obligation of reproof and eradicating the evil from within our midst and, thus, we have created a situation of outrageous avoidance.
When a voice is sounded non-stop, rising from various sources, and it is clear that there are those who know and only tell part of the story, in order to protect the victims, and even the abusers – it is worthwhile for us to listen. That same cry that rises as a bad rumor about Torah scholars and shows its face in different places – however much we try to quieten it down as a marginal sound – we must stop and consider. The voice that does not stop its sound and affects the entire society, that stands embarrassed in light of actions that were told to few ears, and the others only hear a distant echo, in order to protect the honor of those who were desecrated, and even those who are guilty of the act. Many obstacles lie in our path to sounding specific details, about acts of violation to one’s body and soul.
Jewish sources tell us different stories, exemplifying diverse sides of relationships between teachers and their students. Other ancient or modern cultures also teach about connections of authority and teaching, closeness and distance. But throughout history, there have almost been no female scholars within the Jewish world who learn with male teachers, and vice versa. With the opening of the gates of study for women within the Jewish world, new opportunities and more diverse situations were created, between male and female teachers and their students, between Rabbis and Rabbaniot and the public. These situations require us, as a society at large and as men and women living within the halachic world, to initiate and renew significant thinking over and above any discourse that runs alongside halacha or the law – what can we do to prevent harassment and how can we deal with existing events? The crossing over of boundaries sometimes occurs when one tries to avoid the dry law or to validate the law for his/her own needs. Occasionally the language that understands the balance of power and intra-community events in religious life, might be able to help. The evil-doer in the Torah has many definitions, but these do not circumvent all possibilities of creativity that an abuser can devise, of a person who knows halachic language as well as legalese, and knows how to use all of these, to cause harm and then disperse words that minimize and invalidate the actual essence of the damage. In the religious world Rabbis hold greater power than those who approach them or learn from them. A Rabbi’s words are heard to a greater extent than those of an anonymous person, so thus the voice of the abuser only grows louder.
If I had the strength, I would go out on to the streets and tell every women and man, and every boy and girl, that, even if we were not witnesses to the event, we believe them. Together we can investigate the events, ensure justice for them and eradicate the evil from our camp, because we all must be ashamed. What is left for us to do but to help protect the weak from the strong, the poor from those who steal from them, and give the victims back their faith in people and authority? What are we left with if we do not extend our hand to those whose souls have been taken to a higher place, but have been plundered at the same time and their suffering beats through them, and when we have heard the details, also through us?
We must strive to create a society where not only the black of black is clear but where we also recognize that actions that are gray also blacken all of us. Without this understanding our sins will never become white as snow.
First published on Kipa, September 28, 2017.
Read Hebrew version: האם ניתן להלבין חטאים אפורים ושחורים?
Lecture I wrote for the session on the tension between Shaming and Slander (Lashon Hara), Kolech Conference – 70 Faces of Religious Feminism, held on October 18, 2017.