Noah is described as a “righteous man, perfect in his generation.” God singles him out to build the ark and collect animals of every species on earth to preserve life after the coming flood. We take the Torah’s word for it. Noah was indeed a righteous man. But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims, righteousness is not the same thing as leadership.
For one hundred twenty years, Noah builds an ark according to God’s specifications. In all of that time, we do not have a single record of a conversation with his neighbors. Noah does not try to change God’s mind. He does not try to convince anyone to change their ways. He does nothing to try to avert the flood that he knows is coming or save any lives other than the ones God commands him to save.
Can you imagine Abraham or Moses being so complacent?
Noah’s lack of leadership raises questions about his righteousness. In what way, exactly, is he so righteous? In an age in which all life on earth has become thoroughly corrupt, perhaps it is sufficient to maintain one’s own personal moral integrity.
Does this make Noah innocent? Is it enough to be righteous in one’s own personal domain while everyone else is wicked? The ambiguity is reflected in a Talmudic argument. One Sage argues that to behave properly in a society that has lost its way reflects a person of extremely high moral character and strength. Another Sage argues that Noah’s righteousness is only in comparison to his own generation. In Abraham’s time, Noah would be merely average.
The question goes deeper than this. Noah is a bystander. Does this make him innocent? Or, is there no such thing as an innocent bystander?
The recent revelations by numerous victims of sexual assault and harassment by Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein have shed light on a pervasive problem. A couple of weeks ago, Rose McGowan publicly revealed that Weinstein had raped her in 1997 when she was 23 years old. Her revelation opened the floodgates for dozens of other women who shared that they had also been assaulted and raped by the media mogul.
It did not stopped there. Millions of women have been using social media to share their own tragic experiences of being assaulted, harassed, and raped – some going into detail, and others by responding with the hashtag #metoo.
We are now facing evidence that millions of victims have kept silent out of shame and embarrassment for abuse that was not their fault.
As far as we have come in establishing equal rights for all people regardless of gender, we have to ask ourselves honestly if there are still cultures of misogyny and patriarchy embedded in our social institutions that allow someone like Harvey Weinstein to commit these horrible crimes over and over again for years, without ever being held accountable. The answer is clearly yes, and the outpouring of stories indicates that it is not limited to Hollywood, but permeates every aspect of our culture.
It has emerged that plenty of people knew about Weinstein’s crimes, but nobody said anything until the floodgates opened. How terribly heartbreaking.
Sometimes, I find as I study Jewish texts that I stumble upon a passage that speaks so clearly about the present situation that it feels like it cannot have been a coincidence. This week, as I learned Talmud with my friend and colleague Rabbi Philip Ohriner, we came across a passage that seemed eerily relevant (BT Shabbat 54b-55a):
Rav, and Rabbi Ḥanina, and Rabbi [Yonatan], and Rav Ḥaviva taught…: Anyone who has the capability to protest [the sinful conduct] of the members of his household and does not protest, he is apprehended [ and punished] for [the sins of] the members of his household; the people of his town, he is apprehended for the people of his town; the whole world, he is apprehended for the whole world.
In other words, we bear responsibility for the actions of the people around us. Note that they are careful to say that this is the case when we actually have the power to make the protest. It is not difficult to imagine that someone might not be in a position to raise his or her voice. The Talmud then shares a story.
Rav Yehuda was sitting before Shmuel [his teacher] when a particular woman came and cried before Shmuel [about an injustice that had been committed against her], and [Shmuel] paid no attention to her. Rav Yehuda said to Shmuel: Doesn’t the Master [i.e. you] hold: “Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13)? [Shmuel] said to him: Big-toothed one (i.e. you have a sharp, keen tongue), your superior, [i.e., I, your teacher] will be punished in cold water. The superior of your superior [i.e. my teacher] will be punished in hot water. Mar Ukva sits as president of the court.
To summarize, a woman comes before a respected Rabbi to complain about a wrong that has been done to her. We do not know what this injustice is. We can only imagine.
In rabbinic literature, the scene of a woman bringing an injustice before a rabbi is not uncommon. She is representative of someone without power. Someone who is not able to get justice for herself. So she turns to a respected religious authority. In this story, Shmuel, the respected religious authority, ignores her.
Rav Yehudah, his student, observes the entire episode, and is shocked. Bringing a verse, he basically asks his teacher, “how can you pretend not to hear the cries of this powerless woman before you.” For a student to rebuke his master in this way is quite courageous.
Shmuel accepts the rebuke, admitting that not only is he fit for punishment, but Mar Ukva, the most senior Rabbi of the time, is fit for even greater punishment.
Here the story ends. We do not know what happened next. Did Shmuel go chasing after the woman to hear her complaint? Probably not. Did Shmuel or Mar Ukva receive any punishment or consequences for their dereliction of moral duty? I doubt it.
This is a description of a society with injustices that are so embedded that the rabbis themselves, the ones who are supposed to be the moral consciences of the community, do not even see them.
How sadly fitting for the current conversation. It is the complaint of an unnamed woman that sparks this episode. But take note whose experiences are included, and whose are ignored. The Talmud, a book written by men for a male audience, does not share her perspective. What is her complaint? Could it be that she has come to report a case of sexual harassment or rape? Quite possibly. How much courage did it take for her to even bring her case to the Rabbi? How did she feel when he refused to listen to her? Will she come back the next time she suffers an injustice?
What was she thinking when she got home? If she was married, did she tell her husband what happened? Her friends? Her daughter? Her son? Her parents?
If the #metoo comments of this past week are at all indicative, she probably felt shame and embarrassment, and likely told nobody.
Although two thousand years have passed, we still live with a societal plague of our own making in which sexual harassment is passively or actively encouraged.
Rav Yehudah had the courage to speak out against his teacher’s indifference. Shmuel had the willingness to admit to making a mistake. But neither of them took it any further.
As the Talmud clearly teaches, if we have the ability to protest and remain silent, we are guilty. In 2017, this is something that all of us can effectively do something about.
As a male, I have to consider all of the ways in which my life has been made easier due simply to my gender, in subtle ways in which I was not even aware at the time. I have to listen to the stories of women who have experienced discrimination, harassment, and abuse – often made possible by institutionalized power imbalances. And I have to suspend my temptation to reject or judge their experiences. It is not my place to do so.
We parents have to teach our kids very explicitly to be able to say no to things that make them uncomfortable, and to always respect another person’s request to be left alone. As kids get older, we need to teach them that consent must be explicit. If I do not bring this up with my children, I am guilty.
In the workplace, and in social situations, it is not enough for me to simply respect other people’s boundaries. I have to be an upstander. If I see someone else crossing the line, I have to do something. If I do not, I am guilty.
I think that there is a real opportunity to change the way that our society treats sexual harassment, discrimination, and rape. The laws are mostly in place. But the change that needs to happen now has to come from us. We have the ability to make it happen.