It Is Time To Do Something About Sexual Harassment – Noach 5778

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.

Please Let It Not Be Another Intifada – Noach 5776

The violence in Israel right now leaves me feeling worried and confused.  Everyone seems to be throwing up their hands trying to understand what is going on.

It would be one thing if it was a terrorist organization like Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade that was planning and carrying out these attacks.  Then, we could point to a particular group with its own ideology, and hold it accountable.  But that is not what has been happening.

What we are seeing is scarier.  Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Afula… These attacks have not been coordinated.  They are being carried out by boys and girls, men and women with knives and meat cleavers.  People with families.  People whom we would not expect to be violent.  A young girl.  A thirteen year old boy.  A perversion is taking place that is producing a kind of collective insanity, a national blood-lust.  What else could explain why two teenage cousins would go out into the street, and randomly stab a thirteen year old on a bicycle?

When a society goes astray like this, it is the leaders of that society that must step up and take responsibility for setting it back on course.  But there have been too few voices calling for calm.

What ostensibly set off this violence were claims by some Palestinians that Israel was planning to take the Temple Mount away from Muslims.  It is not true.

When Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967, an Israeli flag was quickly installed on top of the Dome of the Rock.  As soon as he found out about it, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan immediately ordered it removed.  Soon later, he gave authority over the site to the Muslim Waqf, which is charged with maintaining Muslim holy sites.  Jews were forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount.  That has been the status quo arrangement ever since.

Recently, rumors started spreading that Israel was planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately denied the rumors, and affirmed that the status quo would remain as it has been for nearly fifty years.

But nobody listened.  Even those who ought to know better have been fanning the flames of violence.  As the rumors were spreading last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said: “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God.”  Then he declared that Jews “have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”  This week he also accused Israel of “executing” Palestinian children.

What does he think he is doing?

As Jeffrey Goldberg writes in The Atlantic, this is not the first time that false rumors of an impending Jewish takeover of the Temple Mount have led to widespread violence.  In 1928, Jews brought a wooden bench up to the Western Wall for elderly worshippers to sit along with a partition to separate men and women for prayer.  Local Muslim leaders stirred up popular anger by declaring that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount.  Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, used the incident – the placement of a bench – as proof of a plot against Islam.  He incited Jerusalem Arabs to riot against the Jewish community.  Doctored photographs showing a defaced Dome of the Rock were distributed in Hebron to rile up the community.  In riots the following year, 133 Jews were murdered.

In 2000, the Second Intifada was launched when Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount.  Granted, he took a large military presence with him.  But he had cleared it with Palestinian security officials in advance, who assured him that the situation would remain calm.  And he certainly did not go to pray.

After the visit, Palestinians began protesting, and the leader of the Waqf, on a loudspeaker, called on Palestinians to defend the Al Aqsa Mosque, which Sharon had not even entered.  The protests became violent, and it soon grew into the Second Intifada.  It later turned out that the uprising had been planned in advance by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, but it was Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount which was used as the pretext to incite Muslims to defend their holy place.

Today, there are many Arab leaders who are fanning the flames of violence, many even more blatantly than Abbas, but it does not seem to be a coordinated strategy.

And to be clear, it is not everyone.  Just three days ago, the Bedouin village of Zarzir, which my children passed through every day on their way to school, organized a public rally for peace.  They called it “We refuse to be Enemies.”  Many of our friends from Kibbutz Hanaton participated.  There were signs and posters in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.  Village leaders, wearing kafiyyehs and holding Israeli flags, spoke against violence and in support of the State of Israel.  But I did not read any news reports about it except for an article by Rabbi Yoav Ende, of Kibbutz Chanaton.

I saw a news clip of Arab news reporter, Lucy Aharish, speaking about as forcefully as a person could in condemning the violence and declaring that there is no justification whatsoever for committing terror.  She blasted Arab leaders for failing to come out and strongly condemn the violence.  That is where she placed the responsibility.

I do not claim that Israel has been perfect.  As you know, I have a lot of disagreements with decisions of the Israeli government over the years.  I think that Israel’s policies have contributed in part to feelings of hopelessness within Palestinian society.

While Israelis are understandably feeling scared, I think it is awful that some have responded to the terror with their own violence and discrimination.  It is inexcusable.

But nothing justifies stabbing a random stranger with a knife, or driving a car into a crowd of people waiting at a bus stop.  There is no moral equivalency when police, soldiers, or even civilians respond with violence to defend against a terrorist who is actively trying to kill an innocent person.  There is no excuse when the leaders of a society glorify a teen-ager who has committed a terrorist act, or fail to do everything they can to stop violence.

I do not have any suggestions for how to solve the chaos that ensues when a society that is not mine has lost its way.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Noach, we read of another society that has lost its way.

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness (chamas).  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth (hishchit kol basar et darko), God said to Noach, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness (chamas) because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”

Ironically, the word that the Torah uses for “lawlessness” is chamas.  It is just a coincidence, but an ironic one.  Nahum Sarna defines chamas as the “flagrant subversion of the ordered processes of law.”    (JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 51)  There was no rule of law.  No respect for communal standards.

Then the Torah says ki hishchit kol basar et darko – “for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth.”

God’s response is not to give them a warning, or a punishment, or to send a Prophet to urge them to change their ways.  God regrets having created humanity, and decides to wipe out all life on earth, saving only representative male and female samples of each species.

After the flood, humanity is just as wicked as before.  It is the same DNA.

But God makes two significant changes.

He tells Noach and his offspring that they must punish those who murder.  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  This is retributive justice.  According to the theory of evolution, the strongest, most violent people ought to survive.  But God introduces an element to counter the morality of “survival of the fittest.”  Simply put, whatever you do to harm the body of another shall be done to you.  This is the basic premise of retributive justice.  Human societies have to protect their members by punishing those who commit violence.

The second change is a counter to the first.  God declares:  “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.”

God knows that human nature has not changed.  People will continue to have an urge to cross boundaries.  But retributive justice alone is not enough.  Forgiveness is also needed.  So even though God know that yetzer lev ha-adam ra mine’urav – “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth,” God promises to not wipe out all life again – even though they may deserve it.  There are times when justice must be set aside in favor of mercy.

This is the challenge that God presents to the children of Noah.  Build societies that are anchored by justice and forgiveness.

Although it seems perpetually elusive, that is my prayer for Israel and Palestine.  One day, both societies will have leaders who take responsibility for their own actions, as well as for their respective people’s actions.  Neither society will tolerate the dehumanization of the other.  Both will recognize that justice cannot be administered selectively.  The two peoples will recognize and protect each others’ sacred places without feeling threatened.  And Israelis and Palestinians will one day be able to hear one another’s stories with a sense of compassion and forgiveness.

For now, as our brothers and sisters are living under the daily threat of terror, we can turn to God in prayer.

Shomer Yisrael — Guardian of Israel,

We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.

Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.

Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one

Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks

Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.

Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.

Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers

And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.

Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.

We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,

Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,

And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

Let Us Make a Name for Ourselves – Noach 5775

According to the Torah, all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve.  Then, after humanity is wiped out in the flood, all humans are descended from Noah and his wife.  Why is it so important to specify that we all share a common ancestor?  According to the Mishnah, it is so that no one can say another, my father is better than yours.  We are all descended from the first Primordial Human, Adam, whom the Torah describes as created in God’s image.  (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Thus, equality and freedom are central concepts in our tradition.

Soon after creation, however, humanity starts to move away from this ideal.  Within ten generations, human society has become so corrupt and violent that God simply cannot take it any more.  God looks at all of the wickedness and violence, sees the way that human beings have corrupted the entire planet, and becomes sad and regretful for having ever made humanity.

So God brings a flood, appointing Noah and his family to be the sole human survivors, protectors of each animal species, and progenitors of human life in the new world that will follow.

What will change this time?  Presumably, things will be different in Creation 2.0.  Indeed, God plans ahead for the change, giving rules to humanity this time so that they do not repeat the same mistakes.

But has anything really changed?

God knows that Noah’s offspring will be no better than their ante-diluvian ancestors.

After Noah exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice.  That’s a good start.  God appreciates the gesture, and declares “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…”  (Genesis 8:21)

Fantastic!  Is it because God is so pleased with Noah’s piety?  Not exactly.

The Lord continues, “…since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.”  Nature or nurture?  It’s nature.  Humans have the same capacity for evil that they have always had.  It is part of our D.N.A.  Nevertheless, God makes a commitment to let the experiment continue, acknowledging that it an occasional intervention may be warranted.

Within a few generations, humanity seems to be heading down a familiar path.  The Torah introduces us to major characters in the generations following the flood and occasionally shares brief notes or stories about them.  We meet Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah.  Nimrod is described as “the first man of might on earth.  He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”  (Genesis 10:8-9)  He built a kingdom in Shinar, otherwise known as Babylonia, otherwise known as Mesopotamia, otherwise known as present-day Iraq and Syria.

Tradition identifies Nimrod as the first King.  How does he ascend to that position?  The medieval commentator Abravanel points to Nimrod’s hunting prowess.  People see how powerful he is to be able to defeat lions and bears, and stand in awe of him.  When Nimrod turns his attention towards his fellow human beings, he easily vanquishes and conquers them, thus building the world’s first empire.  With empire comes progress.  The development of political life, technological innovation, human wisdom – all are made possible by civilization.

But Nimrod and his generation go astray, according to commentators, pursuing progress for its own sake, rather than as a means to a greater good.  Power begets power, as the saying goes.  Where the violence and oppression before the flood had been chaotic and random, now it is state-sponsored.

The Torah continues with the well-known story of the Tower of Babel.  At this time, we are told, everyone on earth speaks the same language and lives in the same place.  Humanity has gained the ability to control the environment in which it lives.  From their place in the lowlands, people figure out how to take mud, shape it, apply fire, and make bricks.  They now have the ability to make life better, safer, and more meaningful.  They can build structures to protect them from the elements, buildings to store food, schools to learn, libraries to store knowledge, and temples in which to worship.  So what do they do with this technological innovation, this amazing new ability?

“Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky…” they say to one another.  For what purpose?  Efficient apartment dwelling?  A university?  A hospital?  A town hall?  A sanctuary?  No.  Those are not what the people are interested in.  They are not going to use their technological abilities to serve a greater good.    Their aims are more self-centered.

V’na’aseh lanu shem.  “Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky to make a name for ourselves.”  (Genesis 11:4)

They want to build it as a timeless monument to human progress.

A midrash teaches that the tower gets to be so high that it takes a really long time and a lot of effort to travel from the bottom to the top.  Whenever a brick would fall, the workers would collapse to the ground and weep, “Woe is us.  When will another brick be hauled up to take its place?”  But when a person falls, nobody pays any attention.  (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24)

Why do they build the tower?  Because they can.  This is the end result of what Nimrod introduces to the world.  It is a description of a totalitarian society in which the state is everything and the individual is nothing.  There is no God in such a situation.

God looks down at this rising edifice to human power and sees that something must change.  This is not what God had intended.  So God babbles their tongues, and they can no longer understand one another.  The building project grinds to a halt.  Then God scatters the people over the face of the earth.

On one level, The Tower of Babel is an origin story that explains why the earth contains so many people with different languages, cultures, and beliefs.  But it is also a story with lessons about human nature, politics, and equality.

Judaism is highly skeptical of political leaders.  The idea that power corrupts seems to be ingrained in the Torah.  Deuteronomy’s laws of Kings are all about limiting the powers and rights of the monarch.  Kings and societies are judged not by how much land they acquire or taxes they collect, but by how the most marginal people in society are treated.  Why are political leaders so suspect?  Because politics inevitably leads to inequality.  A subject, by definition, is not equal to the king.

In our democracy, ideally, the power of government is derived from the people, and there are checks and balances to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power.  In reality, we know that American society has gross inequalities, whether in money, political power, educational opportunities, health care access, and so on.

The Tower of Babel suggests that the solution to the problem of too much power is diversity.  People and nations need to be free to pursue meaningful lives in different ways.  Our tradition recognizes this as ideal.

The Messianic future envisioned by Judaism does not imagine that all nations will one day unite and become a single people.  That has never been our vision.  In the Messianic Age, it is simply that all peoples on earth will recognize God as the Creator and ruler.  It is in this morning’s parashah that the Rabbis identify the seven Noachide commandments; seven laws given to all humanity that form the backbone of ethics.  As long as a people abides by those essential norms, it should be free and encouraged to go its own way, while respecting other peoples’ rights to do the same.

A thirteenth century Spanish commentator, Menachem Meiri, in considering the Christians and Muslims of his day, declares that as long as they are gedurim b’darchei hadat, bound by the laws of morality and justice, they are to be considered as equal to Jews in all respects.  That is a fairly remarkable position for that that time and place.

Elsewhere in our texts, we are taught that the righteous of all the nations earn a share in the world to come.  So you see, Judaism advocates a healthy respect for diversity.  There are other ways to worship God and other ways to organize societies other than the Jewish way, and that is a good thing.  This is a lesson from the Tower of Babel.

It is also good from a practical perspective.  A society’s embrace of diversity and pluralism serves as a check against oppression and violence.  It is why a country’s freedom is typically measured by factors like religious freedom, the fairness of elections, the existence of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and the absence of corruption.

In every age, there are Nimrod’s who seek to suppress freedom and deny equality.  Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has been in Washington D.C. this week.  I heard an interview in which he was asked about ISIS.  He predicted that the Middle East is never going to return to what it was a few years ago.  The borders of countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran, were drawn up arbitrarily after World War One.  The countries themselves were held together for almost a century by totalitarian dictators from minority tribes who forcefully imposed themselves on their populations, much like Nimrod thousands of years ago, who exercised power for the sake of power.  But these artificial nations were comprised of diverse peoples with different cultures, religions, and languages.  In order to maintain power, that diversity had to be suppressed.  The violence and terror we are witnessing today is driven by religiously-fueled zealots who also reject the value of diversity, deny equality, and subjugate all who come under their authority.

We have been watching in horror as ISIS and other militant Islamic groups fight to create a caliphate, an empire, that would oppress anyone who does not conform to their narrow belief system.  It is a scary, totalitarian ideology.  How ironic that the story of the Tower of Babel took place smack dab in the middle of the war zone!

If we learn one thing from the Tower of Babel, let it be that God wants diversity.  The Mishnah cited above regarding humanity’s shared common ancestor (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) also teaches that when a person kills another, it is as if s/he has destroyed the entire world.  It goes on to explain that when people mint coins from a coin press, every single coin comes out exactly the same.  Not so with God, for God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and yet no two people are alike.  Thus each person is obligated to say, “For my sake was the world created.”

People of faith would do well to remember this.