#MeToo + Jewish text


2017 will not be remembered as static or boring. High-octane, sweeping changes across North America and the world have left us wondering who hit the fast-forward button. One of the more welcome changes has been the empowered speaking out of the #MeToo movement.

Initially started as a campaign for Women of Colour, #MeToo has given voice to all women across the globe (גםאנחנו#, #MoiAussi, #YoTambién) to denounce sexual assault and harassment. #MeToo is a brave and personal public statement of an abusive experience.

Of course, sexism did not suddenly appear in 2017. What changed was the public discourse on this topic. The movement has been so powerful that it was named Time magazine’s “Person” of the Year for 2017.

Nor is our own tradition exempt from misogyny. To quote one of our own Torah Study regulars at JCOGS, Claudia Woodward: “I have only been studying Torah for the past two years, but every time we read one of these stories of female objectification, suppression, abuse, manipulation, and/or virtual prostitution, people say, ‘Well, it was a different time, and that is how women were treated back then.’ But times haven’t actually changed, and women are still treated this way, as proven by the number of women who have posted #MeToo over the past few weeks on social media…2 million women are assaulted by men each year, 25% of women have reported workplace sexual harassment, 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic violence, and 1 in 5 women have survived rape. And these are just the reported crimes!”

Recently, I had the honour of studying a troubling text from Pirkei Avot/Ethics of Our Fathers with a group of older students at JCOGS: “Yose ben Yochanan, man of Jerusalem, says, ‘May your home be open wide, may the poor be members of your household and do not increase idle chatter with the woman.’ They so stated with his wife; all the more so with the wife of his friend. From this, the sages said, ‘Any time that a man increases conversation with the woman, he causes evil to himself and neglects the words of Torah; and, in his end, he inherits Geihinam.’”

Our students were brilliantly critical of the text, asking questions and making comments such as: “What is so bad about women?” “Why should men and women be separated and not chatter?” “Why can’t you be friends with a woman?” “How are men extremely more cherished than women?” “Why should you not talk to women? What did they ever do to you?!” “We are not distracting!!!” “Now, 77 cents on the dollar (the average a woman earns for every dollar a man earns).” And my personal favourites: “Your home is open…but not to your wife?!” and “If your wife helps the poor, why do you treat them bad?” With these emergent, sensitive Vermont youth, there is hope for the future.

Our Jewish institution in Stowe joins the choruses across the globe to stand up against this treatment of women and people of all genders to say that it’s simply not okay to abuse or harass another person. Sometimes we must call out the injustices within our own traditional texts or institutions as Jews. Sometimes we must call out the greater society and individuals within it.

I do hope that 2018 slows us down. Yet, let us welcome the advancement of changes like #MeToo in this coming year, changes that add to the greater good for all the citizens of the world. As one of our students said: “We are all human and wise.”

Rav brachot, many blessings in 2018 of constructive change, personal bravery, and an end to sexism in all its forms,

Rabbi David Fainsilber