(Sermon delivered on Second Day of Rosh Hashana 5779, Sept 11, 2018)
On Sunday, as I was driving my family and our cantor to synagogue for the morning service, we passed a church with a billboard that said, “Nobody can make or save themselves. Only God can make you, only God can save you.” I found it really auspicious that I saw it then, because that statement is so antithetical to the basic principles of Judaism. And it was particularly apropos for the day before Rosh Hashanah. Yes, God makes us – with the help of our parents of course. But we believe that only we can save ourselves. Well, we don’t speak of saving in that Christian sense at all. But if we were to do so – it’s only through our actions that we can change our Divine judgment. It all depends on our actions. Teshuva is about the choices we make. We decide our future, God, in essence, only rubber-stamps it. And that’s actually the essence of Rosh Hashanah.
It was shortly after last year’s High Holidays, October 15th 2017, that the #metoo movement began. It was in response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. During that month of October over 80 women made allegations against Weinstein. American actress Alyssa Milano encouraged victims of sexual harassment to use the #metoo hashtag on Twitter to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. In just one day, it had been tweeted 500,000 times.
According to Statistics Canada, 553,000 sexual assaults were self-reported by women in a single year, 2014. That’s roughly around 1 in every 25 women. Each year. What’s even scarier is this piece of information from Statistics Canada: “Sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada that is not declining. Since 1999, rates of sexual assault have remained relatively unchanged.”
And these numbers only refer to assault. Regarding sexual harassment, one in four women will experience a serious case of sexual harassment at least once in their lives. 37% of North American women report not feeling safe walking home at night.
Alyssa Milano didn’t invent the #metoo hashtag, but she made it famous. And thank God for that. “To give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” It’s enormous.
In many ways, I live too privileged a life. I’m a white, cis-gendered male. I’ve got it easy. I can think back to many times I have been harassed for being visibly Jewish; there were times I was actually afraid for my life. But I was choosing, and continue to actively choose to be visibly Jewish. I believe it’s important for me to do so. If I get harassed, it’s not my fault – nobody has any business harassing me. But at the end of the day I know I could (mostly) make it stop if I wanted to – I could take off my kippah, or put a hat on instead. Women can’t decide some days not to be women. Which makes this type of harassment and assault all the more grievous.
We’ve also been following the developments in the Catholic church regarding priests. Sadly, we all know too well that the Jewish world is by no means immune to Sexual assault and harassment. Just a few months ago a very prominent, important American rabbi of one of the biggest shuls in the US, in Washington DC, was sentenced to prison for six and a half years, for hiding a camera in the mikva of his shul and watching and recording women in his community as they came to immerse. A prominent shul rabbi and school principal in Winnipeg was molesting school children in the 80s, escaped arrest by moving to New York just in the nick of time, worked in other schools, and now apparently works as a marriage counsellor. There was also a cantor in Halifax.
Rabbis are here to help you and protect you. We are the people you are supposed to be able to turn to and trust. Stories like these truly break my heart. I look around the room and implore you all: look out for one another. Protect one another. And never assume that anyone is too holy or too respected to do bad things.
The messages behind #metoo, that the victim is never at fault and should carry no shame, and that the attacker is the only one to blame, are very ancient, Jewish messages. ״ולנערה לא תעשה דבר … כי כאשר יקום איש על רעהו ורצחו נפש כן הדבר הזה״ – “Do not punish the young woman at all… just as the matter would be treated if a person rose up against to kill another, so you should treat this matter” (Deut. 22:26). The Torah sentences some rapists to death while emphatically declaring the victim completely blameless, comparing rape to murder. And it doesn’t matter what she was wearing or what her profession was.
Centuries before anyone in the Western world was even considering such a thing, Jewish Talmudic law vehemently forbade marital rape (see, for example, Shulḥan ʿArukh, Even HaʿEzer 25:2). Nobody ever has any smidgen of a right to another person’s body, period. Especially since the Torah compares rape to murder, every single one of us has a responsibility to do everything in our power to make sure our society is completely safe for every person, young or old, female or male, queer or straight. “Do not stand in your neighbour’s blood” applies to passively allowing the current situation to continue as it is.
The situation is completely unacceptable. Perpetrators go unpunished. Historically, victims more often than not were not believed. People are still afraid to come forward and report the incident, which of course means that the numbers we have are much lower than they really are. #metoo is an amazing accomplishment if it gives people the courage to stand up and report attacks so that the attackers can be punished. It is an amazing accomplishments if it eliminates victim stigma.
Rosh Hashana being the day of judgment is not just about individuals being judged for their actions, and given a verdict for the coming year. Cities and countries are also judged. To quote today’s Musaf prayer:״ועל המדינות בו יאמר איזו לחרב ואיזו לחיה איזו לרעב ואיזו לשבע״ – “regarding cities, on Rosh Hashanah it is also decided which are destined for the sword, which for wild beasts, which for famine, which for plenty”.
Let us now take the opportunity to use Rosh Hashana to pray for the welfare of the world as it pertains to the safety, security, happiness and comfort of everyone, especially women and girls. Let us pray for their ability to receive a proper education and the opportunities to get good jobs.
But let’s not just pray – let us commit ourselves to doing all we can to fix this, too. Prayer works only when accompanied by our own actions, otherwise it’s just wishful thinking and a waste of God’s time. But when we use our prayer experience as inspiration to go and do good things – God watches, and God kvells. And what more could we really want? God gives us such blessings – family, friends, community, food, water, a place to live. Let’s give God something in return. God deserves to kvell.