‘Yes,” my father used to say about some development in the news. “But, is it good for the Jews?”
So what to make of the #MeToo movement? In recent months, the phrase has become shorthand for a marked cultural shift that’s seen women emboldened to disclose their personal experiences with sexual misconduct, harassment and, in the very worst cases, outright violent assault.
In the Jewish world, it is playing out in a number of ways. A Facebook group called #GamAni – the Hebrew translation of #MeToo – now has upwards of 500 members.
In the U.S., some women have come forward to disclose how their work as fundraising professionals has placed them in dangerous situations with donors. Early in February, there were also reports of a list circulating with names of Jewish men “with authority” who’ve been known for sexual misconduct.
In the religious sphere there’s commentary from all sides – everything from Adam and Eve being the original #MeToo moment, to reflections on what we can learn from the Torah about bystanders and speaking up for those being harmed.
The other element of #MeToo that appears to have some resonance in the Jewish world is the space opened up for a broader discussion and debate about the role of women in Jewish life.
Again in the U.S., we see some trying to encourage women to translate #MeToo into a campaign for equal pay for female religious and lay leaders.
Meanwhile, when U.S. vice-president Mike Pence visited Israel in January, the fact that female reporters were kept segregated from their male colleagues during a visit to the Kotel made international headlines. The same thing happened when Canada’s then-prime minister Stephen Harper visited in 2014 with little by way of visible protest. Perhaps that’s a reflection of politics of then and now – but now, those politics also include louder voices for women, a seeming interest in actually listening to them, and desire for real and meaningful change.
In the context of #MeToo, what can that change look like in our Jewish world?
As a start, I’d hope our lay leadership is reviewing the policies and procedures at all of our community organizations to ensure there are defined processes for handling complaints of sexual harassment or assault.
Second, women in Ottawa need to know that Jewish Family Services runs a program specifically designed for Jewish women experiencing abuse. See jfsottawa.com, click on the “Jewish Support” tab, then “Shalom Bayit.”
But there are broader issues worth exploring as well.
In January, U.S. Rabbi Daniel Brenner wrote a lengthy essay on what Jewish men could take away from the #MeToo movement. He, like many others, was struck by the fact so many of the high-profile men being accused in the fall were Jewish.
“I think that many Jewish men are avoiding a tough conversation that we should be having: an internal, community-focused dialogue about the intersection of sex, sexuality and power in the lives of Jewish men,” he wrote.
“And if we do not ask if there are specific Jewish ways that men have been taught about sexuality and power, we will be unable to come up with specific Jewish ways to address them.”
Brenner reflects on the tension between what boys learn from day-school rabbis about sex and what they see being presented as relationships by the many Jewish actors, writers and other celebrities in the general culture.
The same, I think, can be said about Jewish women and how and what we are taught.
Rethinking how we might teach about sexuality, healthy relationships, power, consent – this is work likely needed across the religious spectrum.
As Brenner notes, while some in the ultra-Orthodox world might point to a strict segregation of the genders as a way to avoid the issue, Orthodox girls and women do still report sexual assault and harassment.
Questions need to be asked, Brenner writes, about how Jewish educators can do a better job and how that plays out in the summer camp environment too – a place where many young Jews first explore their own sexuality. Then there is how Jewish leadership helps parents talk to their kids about the issues as well.
I’ll borrow his conclusion:
“These questions have never been very high up on the Jewish communal agenda, but I hope that in the wake of #MeToo more people will see how important it is for the Jewish community to take them seriously.”