Forgiveness after #MeToo

Sometimes the world of our Torah doesn’t seem so different than our own modern world. As the Torah and our sacred scriptures recount the lives of our ancestors, we read and recognize stories of sexual violence and sexual objectification. In our ancient tradition, few were given a voice to share their own stories. Often, victims were left voiceless. This Yom Kippur, we recognize the stories of biblical victims of sexual violence and I invite us, as a community, to say #MeToo on their behalf.

  • For our matriarch Sarah who was forcefully taken into the harems of Pharaoh and then Avimelech, each time without protest from her husband, our patriarch Abraham. For Sarah we say: MeToo
  • For Dina who was taken without consent by Shechem, we say: MeToo
  • For Bathsheba who was sent for by King David, we say: MeToo
  • For Vashti, the first objectified woman in our bible who said no, we say: MeToo
  • And for our sister Esther, we say :MeToo

Just like in our society today, our Torah knows that both men and women are the victims of sexual violence and harassment:

  • For Joseph who was verbally harassed by Potiphar’s wife who abused her position of power, we say: MeToo
  • And for Lot whose daughters drugged him and assaulted him, we say: MeToo[i]

In America today, victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence have been given a voice through the social media campaign #MeToo. Over the past eleven months, we have started to recognize and support the heavy burden carried by countless victims. Many of us have been brave and have shared our own stories. We have listened to the stories, not only of celebrities, but of friends and colleagues. Even when the circumstances of the truths we hear may be different than our own, #MeToo accounts resonate with our individual experiences of being prejudged for who we are and having others attempt to assert control over us on account of these differences. For at the root of Sexism, Anti-Semitism, Classism, Ageism, Racism, and Heterosexism, is abuse of power.

Well before the first brave victims of Harvey Weinstein broke their silence, we read of one brave biblical sister, Tamar, who held her harasser, Judah, the eldest of Jacob’s 12 sons, publicly accountable for his abusive actions. You probably did not hear Tamar’s story in Sunday School; it does not fit neatly into an illustrated children’s book. The details of her story are difficult. They are messy. But what is clear about Tamar’s story, just like our own #MeToo experiences, was that Tamar “suffered isolation, deprivation, humiliation and threat at the hands of a powerful man, while a compromised Judah suffered no retribution.”[ii]

Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er, grandson of our Patriarch Jacob. Er died before he and Tamar had children. Judah had promised his younger son as husband for the widowed Tamar, which was the law at the time, so Tamar could have children. But Judah broke his promise and Tamar waited as a widow at her family home, life passing her by. Wronged by Judah but powerless socially and economically to do anything about it, in the ancient world, without a husband, Tamar was considered as nothing.

Tamar refused be a silent victim. She used the only commodity she had to her name, her body, to seek restitution. When Tamar learned that Judah would travel past her hometown, Tamar dressed as a prostitute, face veiled, and waited by the town gate. Judah saw her, and took her. But Judah acted so rashly, he did not have money to pay for the transaction so left Tamar with his staff, signet seal, and cord instead.

Tamar conceived by her father-in-law Judah and gave birth to twins. As the ancient currency for women was having children, necessity compelled Tamar to trick her father-in-law to get what was rightfully hers. When Judah learned that Tamar was pregnant out of wedlock, he demanded that Tamar be killed! He was determined to take Tamar down. But Tamar, in her own way declared #MeToo as she revealed undisputable evidence indicating that Judah himself was the father.

When the Harvey Weinstein story broke in the New York Times in October, actress Alyssa Milano, inspired by feminist friend Tarana Burke, sent a simple tweet before going to bed: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” The next day Milano awoke to find that more than 30,000 people had used #MeToo. It seemed as though overnight our eyes were open to the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment in our society.

While our eyes may be more open than before, we struggle to navigate towards a path of justice. Dr. Jennifer Thompson, who is a scholar of Jewish Ethics and Civic Engagement believes that our Jewish practice of teshuvah should be applied to the #MeToo movement. Thompson wrote in an op-ed entitled: “MeToo Needs A Forgiveness Option, And Judaism Can Provide It”:

Many famous men have lied about sexually harassing women and have subsequently lost their jobs and social standing. They deserve to pay for their actions, and should repent. But because this problem is systemic, we need systemic repentance as well. The Jewish practice of teshuvah, or repentance, is about “return” to the right behavior, and it is the tool our society needs right now, regardless of our individual religious beliefs or lack thereof.[iii]

In order to look at teshuvah as a framework of justice in our modern society, we must look back to the story of Judah and Tamar. Our Rabbis who lived after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd Century and who shaped the Judaism we practice today, uphold Judah as the prototype of teshuvah. Our Sages taught that “Judah’s public admission of his relations with Tamar made a great impact in Heaven. Following God’s forgiveness of him, the angels pronounced the blessing, (which now form part of the Amidah’s daily prayer for forgiveness), ‘Blessed are you, Adonai, who is gracious and forgives repeatedly.’[iv]

Judah requires repeated forgiveness for repeated mistakes in his life. Before Judah denies Tamar her right to marry and have children, Judah leads his brothers in selling their father’s favored son, Joseph, into slavery. The Torah connects the abuse of Tamar and the abuse of Joseph by Judah through language: “Haker-na—Do you recognize [this]”[v] Judah and his brothers ask their father Jacob as they present Joseph’s bloodied striped coat? Tamar asks Judah the very same question, “Haker-na—do you recognize [this]” [vi]as she presents him with his own garment and other items that he traded her for sex. While Judah has a track record of deception and familial destruction, his interaction with Tamar is a turning point. Judah even meets with the disguised Tamar at place called Petach Enayim, literally meaning “the opening of the eyes.”[vii]

Haker-na.” We recognize Judah’s pattern of abuse all too well. But something different, something “eye opening” happens when Tamar names Judah as her abuser. Rather than offer denials or attack Tamar, Judah responds by publicly acknowledging his guilt saying: “She [Tamar] is more in the right than I.”[viii]

As Tamar holds Judah accountable for his abuse towards her, he actually owns his behavior towards her and begins to recognize the patterns of abuse within his behavior towards his father, Jacob, and brothers. Later in Judah’s life, when a disguised Joseph tests his family, Judah selflessly offers himself into slavery in lieu of his baby brother Benjamin. Once unable or unwilling to recognize the pain of loss for others, now Judah makes all of the power he wields vulnerable in an act of empathy. Naming our wrongs, seeking reconciliation with those we have harmed and applying lessons learned when placed in similar situations in the future was how Judah demonstrates teshuvah in our Torah and is how our tradition invites each of us to practice teshuvah in our lives.

It may feel strange to recognize that our tradition asks us to model our behavior of teshuvah after Judah. Is it possible to call out his abhorrent behavior while honoring his positive contribution to our tradition? We find ourselves asking these same questions of people we admired and people who are close to us. Responding to the #MeToo Movement, Neshama Carlebach, the contemporary Jewish singer and daughter of the late popular Jewish composer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, made the following statement about her father who was accused of multiple accounts of sexual misconduct:

Our tradition teaches that silence is consent, and I cannot remain silent in the face of so much pain. I am in this conversation. I am also broken. I see, I hear, I witness…I’ve watched the music of my father heal someone’s life…and I’ve read of how that very same music has triggered deep pain for others…I accept the fullness of who my father was, flaws and all. I am angry with him. And I refuse to see his faults as the totality of who he was.[ix]

During this season of teshuvah, this season of repentance, we affirm that each of us is capable of sin and each of us is capable of rehabilitation. When we take these themes out of the context of our prayer book and our Torah, they seem to become more complex and complicated. Now that our eyes are open, how will each of us choose to proceed forward?

I know not everyone will agree with Judaism’s positive embrace of Judah’s teshuvah or my presentation of the topic. My hope is that we can continue conversations with one another after this evening. I hope that in our Beth Or community, we can practice respectfully listening and holding onto other each other’s powerful truths and being in dialogue about difficult matters that are too complex and multifaceted for just one answer.

Our tradition teaches that Yom Kippur atones only for sins between a person and God, not for our transgressions against one another. This space of Yom Kippur is meant to inspire us and propel us forward towards a path of righteousness, healing, and wholeness. How do we heal now that so much brokenness had been revealed? Not only for ourselves as individuals, but for our communities, our institutions and our society? Do we forgive those who have assaulted others? Do we forgive those who have harassed?

As we continue to struggle with these essential questions, we call upon God to comfort us as we struggle to take care of one another.

Rabbi Rachel Kort
Temple Beth Or, Everett
Kol Nidrei 5779

[i] Nechama Gilman Barash, “’Me Too,’ Says the Bible: Some Thoughts in the Wake of Harvey Weinstein.” Pardes 360, 19 Oct. 2017.

[ii] Rabbi Evan Krame & Rabbi David Evan Markus, “Torah’s #MeToo.” The Jewish Studio, 2 Dec. 2017.

[iii] Jewish Daily Forward, 15 Dec. 2017.

[iv]  Midrash Tanchuma, Vayyigash.

[v]  Genesis 37:32.

[vi] Genesis 38:25.

[vii] Genesis 38:14.

[viii] Genesis 38:26.

[ix] “Neshama Carlebach Responds to Allegations of Sexual Misconduct Against Her Father” New York Jewish Week, 3 Jan. 2017.