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Books Ethics gender equality Mussar Torah

Diversity Not for Its Own Sake: Lessons from One Book

Rabbi Barry H. Block just published his new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life with CCAR Press. His mussar-based anthology offers commentary and analysis of each of the 54 weekly parashot, juxtaposed with one of the mussar middot, and is available for purchase now. An excerpt from The Mussar Torah Commentary is available on Ravblog.

Below, Rabbi Block shares his personal reflections on diversity and the impact that a chorus of unique voices and perspectives has had on this compelling new collection of Jewish perspectives on Torah and mussar.

Distinguished rabbinic colleagues who wrote cover blurbs for my new book, The Mussar Torah Commentary, reference the diversity of the book’s contributors in their kind words about the volume. When I saw one mention of diversity, I was pleased. After all, I had referenced the importance of the contributors’ diversity in the book’s introduction. When I saw that so many of these “cover blurb” writers mentioned diversity that they had to be edited to limit repetition, I decided they might be on to something deeper than I had previously considered.

When I first proposed The Mussar Torah Commentary, submitting my own offering on Parashat Vayeishev, I asked Rabbi Hara Person, Publisher of CCAR Press and now our CCAR Chief Executive, whether I should write the entire book or invite a different author to write on each parashah. She explained CCAR Press’s preference for the latter: As the publishing arm of our Reform rabbinical association, CCAR Press often seeks to include multiple authors in any given volume, amplifying the voices of many CCAR members—and often, contributors from beyond the Reform rabbinate.

From previous conversations with Hara, I knew that the goal of achieving gender diversity among contributors was often a challenging task, not from lack of invitations but because in her experience men are more likely to accept an invitation to contribute than women (I will leave the analysis of this to others to elaborate on elsewhere). I was mindful of this reality when inviting contributors for The Mussar Torah Commentary. If my desired end result would be a book written by as many women as men, and it was, I knew I would need to invite more women than men to contribute. Fully 60% of my initial invitations were to women.

Still, I wasn’t as aware then as I am now of why that diversity, as well as other aspects of the diversity of the book’s contributors, would be important.

Shortly after the first meeting of the book’s Editorial Advisory Committee, Rabbi Pam Wax reached out to me to discuss the way that women have been marginalized in the world of Mussar. I was already aware that our book could be the first in the Mussar world to be written by more women than men. I also knew that women who are far more knowledgeable Mussar students than I, notably including Pam, have not consistently gained deserved recognition as skilled Mussar teachers.

Each member of the diverse Editorial Advisory Committee suggested colleagues who might write for the book. Several of Pam’s suggestions were affiliated with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). When I wrote to Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, then Executive Director of IJS, to invite her contribution, she informed me that her approach to tikkun middot (soul repair) tends to be based in Chasidic texts, rather than those that emanate from the traditional world of Mussar. She asked if that approach would be welcome in The Mussar Torah Commentary. I assured Lisa that I was eager for the volume to include diverse approaches. Ultimately, I asked her to write an introductory essay, explaining her approach, which is reflected in several commentaries in the book.

On Erev Shabbat Chayei Sarah, I held the actual book in my hands for the first time. Yes, I had the full manuscript in electronic form for a while already, and I had read each commentary multiple times during the editing process. Still, only with the book in hand am I able to see the “forest” that those cover blurb writers saw, rather than the “trees” on which I was focused earlier.

I suspect that only a woman, and probably only one a generation younger than I, could have written the modern midrash that makes Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz’s contribution on Parashat Chayei Sarah so compelling. Only a longtime military chaplain could’ve written about moral injury in the way that Rabbi Bonnie Koppel does in her offering for Parashat Ki Tavo. Pieces by HUC-JIR faculty and administrators—Rabbi David Adelson, DMin; Rabbi Lisa Grant, PhD; and Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD—reflect their roles as teachers of future rabbis and other Jewish professionals, whether implicitly or explicitly. I purposefully invited cantors, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot and Cantor Chanin Becker, to write about Parashat B’shalach and Parashat Haazinu, each of which has a shir, i.e., a poem or a song, at its center. I was not disappointed: Their cantorial voices sing in their commentaries. The fact that Rabbi Brett Isserow has recently retired is resonant in his commentary on Parashat Va-y’chi.

Younger and older, male and female, straight contributors and members of the LGBTQ community; Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox; working in congregations and in a variety of other settings; actively employed, retired, and on disability: The diverse authors of The Mussar Torah Commentary have proven that Hara was right, as usual. A book whose voices are many and varied will hold within its covers a wide range of compelling perspectives, offering readers a more complete view of Torah and the world.

The lessons of diversity offered by The Mussar Torah Commentary are not merely about one book, or even all anthologies. As we construct our world—our organizations, our circles of friends, our government, and more—our lives will be richer when we encourage people with a variety of life circumstances and experiences to lead and teach us.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A Houston native and graduate of Amherst College, Rabbi Block was ordained by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1991after studying at its Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York campuses, and he received his DD, honoris causa, in 2016. Block currently serves as faculty dean at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a role he held for twenty-one years at URJ Greene Family Camp. Block is the editor of the newly released book The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, now available for purchase through CCAR Press.

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gender equality News Social Justice

Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell on the Anniversary of the Hyde Amendment

We read Nitzvaim the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and again on Yom Kippur Morning.   In this portion, we are told we have choices, to do good or bad, for our lives to be ones of blessings or curses.  The case is made for choosing blessings.  Again, we are empowered to make these choices with Moses working hard in this text and other places as God’s advocate, to steer us to make our choices for living up to our covenant with God and Torah and doing the mitzvot, those things which we are obligated to do for ourselves, for others and for God. September 30th this year was not only Rosh Hashanah and the first day of Tishrei.   September 30th also marks the 43rd anniversary of the passage of the Hyde Amendment, the policy that bars federal funding for abortion in the United States.

On the federal level, one of the most notable and longstanding restrictions is the Hyde Amendment, which was first passed in 1976 and has been renewed every year since. 

The Hyde Amendment bans the use of federal money for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the pregnant person’s life is in danger in all federally administered health care plans such as Medicaid, TRICARE, and Indian Health Service. Many people that are have insurance through these plans, particularly Medicaid, are of low income. Thus, the Hyde Amendment largely and disproportionately impacts low-income people and other individuals with marginalized identities. It is reprehensible that someone would be denied their right to serve as their own moral agent for their reproductive health simply because they are insured by a federal health care plan. 

We as Reform Jews support women having choices, bodily integrity, the right to weigh their situation and beliefs and make knowledgeable thought out decisions for themselves and their families.  

Our tradition teaches that all life is sacred, and Judaism views the life and well-being of the person who is pregnant as paramount, placing a higher value on existing life than on potential life.

We learn from Mishnah Ohalot 7:6 that a woman is forbidden from sacrificing her own life for that of the fetus, and if her life is threatened, the text permits her no other option but abortion. In addition, if the mental health, sanity, or self-esteem of the woman (i.e. in the case of rape or incest) is at risk due to the pregnancy itself, the Mishnah permits the woman to terminate the pregnancy. It is due to the fundamental Jewish belief in the sanctity of life that abortion is viewed as both a moral and correct decision under some circumstances.  

The 1975 URJ Resolution on Abortion states, “While recognizing the right of religious groups whose beliefs differ from ours to follow the dictates of their faith in this matter, we vigorously oppose the attempts to legislate the particular beliefs of those groups into the law that governs us all. This is a clear violation of the First Amendment.”

 In an environment in which abortion access is becoming ever more restricted, the Hyde Amendment creates additional barriers to abortion access for women, particularly those from communities of color or with low incomes. With the High Holy Days providing an occasion for all of us to think about how we can advance justice and equity in our communities, advocating for reproductive justice – including the repeal of this harmful policy – is part of that equation.

The Equal Access to Abortion in Health Insurance or EACH Woman Act  (H.R. 1692/S. 758) was introduced into the 116th session of Congress on March 12, 2019. The EACH Woman Act seeks to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and would guarantee that every person who receives care or insurance through a federal plan or program has coverage for abortion.

If you feel compelled to take action on this matter of women’s health and free agency to make decisions about their own body,  please consider urging your member of Congress to support the EACH Woman Act. The EACH Woman Act would end bans on abortion coverage, restoring respect for each woman’s moral agency, ensuring fair treatment no matter her income, and protecting her health and safety.

Parashat Netzavim gives us the choice to act or not to act, to follow our convictions, our Jewish values and our communal interests.  Please consider your choice in acting on this matter and advocating for women to have choices in their control as well.

Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell
Temple Concord, Binghamton, NY

Related resources from the RAC and from Planned Parenthood: 

https://cqrcengage.com/reformjudaism/app/write-a-letter…

https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/…/ab…/hyde-amendment

Categories
gender equality

See Something, Say Something: Having the Courage to Name It

As a rabbi, who also happens to be a woman, I am living through an unprecedented time, recognizing that I have the honor of standing on the shoulders of giants, those clergy who have paved the way for me to gain access to the rabbinate relatively easily. They fought some of the hardest won battles, proving that women are equally as capable of being great rabbis. There was never any question that I would have the opportunity to serve as a rabbi to a community, and instead, I have the privilege of worrying about the variety of struggles that we, as women rabbis face, particularly when it comes to the implicit biases surrounding gender.

I was particularly reminded of this recently, when I sat with some of our lay leaders discussing a potential business opportunity – a relatively new preschool had approached us about renting some of our classroom space. As we entered into the conversation, the topic of the school’s viability arose and almost immediately began to focus on the gender of the two founders, both of whom happen to be young moms. I sat there watching the conversation volley back and forth, noticing a common repetitive trope, “Are these young moms really capable of creating a successful school?” It became clear, as the conversation continued, that this was not so much of a question as it was a negative mark against the founders of this business endeavor, as if to say that young women were not capable of running a business, but others may be.

As a woman, I often find myself questioning whether it is the right moment to speak up, carrying around with me centuries-old baggage of both explicit and implicit biases. I wonder if others might think that I am upset because I am a woman, or because I am young, or perhaps because I am a younger woman rabbi. In the middle of our conversation, I finally burst out, “Can we please stop referring to these two individuals as young women?!”  After a moment of stunned silence, the people around our table resumed the conversation, now referring to these two individuals as the entrepreneurs or school founders. Underneath my exasperation was the understanding that the conversation had, unintentionally, turned to capability based on gender, rather than any measurable data. They saw the implicit bias that had crept up in the heat of the moment, immediately altering the way in which they referred to the school’s founders.

During my time in rabbinical school and in the rabbinate, I have had countless encounters in which a gender bias is clearly present – comments on looking younger than my age, being called a “chick” while leading text study, or remarks about the way in which I style my hair; each time I have to weigh whether it is worth it to call out the bias or let it pass. With each comment, I ask myself whether my calling out the bias will result in a change of opinion or behavior. If I believe that my calling out the bias will result in a change, then I point it out, as I did with our lay leaders.

I know that it is not always easy, nor effortless, to figure out the best way to highlight the implicit biases that still exist within our communities. But it is only with our constant conversation and the courage to point out the implicit bias that we will pave the way for the next generation of rabbis and leaders.    


Rabbi Jessica Wainer serves Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, VA.  

Categories
gender equality

The Reform Pay Equity Initiative: Copy Us, Please

On this Equal Pay Day it is important to note that the gender-based pay gap is a #metoo issue, meaning the societal norms which deny women physical and psychological safety also lead to women being underpaid. The wage gap is the financial dimension of gender harassment. And, unfortunately, no community is immune from misogyny or pay inequity. Not even the Reform Movement with its foundational principles of gender equality and social justice. While our Movement has vocally advocated for equality in the national workplace for decades upon decades, we have not turned that critical eye on ourselves. Now, finally, a Movement-wide partnership to address the wage gap directly is making important progress, while creating a model and resources for all.

In its third year, the Reform Pay Equity Initiative (The beginning of RPEI’s work is documented here.) continues its comprehensive approach to the wage gap within the Reform Movement, striving to influence the employment practices of 900+ congregations and over 1.8 million Reform Jews. This partnership of the seventeen organizations under the Reform Movement umbrella supports the female Jewish professionals of the Movement, while at the same time it provides resources and trainings for our institutions and congregations to ensure unbiased hiring and contract negotiations. In addition, the resources and learning shared by this Initiative are open to everyone, not only one type of Jewish professional and not exclusively the members of the Reform Movement. RPEI is fueled by generous funding from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and women’s rights activist Audrey Cappell.

Foremost, RPEI has educated the leaders of our organizations concerning the complexities of the pay gap and how it manifests itself in our Movement. In turn, each has openly shared the work of the separate entities, creating synergy in our efforts to narrow the wage gap. We have learned how to better collect and analyze the compensation data of our Jewish professionals; we have also recognized the limitations of data collection.

RPEI has sought ways to maximize transparency, which is a powerful tool against the wage gap. We have encouraged colleagues to share compensation data with each other and to better utilize the salary studies and surveys provided by their professional organizations. But most importantly, the placement commissions of these professional organizations are in the process of requiring or strongly recommending synagogues participating in the placement process list a proposed salary range, instead of leaving the information blank or saying, “commensurate with experience.” The Joint Commission on Rabbinic Placement (URJ and Central Conference of American Rabbis) has already made this mandatory, while the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) educates synagogues on Pay Equity issues, asking them to list a salary range. The ACC has not moved to a mandatory model due to the wide breadth of years of experience individuals bring to cantorial positions.

We have invested in educating professionals and lay leaders, speaking at Reform Movement gatherings: major organizations’ board meetings, social action forums, numerous conferences, and at our Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. RPEI has engaged experts to teach negotiation skills for women and Jewish ethical employment in many of these forums. We have urged our Jewish professionals to be active partners by educating their congregations by using their different expert educational modes: teaching, preaching, writing, singing about the wage gap, especially around Equal Pay Day. Many women have sought help navigating their personal wage gap; Reform congregations have reviewed their compensation structures. In addition, non-Reform Movement organizations, Jewish professional groups, and seminaries have requested input to understand the best practices of documenting and amending pay inequities.

RPEI has created important resources, all outward facing. Filled with information and guidance, the Reform Pay Equity Initiative website is hosted by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) but is accessible to all. There visitors will find topical resource tabs, including on negotiation skills, teaching & preaching, and implicit bias, but more importantly, there are two curated portals, one for employees and another for employers, meaning for both Jewish professionals and lay leaders employment stakeholders. These portals direct the visitor towards the resources customized to their needs.

An important resource create by RPEI and found on its website is The Reform Jewish Quarterly fall 2018 issue. It contains a symposium on Pay Equity with twelve articles exploring the topic. There are study guides, providing instant lessons tailored to adult education, board training, or search/hiring committee training. The CCAR has generously made these articles and study guides open to the public without the usual fee.

In the coming months there will be an in-depth ‘negotiation skills for women’ tool and an implicit bias training for search committees. The website will continue to evolve to provide the best educational materials, interventions, and training materials for employees and employers. The seventeen organizations of RPEI will further educate our Movement and imbed Jewish ethical employment practices into every stage of hiring and employment.

The members of the Reform Pay Equity Initiative invite others, both within the Jewish community and beyond, to make use of our model and resources. Copy us, please.

This blog was originally posted on eJewish Philanthropy.

Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network.  She co-leads RPEI with Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of the Women of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Zamore is on the steering committee of the SafetyRespectEquity Coalition. Her newest anthology is The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (CCAR Press: 2019).

Categories
gender equality lifelong learning Rabbis

Spiritual Lessons from the Exercise Bicycle

We’re not big romantics in our house, and in a good year, Valentine’s Day may consist of a card featuring golden retriever puppies and a vase filled with pink flowers. But a few weeks ago in honor of this Hallmark-generated holiday, my husband decided to help keep our middle-aged hearts healthy by investing in a home exercise bicycle. Unlike me, my husband is extremely disciplined in his diet and his commitment to physical fitness. I, however, was raised by a mom who believed that Jewish people should exercise their brains and leave cultivation of physical brawn to lesser minds. It’s hard to shake that kind of bias, even as an adult who understands the importance of maintaining a sound body. Of course I want to be in good working order, to be healthy and strong. I’m just not all that coordinated, and I have never been able to find a compelling exercise regimen. In honor of this pagan love festival, though, and for the sake of my heart, I relented and tried one of the streaming exercise classes that was an integral part of this biking experience.
Grudgingly, I approached the spinning bicycle. At first, I couldn’t even put the shoes on properly. Yes, I could handle the Velcro straps at the top of the shoes, but the bottom strap was a bit more complicated and required simultaneous tugging and pressing down on a lever. Clipping my fancy shoes into the pedals was tougher than tap dancing, but one of my sons managed to guide my feet into the correct spots until we heard the reassuring click.  Finally, I selected a class from a menu of incredibly fit instructors. Touted as a beginner’s class, the half hour would have resulted in a brain hemorrhage if I had not modified my input. Daunted, but not defeated, I promised myself that I would try again.
The next day, armed with a larger water bottle and a better attitude, I selected a different instructor. This class went much better, although I still needed to adjust my workout so that I didn’t feel light-headed. I found a computer generated “leader board” ranking my progress against 15,000 other riders to be a demoralizing nuisance, so I slid it off of the screen. This instructor spent time talking about how the bicycle worked, how to hold my back in a more comfortable posture, how to breathe. She told us to listen to our own breathing, push enough, but not hurt ourselves. I was tired and shaky after this ride, too, but I was willing to try again the next day.
As a newbie to the exercise bike, testing out the various instructors has been eye opening. Of course, being an instructor for Peloton, Soul Cycle, or Fly Wheel is not the same as being a rabbi. Yet, there are some fascinating lessons that I’ve learned in my brief foray into biking classes that relate to both leading an exercise class and religious services.
  1. Don’t judge an instructor by her outfit, and try not to judge a rabbi by the way she looks.  Initially, I wanted to reject every perky, Barbie doll looking instructor with the “I Dream of Jeannie” ponytails (okay, they all have those high, endlessly shiny hairdos). I just felt frumpy watching them and expected them to be ditzy. Some fulfilled my expectations and were, in fact, annoying. They posed for the camera, smiled like they were on a Disney kids’ show waiting for a canned laugh, and giggled through some of the class. Not my cup of tea. Yet, other instructors who looked equally beautiful had intelligent comments about breathing, stretching, and fitness in general.  As a female rabbi, I know that many of us, especially, are judged by our appearance. We’re told that our hair is too long or too short, too natural or too processed. We desperately need to wear some lipstick or wear way too much makeup. Our suits look boring, or our dresses are too distracting. Take a breath, and try not to let the appearance get in the way of what a rabbi (or an exercise instructor) is supposed to do.
  2. A rabbi cannot be all things to all people. Peloton would never hire just one instructor to teach all of its classes. One teacher is a biking expert, another has a background as a professional dancer. Some instructors tell you to sing along to the music, and other teachers tell you that if all you want to do is sing to take another class. One instructor shared a cute story about how her daughter helped pick the playlist for the class, and other instructors don’t seem particularly kid friendly. Rabbis are like this, as well. Some rabbis are more intellectual, others love to sing, and others are all about forming a community. We expect our rabbis to somehow fulfill the needs of every congregant simultaneously. There’s just no way this is a reasonable expectation.
  3. The exercise bike experience also taught me something important about leading services for congregants. As the person directing the pace of the prayers, we need to understand that some of the worshippers may be first-timers. They may not even know metaphorically how to clip in their shoes, and we expect them to keep up a ridiculously high speed when they are on the verge of passing out spiritually. Everyone comes to synagogue for her or his own reason. We can’t expect our congregants to engage fully if we are not engaging in the class right along with them. How can a biking instructor or a rabbi know if the resistance is too difficult if he or she is simply looking ahead to announce the next element of the class or service?
  4. So far, every instructor I’ve tuned in to has encouraged riders to “open your heart.” In exercise and in religion, this advice is pretty much on target. And the only leader board you need to worry about is the one in your own mind. I’ll keep up the beginner rides when my kids go back to school next week, but maybe someone out there could please help me get those shoes out of the pedals.

Rabbi Sharon Forman serves Westchester Reform Temple and was a contributor to CCAR Press’s The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality.

Categories
gender equality

I Am a Woman, and I Have Gender Bias

Far too often, members of congregational search committees say they don’t need to worry about gender bias because they have women on the committee. Yet most of us, including women, carry implicit gender bias.   It is implicit because it remains unexpressed. The more we are aware of our biases, the more we can address the challenge. When they remain hidden, there is very little we can do to tackle them.

Back in 2008, when then Republican presidential candidate John McCain nominated Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, I was very critical of the choice, and not because she had limited government experience. I simply didn’t believe that a mother of five children, especially when the youngest was living with a disability, could handle the job. I eventually shifted my thinking, thanks to numerous conversations with friends. I realized I would have never argued that a father of five couldn’t manage a high-level political job. It was the first time I was aware I carried gender bias, one that negatively impacted my view of what jobs mothers could do. My gender bias had been implicit until it became explicit, thanks to dialogue, conversations, and a openness to challenge my thinking.

There may have been several reasons why I held such a bias in the first place. At the time, I carried some ambivalence to becoming a mother, worried that being a mother would hold back my career ambitions. I didn’t understand how in many ways, working mothers are eminently qualified for their jobs because they are mothers. In addition, there is a cultural norm that it is ok to negatively judge other women when they make choices you wouldn’t for yourself. Of this, I am guilty.

Why do we as a Movement need to care about implicit gender bias?

The mission of the Union for Reform Judaism is to build a world of justice, wholeness, and compassion. We will not be successful at achieving this without an awareness of how our gender biases affect our ability to build that world.

We will not build a world of wholeness if we implicitly believe that mothers are not able to do the same work that fathers can, especially as senior rabbis of congregations.

We will not build a world of justice if those same gender biases affect our ability to pay mothers and women in general at an equal level that we pay fathers and men.

Compassion is defined as the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. We will not build a world of compassion if we are not conscious of the degree to which being a woman, or being a mother, is seen as a disadvantage in the congregation, and doing what we can to change that. This requires rethinking what we consider the qualities we want in a leader, as well as the prior experiences we expect. We often discount the experiences of parenting, for example, as a job qualification, or look for qualities, like gravitas, that we don’t associate with women.

There is no way to avoid having implicit biases. We all have them. Our aim is to become aware of them and call ourselves out as we recognize them. I recently had to call myself out again.

It was Friday evening. My friend Josh, a rabbi in our congregation, and I found ourselves chatting while the kids ran around. Josh and his wife have three young children, and he was sharing how his wife Nani was away on a work trip for a few days. I asked, “Did your mom come down to help?”

As soon as it was out of my mouth, I realized I was guilty. Guilty of an assumption that feeds into the beast that is gender bias. I needed to name it, more for myself than for my friend. “Josh,” I said, “I feel terrible. If Nani were standing right here, and she had told me that you were away on a work trip for a few days, I never would have asked her if your mom had come down to help. I would just have assumed she could handle it, because she is the mom.”

I made an assumption that a father is less well-qualified to take care of his children, especially because he had a job as a congregational rabbi. This job requires evening work, and Shabbat responsibilities. How would he handle that if his spouse was not around to help? What was even stranger is that I had been in those exact same shoes myself, as a working mother with bimah responsibilities only a few years before!

How does this implicit assumption hurt women in our congregations, in particular the future rabbis and cantors we may hire to lead? If we assume a father is less well-qualified to take care of his children, what leaps of imagination do we have to do when faced with a mother who wants to become the next senior rabbi? Do we bring in our own biases of how children should be raised?

Project Implicit, out of Harvard University, has access to free implicit bias tests around a variety of themes. Consider taking it, or asking your board to consider it. The first step in addressing implicit gender bias is simply becoming aware.

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the Director of Congregational Innovation at the Union for Reform Judaism and sits on the CCAR Taskforce on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate.

Categories
gender equality News Social Justice

King David, Bill Clinton, and Progressives’ Culpability for Sexual Misconduct

This summer, I listened to Professor Orit Avnery at the Shalom Hartman Institute, describing King David’s wrongdoing with Bat-Sheva. Not only adultery or even the King’s skullduggery in consigning his loyal soldier, Bat-Sheva’s husband Uriah, to death in a misbegotten battle. David is also guilty of sexual misconduct: He leverages his power to fulfill his sexual desires with a subject, meaning that the David-Bat-Sheva liaison cannot be described as fully consensual.

While the Bible casts the centuries of disaster that follow as divine punishment, we may view those catastrophes as natural results of David’s misdeeds. We are not surprised that David’s older sons, born to him and his wife, resent his favoritism toward Solomon, born of the adulterous liaison. Moreover, the king’s disloyalty to his troops might logically lead to low morale in the ranks – and, ultimately, military defeat.[i]

Listening to Avnery, and considering King David, I could not help but think of Bill Clinton.

Twenty years ago, we learned that the married President of the United States had an apparently-consensual sexual liaison with a 22-year old woman working as a White House intern. President Clinton’s supporters, myself included, however scandalized by his marital infidelity, spent much more energy resisting his impeachment than examining the corrosive impact his behavior would wreak our society.

We were wrong when we determined that Clinton’s presidential leadership on women’s issues was more important and impactful than his personal conduct toward women. Sexual relations between a 45-year-old President and a 22-year-old intern constitute sexual misconduct resulting from an extreme power disequilibrium. Like David with Bat-Sheva, the power disequilibrium raises a question of whether Clinton’s relations with Lewinsky could truly be consensual. Failing to call out the President’s wrongdoing, we not only facilitated the vilification of a young woman, and worse for Clinton’s other victims, we conspired with President Clinton to silence discussion of powerful men’s sexual misbehavior for nearly two decades. Only after Hillary Clinton was defeated in her own presidential election by a man who shamelessly bragged about sexual misconduct, American progressives finally opened our eyes to the widespread degradation of women and girls – and sometimes, boys and men – by powerful men who victimize those under their control. President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and our averted attention enabled two decades of widespread sexual abuse. The perpetrators, we now know, are just as likely to support progressive priorities for women’s rights in the public sphere as to oppose them. Had we insisted that President Clinton face the consequences of his actions, America might have held Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., and their likes accountable far earlier, sparing untold numbers of victims. And we might never have allowed for an atmosphere in which a man who bragged of grotesque sexual violence could nevertheless be elected President of the United States.

Russ Douthat is a conservative columnist and devoted Catholic. Not long ago, he wrote, “The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies.”[ii] What Douthat says about theological allies goes for political and ideological partners as well. We who did not hold President Clinton to account are vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy when we seek the ouster on similar grounds of a president whose policies we abhor. And vice versa.

We have reason for hope. When Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers were credibly accused of sexual misconduct, both were forced out of office by colleagues on their own side of the political aisle.

Now, we must acknowledge what we have known since David ruled in Jerusalem some 3000 years ago: A leader’s private sins can bring grave consequences to a nation. Many of us have been silent co-conspirators in the past. Others are today. Let us all shed our ideologies when we evaluate the costs of a leader’s private sins. We must hold all the powerful people in our society accountable – not only in politics and religion, but also in industry, media, entertainment, sports, education, and all places of employment. Then, perhaps, we will be credible partners in bringing an end to sexual misconduct, wherever it occurs.

[i] 2 Samuel 11-12, as taught by Orit Avnery, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, July 4, 2018.
[ii] Russ Douthat, “What Did Pope Francis Know?,” The New York Times, August 28, 2018, accessed on September 2, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/opinion/pope-francis-catholic-church-resign.html?rref=%2Fbyline%Fross-douthat&action=click&contentCollection=undefined&region=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
gender equality High Holy Days

A #MeToo/#GamAni Confession for the High Holy Days

As we enter the High Holy Days, we reflect on our individual failings, but our liturgy also instructs us to confess communally, recognizing the role each person has in shaping their community. In that spirit, I offer this addition to our prayers of repentance to allow us to reflect on the plague of misogyny, which continues to shape women’s experience of the world. Gender harassment has many expressions, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, micro-aggression, wage inequity, and the unequal representation of women in leadership positions throughout all corners of our society. While this confession emphasizes sexual harassment, true equality will not come until we address all expressions of gender harassment. Confessing our communal wrongs is only one step in the tikkun, the repair needed, but it is an important first step.

 

A #MeToo/#GamAni Confession

 

 

Al cheit shechatanu

For the sin we have committed before You . . .

by not believing the victims

by being silent while women were bullied, harassed or undermined

by claiming to be ready to listen when we were not

by claiming equality exists for all

by not supporting victims

by not providing sexual harassment prevention training

by accepting the sexist comments made every day

by blaming the victims

by claiming our workplaces, synagogues, and organizations were safe

by contributing to an environment that allowed harassment

by explaining away harassment

by believing the victims but not acting to make change

by worrying about our community’s reputation instead of the victims’ needs

by not reflecting on the past and present behavior within our community

by denying that gender harassment has many faces

by allowing victims to suffer retribution

by not noticing when women simply walked away from our community or institution

by making the reporting of harassment difficult and hard to engage

by promising change and not fulfilling this promise

 

 

Al cheit shechatanu

For the sin we have committed before You, we ask forgiveness.

Rabbi Mary L. Zamore serves as the Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Rabbi Zamore is also the the editor of  The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethics, now available from CCAR Press.

 

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gender equality

When the Torah Calls Out #MeToo: Confronting Our Objectionable Texts

Perhaps you are like me – stumbling through my days in a perpetual state of exhaustion. It could be for many reasons: long hours of work, the weight from our personal lives due to matters we are facing individually, and, perhaps even weightier, issues our loved ones are facing, which we can’t help but carry with us. We are exhausted from the human and natural disasters in our immediate communities, in our nation, and lands across oceans; the tentacles of these tragedies reach as close as the smart phones in our pockets, and the news alerts literally flashing before our eyes, even as we close them in sleep.

It’s probably time for a very long nap.

Unfortunately, sleeping through life is not an option. One of my strategies for gathering energy is to heed our tradition’s call to Torah. Often, I experience the text as a source of sustenance and strength. This week’s portion, Vayera, is a rich collection of legend and lesson, but it does contain a pericope that threatened to deplete my already low reserves, as it is both distasteful and shockingly relevant: the second episode when Abraham passes off Sarah as his sister in return for his safety and for profit. In and of itself, this episode is highly disturbing. But here we are, tackling it for a second week in a row. Facing it again is an exhausting task, especially knowing that we will only have a week of relief before encountering it for yet a third time, when we turn to Toldot and confront Abraham’s son, Isaac, committing the same atrocity against his wife, Rebecca.

There are plenty of objectionable texts scattered throughout our sacred literature, but somehow this motif has always felt particularly offensive to me. Maybe those of you with Biblical names share with me a sense of personal investment in your namesake; Sarah’s narratives tug at me with an almost familiar grip. It could also be that, unlike other troubling texts, this one comes at us again and again and again. This thudding repetition is a searing reminder of the ugly misogyny embedded in our tradition. This year, it carries a more deeply resounding echo, coming in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, amid the scores of declarations surging forth. The description of Abraham’s growing accumulation of wealth and his continuing rise in stature, emerging from the exploitation of Sarah’s body, palpably repulses me. I hear in Abraham’s weak protestation that he felt endangered, in his deflection claiming the people of Gerar don’t fear Adonai, in his irrelevant explanation that Sarah actually is his sister (sort of), echoes of Weinstein’s nauseating attempt at an apology: he is suffering from an illness, he is a product of a different normative reality, he really does respect women and support women.

I recognize that this text was written in ancient times, with different social mores and gender roles. But this is not a justification. The bulk of the Torah, including passages buttressing this incident, completely upend norms, voicing calls for radical theological and moral change. The Torah is a force for good.

It may feel wrong for me to compare Harvey Weinstein to Avraham Avinu. I was sickened thinking this, and questioned whether I should articulate it. But we can’t avoid discomfort any longer. The fact is, this text makes me feel marginalized and injured by our tradition. And if a desire to protect what we love and who we are dissuades me from sharing this truth, or prevents others from hearing it, we are not going to get anywhere in tackling the issues that our community – Abraham and Sarah’s very descendants – are living in this moment. If we can’t struggle with the reporting of Abraham’s offense, how can we find the courage to face what has been said about Elie Weisel, what has been admitted by Leon Weiseltier? And if we can’t open ourselves to recognizing the misdeeds of our heroes, our teachers, how will we be able to in any way tolerate dealing with violations committed by our colleagues and friends? How will we be able to be honest in facing our own acts of silence and complicity?

The Talmud teaches, “ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim – the actions of the fathers are signals to the sons.” Isaac is evidence that no matter what the historical or cultural context, turning away from what is ugly and hiding what is unjust and immoral, will reinforce instead of resist offensive behavior.

Commentators grapple with this sister/wife motif, but fall short of expressing outrage at Abraham’s behavior. However, the greatest authoritative voice in Jewish tradition has expressed the horror of this episode: the voice of the Torah itself. That this story finds itself in the text not once, not twice, but three times, is a call to attention. What felt to me incessant I now realize is insistent.

Only in facing the distaste I felt for this passage, and in overcoming my fear of publicly addressing it, did I recognize what now seems so obvious. The power and wisdom of our text is that it provokes us to face the worst of who we are with the purpose of instigating us to become the best of who we are.

The retelling of this story – a story still continuing until today – is a reminder that as much as we might be embarrassed or shamed or hurt by a part of our collective history, or even an episode in the personal narrative of our lives, such reportings must not be ignored or pushed into the shadows. We must give voice to them and face their implications.

Charles Blow wrote a column in the New York Times about male privilege saying “Constant outrage is exhausting. . . .  There is no magical solution here for the infinite and permanent expansion of empathy and awareness. It is work: hard work.”

I know we come to this moment tired. But we cannot perpetually sleepwalk through the minefields of our lives. We may encounter the words inked onto our scrolls, and the actions etched into our days, feeling defensive, guarded, exhausted. But we carry with us silos of strength and energy. We are bolstered by the resonant voice of our Torah that incessantly and insistently pushes us towards better, urging us to do the work – the hard work – that is our sacred task.

Rabbi Sarah Reines serves as the interim associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel in NY.

 

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Books gender equality LGBT Social Justice

On the Shoulders of Revolutionaries: Queering Jewish Texts and Reform Ritual

As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition.

Queer readings of Jewish texts are liberating – they explode traditional categories of classification and rigid ways of thinking.  Rather than pushing readers toward clear cut understandings of biblical figures, aggadic material, and Jewish law, queer analyses of texts open up and shed light on multiple truths and ways of being in relationship to Jewish ritual and values. I believe that one feature of any sacred text is its ability to capture and say something about the human condition. Understanding a text through a queer lens has the power to not only locate universal human truths, but also to amplify these sacred elements, allowing us to see themes and characters as constantly changing. In opening texts to new meanings, we as people then have the permission and power to understand ourselves as constantly changing, traversing borders, and breaking down barriers. Queer theory also pushes us to challenge the binary nature of labels like, “sacred and profane,” acknowledging that the line between such categories is constantly shifting and permeable. When the boundary between sacred and profane is understood in this way, the brokenness and injustices of our world can become sites of sacred work, partnership, and healing.

While there are many scholars, clergy people, and Jewish organizations engaged in the project of queering Jewish space and text, I would argue that the power and full force of this work has not yet been incorporated into many Reform congregations. How would a “queering” of Jewish space look in mainstream Reform Judaism? Perhaps it would challenge our, often, hierarchical leadership structures, open up the possibility for new rituals in our congregational life, or push us to embrace and name every aspect of the human experience, like anxiety, joy, anger, and frustration in our worship. What would it mean for our congregations if gender was experienced not as a set of defined behaviors, but a fluid and ever changing category? Would there still be a brotherhood poker night? Or a sisterhood fashion show? When we free ourselves and our children from expectations of behavior based on constructed categories like gender, we open ourselves up to new understandings of proximity, social change, and justice – we understand that boundaries and borders set between people only grow wider and stronger when we refuse to cross them.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of celebrating the release of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate at HUC-JIR in New York City. As part of this celebration, Rabbi David Adelson, Dean of the New York campus, moderated a panel discussion between three women whose rabbinates represent the influence of women on the American Jewish landscape. Addressing the packed chapel, Rabbis Sally J. Priesand, Rebecca Einstein Schorr, and Leah Berkowitz spoke about their experiences confronting and breaking open barriers as female clergy members. The powerful testimony of each rabbi made clear both the tremendous strides the reform movement has taken toward gender equality since Sally Priesand’s ordination in 1972, and the groundbreaking work female rabbis continue to do in teaching us new ways of being in the world.

As a female, third-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR, I am a direct beneficiary of this work. Listening to these women share pieces of their respective rabbinic journeys, I could not help but feel tremendous gratitude for my ability to walk along their well-trodden paths. Growing up, watching Rabbi Leah Cohen, the rabbi of my home congregation, in action every Shabbat, it was never hard for me to imagine myself on the bimah or to see myself entering the rabbinate. When I applied to HUC-JIR, I didn’t see my application as an act of daring or courage, but rather the fulfillment of my childhood dream. But there is more to this story. Women rabbis have not just opened the door for young girls to see themselves in positions of Jewish leadership; they have also fundamentally infused the role and identity of the rabbi with endless possibility. As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition. In creating and opening up new models of religious leadership, women rabbis have sewn the seeds for other forms of non-traditional engagement with Jewish texts and ritual, the harvest of which is in full-bloom.

Like Moses, Miriam, Jacob, the levitical priest, Judah the Prince, and countless other figures and innovators of our tradition – we have the power to cross boundaries, re-imagine ourselves, and to demand relevance and blessing from our tradition – to queer notions of identity and meaning in this world.

Hilly Haber is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.