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Hear Her Pain!

Many are the examples of those who abuse their power to take advantage of others. During the past year, many have been the instances when women have revealed how they were victimized, their personhood objectified or their bodies inappropriately touched or how they were forced into unwanted sexual relationships, or even raped. The details of many situations are only recently coming to light. The details of far too many remain hidden in women’s memories.

This week, it was revealed that a leading rabbi, a fellow Reform colleague, committed some of these very sins. Nearly fifty years ago he took advantage of his position and coerced a few young women into sexual relationships. He justified his actions to these young, impressionable women by using the Jewish philosophy of Martin Buber. Buber argues that we gain glimmers of the divine when we experience what he termed an I-Thou encounter with another, when all that exists—however briefly—is that relation.

I have always found Buber’s philosophy revelatory. Martin Buber, more than any other thinker, opened Judaism’s door for me. That slim volume of I-Thou and its companion Hasidism and Modern Man (sic!) signify my invitation to explore and learn more about my heritage. It was painful to read that for another his philosophy did the exact opposite. In the hands of an abusive teacher, Buber slammed the door shut. Only recently did this brave woman peer through Judaism’s door. Ironically it was the pandemic that helped to push it open.

During these past High Holidays, she could visit the synagogue of her youth, but now from the comfort of her home. She took in the new rabbi’s words about coming to grips with past sins and failures and approached her with the painful story of her youth. The synagogue is now openly reckoning with what was done in its name.

I greatly admire Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and the leadership of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue.  They have shown exemplary strength and courage. For countless generations, the impulse was to do otherwise. “It happened long ago,” I am sure some suggested. “He is no longer our rabbi,” others perhaps said. Throughout history an institution’s strength was seen as synonymous with its (male) leaders. “If we reveal his flaws, if we speak of his sins, then our synagogue (or church or government or orchestra…) will be weaker or God forbid, destroyed.”

But what about her pain?

Why does an institution’s strength not rest on an honest reckoning with past sins and failures? Why don’t we help to lift up those who feel cast aside? Why is an institution not strengthened by hearing the voice of those in pain and most especially those who have been hurt by an institution meant to protect them? Why don’t we say more often, “God forbid, we should continue to ignore the cries of those who are hurting and too scared to enter our doors.

Our tradition is emphatic about the sin of hillul hashem, desecrating God’s name. It is used to describe a wrong committed in public. The worry is that when someone sees another publicly flouting a mitzvah, others might then surmise it is permissible to commit such a wrong. Leading others astray was for our ancient rabbis a great worry and a cardinal sin. How much the more so when a leader commits such a sin. Then people are distanced from their heritage. Their traditions no longer offer healing but pain.

The Torah proclaims: “You shall not desecrate My holy name.” (Leviticus 22)

Think of the many women who were shut out of our sacred institutions. Think of the pain caused in our tradition’s name—although perhaps few in number it must be acknowledged. Atonement and repair must be sought.

There is no other path, but this tortured road. We must honestly look back in order to move ahead.

Holiness is not about protecting the past. It is instead about opening our ears to the pain within our midst. That is where we will indeed find glimmers of the divine.

Read "A Statement from the Women's Rabbinic Network" for suggestions of what more needs to be done: "No one should be expected to view harassment, abuse, and assault as the price they need to pay in order to be ordained, to serve in congregations or Jewish organizations, and to be members of Jewish communities."