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Monday, August 3, 2020

Me Too and Us

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Rabbi Robin Podolsky
Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at California State University at Long Beach and serves as affiliated clergy at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. She strives to live and teach a Judaism that is rich with answers and productive questions for people who seek meaning, justice, and kindness in a complex world. She Rabbi Podolsky has published articles in the Journal of Jewish Ethics, the Pluralist, Response, and European Judaism.

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On the anniversary of that election which made a proud sexual predator the President of the United States, a furious chorus of me-too continues to rise. Names are being named and stories are being told, and people in power (usually men) who claim access to the bodies of those who work for or depend on them are being made to face consequences. Following the carnage in Los Vegas and Texas, the correlation between mass shootings and domestic abuse is being named in public. Can it be that “the way things have always been” could really become the way things used to be?

I’m afraid to hope, because we’ve been here before. Just last year, actually.

When the story about Trump’s admitted sexual assaults broke, I had hopes that history would not repeat itself. I was working for the State of California when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor…twice. Even though the L.A. Times, after weeks of investigation, made it clear to us all that the man who wanted to be our chief executive had demeaned, bullied, and physically assaulted several women, some of whom depended for their livelihoods on his good will.

At the time, there were those who scorned the Times’ courageous reporting as an act of liberal media bias. We were reminded that President Clinton had used his office as cover for predations of his own. (Which proves…what? My parents told me something when I was very small about two wrongs not making a right, and I have never found cause to doubt their reasoning. But yes, I would like for us to be sure we can elect pro-equality and pro-choice candidates from the Left without having to sacrifice a virgin or two—or sexually mature women–in exchange.) Anyway, in 2003, I first learned to hate the word “pecadillo.”  And the Gropenfuhrer became California’s chief executive.

But, last year, lots of us believed that things would go differently. Surely, an admitted pussy-grabber could not become President of the United States. The cascade of denunciation after Trump was caught on tape boasting of his behavior, the stories spoken aloud by abused women (and men); surely these were proof that times had changed. And then came November 8, 2016.

Can it be different this time? And what does this have to do with us, specifically, as Jews?

Well, for one thing, as exasperating as it was to link the observation with deeply uncool Holocaust jokes, Larry David made one a valid point. When a prominent Jew like Harvey Weinstein commits sexual predation, he disgraces all of us—and he provides fodder for our enemies. Most important of all though, going beyond David’s point, Jewish predators betray a key Jewish value—cavod ha’briot, human dignity—and they profane the God we serve. It is time for liberal Jews to recall the severity of Hillul HaShem– associating the name of God with bad behavior—and to stop tolerating it. Rather than aping the extreme reactionary masculinism projected by some purveyors of popular culture, Jewish men could learn much from particularly Jewish models of manhood that celebrate scholarly sweetness and empathy with the subjugated who will be, our daily liturgy teaches, lifted up by HaShem.

No matter what somebody wears, no matter how naïve they are or how pliable or how desperate to please, human beings are not objects for use. If we believe truly that people are created b’tzelem Elohim, that each person bears a trace of her Creator, then…it’s wearisome to have to keep saying it…well, then, we don’t instrumentalize them. We don’t wield workplace power or physical strength or social standing to extract what we want.

We are not Puritans. We don’t have to be furtive about the intricacies of desire, about the element of the lewd and titillating, about the play of power and risk that abounds in consensual sex. We just have to embrace a fundamental respect for the right of everyone to dispose of their own person as they see fit, a right to be superseded only by the claim of the One who gave us bodies in the first place. And we need to keep the chorus going, to be pushy Jews about it until a real change comes.

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