‘Me Too’ Through the Ages by Rabbi Joshua Franklin

The harrowing tales of sexual assault and harassment have continuously bombarded my computer screen for the last two weeks. I knew this kind of abuse was happening throughout the world, but I didn’t know how ingrained it was in the everyday lives of American women. I thought Harvey Weinstein, who tyrannically harassed and assaulted Hollywood actresses, was a phenomenon, but I was wrong. The trending #MeToo has opened my eyes to see that sexual violence, assault, and harassment are far too common. 

Yet we don’t need Facebook or Twitter to teach us about the timeless harassment of women. Just open up the Bible.

#MeToo: Sarah is forcefully inducted into the harems of Pharaoh and Abimelech (Genesis 12 and Genesis 20).

#MeToo: Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem (Genesis 34).

#MeToo: Bathsheba is sent for by David, taken into his bed, and returned by messengers later (2 Samuel 11).

#MeToo: Tamar is brutally assaulted and raped by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13).

#MeToo: Queen Vashti refuses to be sexually displayed before the guests of her husband (Esther 1).

Why are these stories in our sacred scriptures? Because they stand as warnings to us about the dangers of the power imbalance we see in our society. For far too long have men abused women and subjugated them to harassment, assault, and rape. Nothing is new under the sun. Such was the biblical reality, such was the medieval reality, the Renaissance reality, and this is our reality. 

In the Talmud, a legal code and compendium of Jewish wisdom, the rabbis recognize that there is danger in certain social situations and offer a set of societal safeguards. For starters, they stipulate that any time there is a power differential between two people, their interaction should have a third party present. In other words, if you are in a position of power, it’s improper to meet someone in a private hotel room alone. Instead, meet them in the hotel restaurant. And if for whatever reason there is an issue with a public space, defuse the tension with a third person. 

The social attention given to #MeToo should be a wake-up call. I don’t believe it’s about redefining entrenched power inequity. We need leadership roles, we need elected officials, and we even need some sort of hierarchy in business. #MeToo is about hearing the cries of women. #MeToo is a call for all of us to see that the trauma is real and has been swept under the carpet for far too long. It’s about saying that the actions of those who take advantage of, harass, and sexually assault others are unacceptable, and anyone who perpetrates them should be punished. It’s about making this kind of harassment marginal, instead of an accepted norm. 

The teachings of religion should embolden each of us to stand up and be righteous. Religious teachings remind us not only to be upright in our own actions, but also to stand up when others are being victimized. Proverbial Jewish wisdom offers that “in a place where there is no one, stand up and be the one” (Avot 2:4).

The biblical character of Noah is antithetical to the idea of being an upstander. In Genesis, he is described as being “a righteous man of his generation” (Genesis 6:9). We should see the words “of his generation” as a negative qualifier. Noah was righteous among a group of the world’s most terrible people. He was a moral Cyclops in the land of the morally blind. Even the etymology of the name Noah (Noach in Hebrew) implies that he was at ease or apathetic to the corruption around him. 

The Bible steers us instead toward the example of Abraham, who enters Sodom and Gomorrah to raise a wicked people from their depravity. To the men out there, perhaps we’ve been like Noah, upright in our own ways but not advocating when we see the exploitation and abuse around us. And perhaps this is why Noah is ascribed little biblical importance. He isn’t the example that we look to as a model of what it means to be a good person. He is only as good as others are bad, and that is not quite good enough. 

I can’t from my own life say #MeToo. All I can do is stand up and say that we’ve turned a blind eye far too long. To quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “while only some are guilty, all of us are accountable.” 

This I promise: I will never turn a blind eye to those who cry out, or to those who aren’t able to cry out. I will never put anyone in a situation in which his or her safety is compromised by a power imbalance. 

I will work to create a community here at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, and in East Hampton, that will not tolerate sexual abuse, assault, or harassment in any form. I will always be here to listen to the stories of #MeToo from anyone who needs to share. I will hear you, I will see you, I will support you, and I do my best to ensure that the East Hampton community is a safe place for all genders.

Rabbi Joshua Franklin was installed as the rabbi at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in September. He lives in East Hampton.