Jewish Tradition Confronts Power with Truth By Rabbi Ari Ballaban
In the wake of the national spectacle that was last month’s confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, there have been many people around the country who have wondered if the #metoo movement should now be considered dead.
This emotionally charged question is liable to come from people on both ends of the American political spectrum. On the one hand, those who consider themselves conservative might ask whether the apparent use of an alleged sexual assault as a political weapon signals that #metoo’s demise is, if not already here, just around the corner.
On the other hand, those who consider themselves liberal may be inclined to ask, among other things, whether the Senate’s failure to rebuff a political appointee who was credibly accused of sexual violence means that any momentum #metoo once had either has fizzled out or has, at least, led to little real-world change.
If this is the conclusion of a movement that has so thoroughly impacted our nation’s discourse on gender, sex, violence, and women’s experiences, then it is rather anti-climactic. However, it isn’t so clear that we should see it as such. Even if we can’t divine whether or not #metoo remains relevant from the tea leaves of American current events, members of the Jewish community should still see themselves as ethically mandated standard-bearers of #metoo on the basis of our Jewish heritage.
Of course, there are aspects of our tradition which are admittedly less than admirable in how they approach women’s empowerment. For instance, the idea that women cannot initiate a divorce—an unfortunate consequence of certain interpretations of halakhah—leaves much to be desired from the standpoint of equality. Nevertheless, the broader view of Jewish history and heritage demonstrates and demands that every person should listen to (and take the concerns of) women seriously.
To that end, one major goal of the #metoo movement has been to work toward ensuring that even the most powerful men in our society face consequences if they engage in sexual violence. As Jews, we ought to take note of at least one clear precursor to this principle in the Tanakh’s strong critique of King David.
David, whom our tradition typically portrays as one of the Bible’s main heroes, is not immune from rebuke when he acts in a sexually abusive way with Bathsheba. When Nathan, the prophet, confronts him with the gravity of his sins, David poignantly acknowledges the destructive nature of what he has done and cries out: chatati l’adonai, “I have sinned against God!”
While 21st-century readers might wish that David had been punished with permanent loss of his lofty status, it’s hard to deny that the tale has some significant resonance in the era of #metoo. Certainly some would say David’s punishment was too mild since he remained on the throne.
Others, also, might point out that Bathsheba’s point of view is completely absent in the story (a result of the fact that much of the Bible is framed from a male-only perspective.) The greatest difference between David’s story and today, though, may actually be the fact that God is the stimulus that forces David to reckon with his misdeeds.
If we want truly to claim the mantle of #metoo by making claim to our Jewish tradition—and we should—then we need to remind ourselves that our path to sex- and gender-related justice will not come through divine decree. We do not live in ancient Jerusalem and we cannot expect those who harm women to be confronted with stark truth by some prophet who offers them a convenient, understandable allegory.
Instead, it is up to us to push for justice in our society, and it is our obligation to confront and grapple with the nuanced, complex circumstances necessary to fight for those in our society who have been victimized. As the biblical tradition makes clear, to be a Jewish proponent of #metoo means being ready to confront even the most powerful men in our society with the truth, in the words of the prophet Nathan, that atah ha-ish, that “[they] are the men” whose behavior makes the world less safe for women.
For women and men both, and our religion as well, it is imperative that we ensure that the essence of #metoo remain vital and potent as ever.