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Sermons and Thoughts

Breaking the Silence

24 April 2021
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Parashat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

In Rabbi Aaron’s powerful sermon last Saturday, and if you missed it, please take the time to re-watch it or read it on our website, he addressed the difficult conversations that are currently happening in schools and in society in general about endemic violence against women, sparked by the murder of Sarah Everard. Rabbi Aaron challenged us that we l have a role to play in a synagogue community, asking: “How can we encourage women to talk about their past experiences and girls to do so now? How can we support men hearing that without feeling a need to justify, but acknowledging the pain and shame that has been felt?”

I guess one answer to those questions is that we must lead by example. So let me start by breaking the silence[1]:

Like so many women, according to the Office of National Statistics at least 1 in 5, I am a survivor of sexual assault. I am not talking about the casual acts of sexual harassment that women experience so routinely that we don’t even notice them as something more transgressive than the use of foul language and I am certainly not talking about well intentioned even if sometimes hapless comments about looking lovely or the “good Shabbos” kiss on the cheek. Like most women I can tell the difference intuitively between kind and sleezy.

When I say, I am the survivor of sexual assault I am speaking about an attack by a man, who in his police interview put on record that he followed me and my sister with the intention to assault us – because due to a recent heart attack he hadn’t had sex with his wife for a long time.

I am very comfortable sharing details of the assault itself and you are welcome to ask me later, but I want to focus this morning on what helped me to survive the assault without significant emotional scars and to explore if there are lessons for us to learn from this.

Reflecting on my personal experience, I think what truly made the difference was the fact that I had been brought up in such a way that I did not feel shame even for a second. I never had any doubt that I would tell my parents and they would support me 100% and not freak out or, worse, shame me. And I knew that my friends would react likewise. I was never made to feel embarrassed about being attacked.

It seems so obvious. And yet, from biblical times right until today, society has suggested to women and LGBT individuals that they should feel shame when it comes to their own sexuality and when they experience violence. The list of the arayot, the sexual prohibitions found in our Torah portion this week (Leviticus 18), equate sexual relations with a menstruating woman and same sex relations with incest and bestiality and yet are silent on the crime of rape.

The sacred nature of our sacred texts is indeed often overshadowed by misogyny, homo- and transphobia fuelled by toxic masculinity, documenting what women and LGBT individuals endured at the hands of men throughout time.

In probably his most shocking legal ruling, Maimonides, one of the most prolific and influential Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, writes[2]:

“If, however, an Israelite has intercourse with a gentile woman, whether she is a minor of three years and one day old or an adult, whether she is married or unmarried, even if the Israelite is only nine years and one day old, when he does so intentionally, she should be executed. She is executed because she caused an Israelite to be involved in an unseemly transgression, like an animal.”

I am not going to give this horrendous text the honour of analysing or contextualising it but we cannot be blind to the existence of texts such as these otherwise we will not be able to create the change that is so necessary. We have to stop making excuses for the fact that our religious texts have contributed to normalising misogyny, homo- and transphobia and toxic masculinity for centuries. And we must examine how we, our faith tradition, the Jewish community, our synagogue and as individuals have perpetuated the harm that our sacred texts have caused.

It doesn’t mean we should turn our back on our tradition but it means that we have to make an extra effort to challenge harmful texts and instead teach those texts that can be sources of hope and inspiration for change.

For there are examples of texts rebelling against the social norms including a remarkable 13th century midrash, which appears in Otzar Hamidrashim. Fittingly, Dr Elana Stein Hain of the Hartman Institute in New York entitled her translation of the midrash “Nevertheless, she persisted.”[3] The midrash documents the shocking abuse experienced by an unnamed woman. But rather than shaming her, the midrash allows the story of the woman to be heard and ultimately grants the woman the power not to forgive the perpetrators and the enablers of her abuse, concluding powerfully: “I swear that I will not heal you, for all of the healing in the world cannot work on you. … I, the woman who is standing with you, am the person to whom you did all of these evil things. … And those three people were stricken with scale disease and died from it.”

Rabbi Aaron reminded us that our synagogue community has set itself the lofty goal to “to instil a love for Liberal Judaism that shapes the future of Jewish life.” If we want to shape a better future for Jewish life especially for women and LGBT individuals, we must lead by example.

We must provide an environment to hear, to listen and to learn. We must see the survivors and hear their words: “I, who is standing with you, am the person to whom all of these evil things were done.”

And we must reckon with ourselves. We must be uncompromising in holding perpetrators and enablers to account. We must provide them with opportunities to seek teshuvah, repentance and, at the same time, respect the rights of those harmed not to forgive. But most of all, we must eradicate shame from our emotional dictionary.

We have a long road ahead of us but I hope that you can feel some reassurance in knowing that your rabbis are indeed here to hear, to listen and to learn. And when the road seems to curve too steeply uphill, may Margaret Mead’s wise words be a source of strength: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

[1] Footnote to this sermon for the written version of the text only: it is important to note that I have never been silent about my experience; it’s just not normally something that comes up in conversation or as the topic of a sermon.

[2] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Code of Law, Prohibited Intercourse xii.10.