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Sermons and Thoughts

How a synagogue community addresses

18 April 2021
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Tazria-Metzora 5781 #liberaljudaism #everyonesinvited #sexualabuse #tazria

One of the central features of the Book of Leviticus is ritual purity and impurity. It deals with what were seen as physical impurities such as menstruation, diseases and seminal emissions; and treats them as a spiritual state that prevented access to holy areas. Whilst the process is aimed at inclusion and readmission to a holy state, for example it used ‘skilled’ adjudicators i.e. the priests, not mob rule etc; the process raises so many problems. The abuse of such ‘God-given’ power and authority structures still pervades and infects what we call ‘civilised’ society.

Much of our society is civil and yet to call us civilised is to suggest that the job is done. The response to websites such as, testimonies from survivors of rape and sexual assault, abuse, eating disorders, suicidal or suicidal ideation, violence, child abuse and paedophilia, remind us that our society falls short.

We perhaps fall short, not because we have not made huge strides, challenging clear and obvious crimes; but rather, because the foundational power structures that still permeate our society are sometimes subtle and generally go unchallenged.

Take Leviticus 12. A woman who gives birth is considered impure for a period of time that matches that for menstruation. This gives rise to many obvious problems. She then undergoes a further period of purification before bringing achattat – sin offering. Even though this is used for purification purposes, there is no getting away from that word chattat – sin.

There are still ways in which society favours men over women, such as the need to pay for tampons and sanitary pads for a natural phenomenon. But I wish to raise something more subtle in the biblical account. The mother’s period of impurity and subsequent period of purification is double the length after the birth of a girl.

Our Sages explain this in a number of ways. Some are deeply unpleasant examples of misogyny. The Talmud contains a whole male-written tractate, Niddah, concerning women’s impurity. We read for example from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (31a): “And why did the Torah command seven days of impurity for a boy but fourteen for a girl? Since everyone is excited about a male child…”

However, the majority driver reflects the ancient (mis)understanding of biological process and the grounding of law in the biblical account of Adam and Eve. In other words, they did not know better.

Well, we do know better.

So why, as I waited to be served at Wenzel’s this morning, were the two gentlemen in front of me asking the woman serving to raise her mask to see her smile? Why, when asking my daughters about this issue, do they raise issues of entitlement, toxic masculinity and the unfettered access to pornography?

Rape, sexual abuse and all the issues raised on Everyone’s Invited, are very real, undeniable. It is not woke, it is not political correctness. It is simply wrong.

Patrick Moriarty, the headteacher of JCOSS, the first Jewish cross-denominational secondary school in the UK, cites his pain at the school being named in testimony on Everyone’s Invited.

“Reading the posts on Everyone’s Invited is truly a trip into darkness: the darkness of teenage party culture, the darkness of our society, the darkness of the human heart, but, above all, the black hole of toxic masculinity. It is a date with shame in every sense.

Overwhelmingly, we see the shame inflicted on thousands of girls by thousands of boys, in page after page of sexual encounters, from the inept and boorish to the horrific and traumatising. Their pain and humiliation is sometimes made worse by friends or adults – and occasionally better.

… The phenomenon has brought some of the darkest days I have known as headteacher, and not only because my school is one of those named in some of the testimonies. Shame spawns shame, and I wonder how it is that violations unthinkable when I left school 35 years ago are now commonplace, and why, despite decades of legislation and progressive initiatives, things are getting worse, not better. As an adult, a man, a headteacher, I weep.”

Moriarty recognises the temptation to focus on the pitfalls of anonymous testimonies on a website; but to do so would be to miss the point and once more take the side of the perpetrator. Rather, he poses questions for schools to ask themselves and concludes, “We need to bring the energy of Everyone’s Invited into our schools for balanced consideration and exposure to challenge, so that it can be refined into a fuller and deeper version of itself, ready to make a vital contribution to society.

That is, after all, what schools do for students – and they are shaped and improved themselves along the way. By the power of education let the dethroning of shame commence.”

We already do a good job of supporting our children to explore their complex identities in a safe environment, one that is supported but largely peer-led; and one that aims to equalise the roles of each individual. But what we do now is never perfect; progression is not a criticism of the past. It is not a competition. It is a constant going and growing together through life.

Whilst society is facing a particular problem of now, the foundations were set in the past. We all have a role to play in a synagogue community. What questions can we ask of our synagogue? 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? How do we help everyone’s understanding of consent and help not to judge individuals on the way they dress or appear? How do we talk about aspects of society that can bring joy and love and yet can also destroy lives? How can we stop the harming and shaming of girls without demonising boys?

Addressing these questions together helps us towards fulfilling our goal as a synagogue community “to instil a love for Liberal Judaism that shapes the future of Jewish life.”

That is, after all, what synagogues at their best do for their congregants – and they are shaped and improved themselves along the way. By the power of synagogue community let the dethroning of shame commence.

Articles Used – Patrick Moriarty  – Rabbi Zev Farber