Something New Under the Sun

Yom Kippur Day 5779

To watch Rabbi Greene give her sermon, click here

“They called her a THOT,” the female counselors shared one night during a staff meeting this summer. “The 6th grade boys, they called a THOT”

“What’s a THOT?”, I chimed in?

The counselors giggled at my naive question. “No but, really, I asked again, what’s a “THOT”? They all paused sheepishly, until the Unit Head took one for the team, “Rabbi,” she said as she rolled her eyes, “it’s an acronym, T-H-O-T, THOT, ‘That Ho Over There.”

I froze. So did the laughter.

And this is where it all begins.

October 5th, 2017 revealed the news coverage of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal. Ten days later, actress Alyssa Milano posted the following tweet, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write, ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” And within hours, minutes, seconds, posts emerged...from everywhere.

Here are just a few stories I read that day:

#metoo. Catcalling, body-shaming, inappropriately touched without my consent. In public. Surrounded by people. Too shocked to say anything. Held too tight to move.

#metoo. Boys would play a game where they would snap our bras and run to their friends to report back that we were wearing one.

#metoo. At work. On dates. Alone and with others. Regardless of what I’m wearing. With words and with hands. The only constant is the lack of consequences.

Here’s one more that stood out that day:

#metoo. I was getting a haircut when I was 21. It was a male hairdresser. He was cutting my hair and sweeping it off my shoulders. I didn’t think anything of it. He then decided to “sweep” some of the front of me reaching into my dress and feeling up my breast.  I didn’t understand what was happening until after the fact. The police came and I explained to them what happened. Months later I took this man to court. I couldn’t afford a lawyer then and I got one from the court. His lawyer made the court believe that I only said this so I could get a free haircut.

I read story after story. From actresses. From colleagues. From friends. You, too, may remember watching your facebook or twitter feed fill up with the hashtag “metoo” that day back in October. Some of you may have even posted those words on your own page, reliving, perhaps a painful memory. I remember that day. I read those stories. And I remember thinking, I have those stories, too. I went back and forth for a long time. Typing those two words “me too.” Then erasing them. Wondering, should I share my experiences? What happened to me wasn’t as bad as what happened to her.”  I took a break from my indecision and refreshed my facebook page again, and read this post at the top:

“I didn’t want to post because ‘nothing serious has ever happened to me’ but, minimizing is part of the problem. #Me too.”

When I read that one, I knew I had to click share.

Since that night back in October, I read story after story. Article after article.  I’ve been working on this sermon for months and every day brings a new, painful story. Today, I want to share three stories. They are not stories about me.  These stories might be difficult to hear.  But I think about them often and feel that they are important to share with our community this morning.

I went for a walk one day to meet some girlfriends. I had only been walking a short while, when a boy saw me, grabbed me, pushed me down and forced himself on me -- he raped me. He didn’t ask my name, or if I wanted to sleep with him.

Can you guess what happened next? He whispered in my ear: baby, you are so beautiful, the one I love.

We’d never even met.

I went back home that night and told my father, who told my older brothers. When my brother’s heard what happened, they were, thankfully, angry, distressed, outraged. They beat up my abuser. But they never came to me. They didn’t ask me how I felt. My father didn’t either. They took their masculine big brother protectiveness and acted on my behalf. My voice was silent.
It was silent when the man who raped me didn’t ask how I felt. Never asked if I wanted to be with him.

I’ll never forget that day. I can’t get that awful moment out of my head.

#metoo.

אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

There is nothing new under the sun, Ecclesiastes taught.  

This story, unlike all the others, is not a story I read online or in the media or on facebook. No this story comes from in there [point to the Torah scrolls]. It’s the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. It’s in our sacred, holy book called the Torah. It’s our story. We own it.

But, Dinah is not the only woman in our sacred Jewish texts who was violated sexually. We own lots of stories.

#metoo. My husband hosted a party with a bunch of his guy friends. They had a little too much to drink, when my husband thought it would be a fun idea to invite me to come, topless, into the basement where they were hanging out. Of course I refused. The next day he kicked me out of the house.

Me too, Queen Vashti says. Me too, she calls out at the treatment of King Ahasuerus. And who do we know is the hero of the Purim story, not Vashti, but Queen Esther. Why? Because philosophy professor Kate Manne teaches, “misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women -- it’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.” When Queen Vashti challenged King Ahashauerses authority it made him look bad, and he punished her. Esther, on the other hand, played to the King’s desires. She even dressed to please him.

One last story -- I’ll leave it up for you to take a guess if this comes from our sacred texts or if this is one I read on social media:       

#metoo. He was my neighbor. A powerful man, with a lot of money and a way of influencing others. He made it quite clear that he liked my body the day he forced me to sleep with him. I got pregnant that day. He forced me to keep the baby. He forced my husband to disappear.

A story about a powerful man who viewed a woman as object? It’s as old as the Bible -- the story of King David and BatSheva. But we know, these ancient stories are not so ancient after all. Dinah, Vashti, and BatSheva are not the only women in our text victim to sexual violence, and they are certainly not the only women throughout history. These stories keep on happening. It didn’t begin and it definitely does not end with Harvey Weinstein.

אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

there is nothing new under the sun.

The sun keeps rising everyday on the same problems.

Because studies show, that as early as middle school, boys begin talking over girls.  Girls begin to self-objectify their own bodies. Because, we are taught, boys are tough. Girls are in touch with their feelings. Of course gender discrimination, sexual harassment and domestic violence are not all the same, but they all do exist along the same spectrum. All a range of expressions of a core set of ideas -- that women are objects, there to nurture and please. And no matter how “careful” we women are, anything along that spectrum can happen to us.

To be clear sexual violence is not solely a gendered problem. It does not discriminate against gender, sexual orientation, race, class or even religion.  We, in this room, are not immune.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 71 men in the United States will be raped at some point in their lives, and 1 in 5 women.  That’s roughly 50 people in this sanctuary [150 people in this room].

And like BatSheva, Vashti, and Dinah, people who suffer sexual harassment and abuse today, remain noticeably silent. Our society is set up this way. When victims speak up we put them on trial asking for evidence. And what do we say? We ask questions like: what were you wearing? How much did you have to drink?

We are programmed this way -- psychologists believe that our tendency to blame the victim may originate, paradoxically, in a deep need to believe that the world is a good and just place. Perhaps it becomes too real. If this happened to my neighbor, or my friend, or my niece, or my granddaughter, or my daughter, well then, it could happen to me too. Therefore, our innate human nature is to cover that reality up -- the victim must have done something to cause the assault --

----

In the 1970s the term “Rape Culture” was introduced to define the way society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence.

We very much still live in this “rape culture.” We still live in an environment in which rape is prevalent, in which sexual violence is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence. It creates a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

Rape culture is blaming Dinah for going out of her house by herself, “asking for it.”

Rape culture is what allows the King Davids and Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys to exert their power over women.

Rape culture has drafted teenagers into a culture where boys solicit nude digital photographs, and where girls feel coerced into send them.

Rape culture is supported by executives prioritizing bottom lines and stock prices over the mistreatment of and inappropriate behavior toward women. Producers who care solely about good ratings. Lawyers who secure secret settlements and nondisclosure agreements.

Rape culture is why voices have been silenced for so long.

Rape culture has taught middle school boys that it’s funny to holler at girls calling them “THOT”, T-H-O-T, That ho over there.

אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

there is nothing new under the sun.

The Weinsteins of the world are the extreme, the messages we learn about sex, and power and language and consent, are deeply ingrained and start young.

In an Op-Ed in the New York times, Sam Polk uses the phrase “Bro-Talk” to describe his experiences with Rape Culture.

For my entire life, I’ve heard men talk about women. On baseball fields, in wrestling locker rooms, at frat parties and in private conversations, I’ve listened to men dissect women into body parts. When I was younger, I did it, too. Casually objectifying women — speaking in an unguarded way, using language we never would in mixed company — brought us together.

But there is nothing that excuses this behavior. Just because it happens in an all-male locker room doesn’t mean it’s ok. We, in this room, need to put a stop to “this happens all the time,” and the “so whats”. There’s simply no more time to turn our heads to the side and laugh it all off because, “he’s a nice guy” or “that’s the way that generation behaves,” Rape is not sex. Unwanted touching is not sexy. She doesn’t want it. Jokes that objectify women are not funny.  

And while most of the time our intentions are not to hurt another, our words are hurtful. And we don’t even realize it.  Phrases like “grow a pair,” “man up” have become part of our daily vocabulary. We know what these innuendos mean. Too many stories have passed as normal, and we need to change that norm. Becuase unless we believe in the need to change the norm -- well, we will continue to live in a world where “boys will be boys and girls will be victims.” We will perpetuate rape culture that will be passed down l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. We need to change the norm.

And our Jewish tradition teaches us how. It’s called teshuva, changing our behavior, carving a new path forward. It’s our work of this week; teshuvah is the very reason for even having a yom kippur. We gather today to create ourselves anew, to make something new and better out of our lives.

But do we really have the power to make something new?  Doesn’t Ecclesiastes teach, “there is nothing new under the sun?”  Well, yes. But, interestingly, chapters later he says a similar phrase in a slightly different way.  And that difference propels us forward.

This time when Ecclesiastes reflects on the sameness of the universe, he says, “what happens today has already happened.  And what will happen tomorrow has happened as well.”  But then he adds something.  Something important.  He tacks on three hebrew words v’ha-elohim yivakeish et- nirdaf, but God seeks the pursued.

God seeks the pursued? Our commentators teach us that God seeks the pursued means that God cares for those who are oppressed; that God wants justice for every victim; that God wants something new under the sun: a just society, a fair culture.  An ancient Sage, Ben Sira, reflecting on this important addition, goes so far as to say that God wants to change the power dynamic of the universe.

When it feels as though there is nothing new under the sun, when people abuse power time and time again, when human justice fails time and time again, God looks after those who are oppressed. God cares for those who are in pain. You better believe then, that God cares for those who are victim to sexual harassment and to domestic violence. God cares.

But, it’s not enough for God to care,  we need to as well.

Time and again on this sacred day of Yom Kippur, we are taught to care about our words, to be careful with our words. Al Chet shechatanu l’fanecha b’dibur peh, we read earlier this morning, for the sin we have committed against you with our words.

This might be hard to hear, but it needs to be said. If we don’t want to hear another story, if we want to put an end to rape culture, it is time, well actually it’s past time, to change our behavior. We need to speak differently. We need to use our power differently. We need to remember that it all begins at a very young age -- we must debunk gender stereotypes. We need to teach young boys that it is okay to cry. And we need to teach girls that they can be strong.

All of us are responsible -- we can use our power to monitor the way we talk and interact with other people.  We need to recognize that while our intention may be otherwise, what comes out of our mouths can be hurtful and even worse, harmful to others.

Just this last year, it was words that allowed hundreds, thousands, millions to speak out and tell their stories. Two little words: Me too. These our now our words to tell our stories, to allow women and men to speak out and share their stories.

But our task on this holy day of Yom Kippur stretches beyond listening and believing and sharing stories. Yom Kippur calls us to say:

We too are accountable. We too must hold others accountable.

On this Holy Day, we must recognize that we too must look after those who are oppressed -- the victims of sexual violence and abuse, the victims of sexual harassment and the victims of abuse of power. Those who are oppressed through silence and through shame.

When millions of women post their stories on social media with the hashtag, #metoo, we too have a responsibility. We too have a responsibility to read the story. We too have a responsibility to believe their story. We too must stand in solidarity with all those brave people who choose to share their story. We too have a responsibility to recognize that our workplaces, our schools, or our summer camps, and yes, even our synagogues are not as safe as we might like to believe.

It’s a tall order, changing a culture over 250 years old, a Jewish culture since the time of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Dinah.  We might think that it is impossible to change a culture. It might even be as hard as rewriting the Bible -- but let’s rewrite it -- if Ecclesiastes claimed

אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶש 

there is nothing new under the sun.

It’s time for us to stand up and claim: Yeish col hadash tachat hashamesh. There is something new under the sun. It’s breaking the silence and it’s being heard and believed.

Whether we in this sanctuary are victim, perpetrator or bystander, all of us live in and need to change this culture. And we must begin by changing our own behavior, we must begin by holding our own selves accountable, we must begin by saying we too…

  • We too will disrupt sexist remarks, jokes and behaviors
  • We too will speak TO and not ABOUT women
  • We too will correct the imbalance of power
  • We too will create a culture, we too will create a world, where everyone feels safe, where everyone is equal.

We too will create something new under the sun.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, May it be God’s will.

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