Matt, Mom and Me

I don’t usually give titles to talks, but this week’s Torah portion and what’s happening in our world speak so deeply to me that they called out a title for the words I want to share with you today: “Matt, Mom and Me.” “Matt” is Matt Lauer.  Mom is my own mother.  Me?  We’ll get to me later.

Ancient China offers this saying: “May we live in interesting times.”  Rabbi Wikipedia says that this aphorism is apocryphal: ancient China had no such saying.  China’s closest approach dates to 1627 more like this: “Better to be a dog in peaceful times than human in chaotic times.”

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that we’re entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.  Well, that’s old news.  Today we get “truthiness” from Stephen Colbert and so-called fake news doubts everything.  The ancient saying “May we live in interesting times” isn’t ancient and wasn’t a saying, but oh well: it’s truthy enough.  Inside the Beltway, ever more post-fact and chaotic, the dogs never had it so good.

We live amidst political tumult and corrosion of truth.  Civic spaces feel torn asunder; vitriol and uncertainty grip the nation.  I speak as both pulpit rabbi, and judicial officer in government full-time, when I say that I feel today’s tumult deep in my bones.  I know many of you do also.

Now comes one report after another of women sexually abused, mainly by men claiming the privilege of power to overpower others, speaking out as never before.  Social media hashtags #metoo and #ibelieveyou are spreading online.  Every week it’s another elected official or candidate, or star of stage or screen.  This week it was Matt Lauer, whom NBC fired for sexual harassment at work.  Our “interesting times” are days of reckoning.  Who we are as a nation, and as a people, will depend in no small part on how we respond.

It’s important that we talk openly about this – and also recognize that it’s a difficult subject for many people.  As we discuss this sensitive matter, I hope we’ll all display compassion and exercise wise self care.

Let’s agree on a few things from the start.  Rape is rape, sexual abuse is about power, and we must have zero tolerance for them – not on our watch, in our names, in our communities, in our country, ever.  This moment is potent because it shows how viral the abuse epidemic is, how many people are affected, and how long they’ve kept quiet.

In the same 12 hours Matt Lauer was fired, my own mom told me, for the first time, that she was sexually abused.  It was almost 50 years ago, and the perpetrator was her doctor.  Mom didn’t feel safe to speak out because she didn’t think anyone would believe her, and the doctor was a family friend.  She kept her secret for 50 years, until this week.  She gave me permission to speak her truth today.

Jews have a history of speaking up and defending underdogs, and the word truth (emet) is all over our liturgy.  We might imagine that we have a great record of getting gender and power right.  But we’re not entitled to our own facts: this week’s Torah potion puts before us the inconvenient truth of Dinah, daughter of Jacob.  Dinah was raped by Shechem, of another people.  Shechem then wanted to marry Dinah, as if it’d right the wrong; he even was willing to have himself and his whole people circumcised to do so.  Jacob agreed, Shechem and his people agreed, but Torah gave Dinah nothing to say.  Here is Torah’s first inconvenient truth: Torah silenced the victim.

It gets worse.  Shechem and his people were circumcised, and all seemed well (especially if we have Freudian imaginations).  But on the third day, as Shechem’s clan lay enfeebled in pain, Jacob’s sons killed them and plundered their city in retribution.  Jacob decried this revenge, lust repaid with bloodlust, knowing that they’d all become pariahs.

The story asks hard questions.  Why was the victim silenced? Dinah’s silencing should shock us, but it feels eerily familiar and close to home.  Torah – our Torah! – silenced the victim.  My mom felt unsafe to speak for 50 years.  Victims coming forward today, from Matt Lauer’s co-worker to my mom to countless thousands more saying #metoo, are starting to right the wrong of silencing Dinah.  We must make it safe for victims to keep speaking out.  

The hard questions don’t end there.  What kind of justice do sexual violations ask?  Here is Torah’s second inconvenient truth: our spiritual ancestors, Jacob’s 12 sons who’d become Israel’s 12 tribes, murdered every male in retribution for one man’s crime.  Is that justice?  We can’t avoid these questions: Dinah‘s name hails from the word for judgment.  What does Dinah ask of Jews who care about their country?

Answers are more complex than any one person or talk can offer, and there are enough men who mansplain.  But as a judicial official I see every day that some answers are too easy.  We mustn’t silence victims, but we also mustn’t valorize victimhood, race to judgment without inquiry, equate all offenses, condemn whole groups or kill offenders.  And then there are the risks of false accusations and wrongful convictions.

I know something about this.  This talk is entitled “Matt, Mom and Me” for a reason.  We talked about Matt, and about mom.  Now about me.  My story is that I myself have been falsely accused.  Someone with whom I never had sexual contact, or attempted sexual contact, or even wanted sexual contact, falsely accused me of sexual misconduct and knew it was false.  I know firsthand the pain and shame of someone trying to use victimhood as a sharp-edged sword.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m fine.  I was vindicated.  I don’t tell my story to garner sympathy or compare suffering.  Sexual misconduct victims suffer in ways I never will.  My body wasn’t violated.  My identity wasn’t shredded.  I don’t suffer flashbacks.  Rather, I tell my story to remind us that justice isn’t easy, even and especially when it seems easy.  This is Torah’s second inconvenient truth in another form: zeal to right a wrong can cause injustice.

This truth is especially inconvenient today when there’s so much injustice to correct.  Our ancestors butchered a whole clan in a brutal reaction to a serious crime.  Lest we think that the death penalty for rape is an ancient anachronism, it took until 2008 for the U.S. Supreme Court to end capital punishment for rape (Louisiana v. Kennedy).

Our justice challenge isn’t just about penalty.  Society struggles daily to balance the scales of justice between accuser and accused.  How many thousands still stay quiet because they justifiably fear to be disbelieved?  And, how many hundreds are wrongfully convicted of sexual misconduct each year, later exonerated but meanwhile victimized by flawed justice, driven by zeal to right wrongs?

We mustn’t equate one with the other, but the inconvenient truth is that we must wrestle the reality that our zeal to believe and help victims, which we must do, risks a culture too quick to blame (even if some are innocent) and even equate offenses that aren’t fairly comparable.  We can’t let complexity and caution be excuses for a culture in which victims expect to be disbelieved, and it shouldn’t be disloyal to women to say that philandering, harassment, rape and pedophilia are very different.  Nobody is entitled to their own facts.

“This and that” – not necessarily “this equal to that” but still “this and that,” the kind of thinking we call “both/and” – is hard.  Torah speaks two inconvenient truths – the silencing of victims, and the risk of vigilante or overzealous justice – both in tension with one another.  Both are serious issues, and we must confront both together.  What Matt Lauer did is unacceptable and what my mom experienced is horrific, and what happened to me also is wrong.  We need wisdom and courage to correct power abuses of all kinds, and also balance zeal with nuance.

But today civil discourse is rarely wise and almost never nuanced.  Society lurches to what’s sensational and easy.  People claim their own facts and often reject both other perspectives and people having those perspectives.  If Sen. Moynihan were alive today, he’d cringe.  

These days of reckoning will most matter if the flood of sexual abuse reports finally scours away the false ideas that sexual misconduct involves only other people not like us, or that it’s rare, or that seemingly good people can’t act very wrongly, or that the veneer of seemingly ideal relationships is accurate.  It’s time to get real. 

And at the same time, there must be actual justice, not just self-comforting politically correct self-righteousness.  Real justice is the Jewish creed.   Tzedek tzedek tirdof (Deut. 16:20) – chase justice, chase it, for it’s fleeting and inherently unsure.  Lo tisa p’nai dal v’lo tehdar p’nai gadol (Lev. 19:15) – don’t give more or less weight to anyone’s views because of who they are or claim to be.  Only b’tzedek tishpot amitecha (Lev. 19:15) – in justice will you judge.  Zealousness can do damage in the false name of justice: witness Torah’s sotah trial for infidelity, the Salem witch trials, countless innocents wrongly convicted of sex crimes,  Torah’s bloodlust rampage avenging Dinah.  None of these are justice.

Justice isn’t easy.  Our hearts might yearn to make it easy – maybe subconsciously we yearn to comfort our own hurts in the world – but not at the expense of real justice.  Real justice means resisting the impulse to over-simplify.  Real justice needs to balance zeal with patience.  It means making victims safe without valorizing victimhood.  It needs courage to insist that nobody is entitled to their own facts: some things are worse than others.  It means treating fairly both the accuser and the accused, however unpopular.

That’s our tradition and our creed.  It’s what I hear Dinah’s story teaching us.  It’s my oath in court, and my pledge as rabbi.  Sometimes I joke that the separation of shul and state goes through my spleen, but today both of my covenants – one secular, the other spiritual – point in the same direction. I hope they point you in that direction also.

That direction, I believe with all my heart, is possible.  This week’s Torah portion evokes it, tradition urges it, our nation needs it, and victims demand it.  It calls us to uplift voices silenced or disbelieved for too long.  It calls us to do justice not with bloodlust or political correctness, but to name and change power systems that cultivate abuse and a culture of toxic silence.  And all of this demands that we restore respect for nuance and complexity to our public sphere.  It demands that we allow ourselves to see and hear inconvenient truths – even our own complicity, even the possibility of that another who stands accused is, in fact, innocent.

May Dinah’s story and the merit of all who seek justice inspire us to lead the way into different times – ones worthy of us as a people of compassion and a nation of real justice under law.  May this Shabbat renew our souls, minds, hearts and bodies, and rededicate us to this holy cause for next week, and the week after, and every week forever.

These words were offered at the Bethesda Jewish Center (Bethesda, MD) on December 2, 2017.

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