Rabbi Danny's Sermon - October 12, 2018: I am Not Afraid, and I am Not the Victim

As a Rabbi I have become the master of the costume change. I have my regular clothes, the ones you’ll see me in on the weekend and walking around Trader Joe’s; and then I have my rabbinic uniform consisting of suits and ties. And there are days when I will have to change very rapidly from one to another and then back again. This past Sunday was one of those days. There were clothes for mooching around the house in the morning, there was a change of clothes into shorts for a visit to the farm, and then there was a quickfire change into my suit to officiate at a wedding. From there I was scheduled to drive to a local restaurant to meet my family and some friends who were in town visiting. And so very discreetly, in my car, on the fifth floor of a parking garage in the center of Boston I changed once again. It was all done very carefully and tastefully inside the car. And you know what, there was not one moment of the 5 minutes that I loitered that evening around my car in a parking garage, in the center of Boston when I was afraid or concerned.

I was not frightened by the sound of footsteps coming near. I did not try to hide, except for the sake of my dignity, when a car drove past. And I was largely unconcerned and unintimidated by my surroundings. My only fear is that I would lose my ticket.

That is my experience.

There is a social researcher by the name of Jackson Katz, who has done the following with hundreds of audiences. He takes a chalkboard, draws a line down the middle and then draws a male symbol on one side and a female symbol on the other. He will then ask just the men: “What steps do you guys take, on a daily basis, to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted? At first there is a kind of awkward silence as the men try to figure out if they've been asked a trick question. The silence gives way to a smattering of nervous laughter. … [Eventually] someone finally raises his hand and soberly states, 'Nothing. I don't think about it.”[1]

He will then ask the women the same question. What steps do you take on a daily basis to prevent yourselves from being sexually assaulted. Women throughout the audience immediately start raising their hands. As the men sit in stunned silence, the women recount safety precautions they take as part of their daily routine.” They provide an extensive list, filling their side of the board: “Hold my keys as a potential weapon,” “Don’t use parking garages,” “Carry Mace or pepper spray,” “Don’t make eye contact with men on the street.”

Fear is a very powerful emotion. As children fear of the dark or about what’s hiding under the bed can cause panic and tears. As adults many of us have probably had sleepless nights scared for the health of a loved one, worried about a meeting at work, or perhaps fearful about the world we’re living in. We know that there are things we can and should be legitimately fearful of, and we also know that our minds can play tricks on us convincing us to be fearful of things that really have no control or bearing on us.

Women’s fears of sexual assault and violence are completely legitimate and appropriate. There are countless statistics to back this truth up, but more powerful than the numbers on the page are the stories that we hear. As the #MeToo hashtag took hold I was shocked, appalled and saddened that so many of my friends could raise their hands and share an experience of sexual assault, inappropriate contact or violence perpetrated against them. The frequency of these experiences and the way that society had shrugged them off broke my heart. If we have finally come to a place where women can speak out, come forward and share their experiences, then I, for one, bear witness to this moment, to say that women’s stories exist and should be heard.

But what are we men afraid of? We’ve been told that it’s a very scary time for young men in America. But is it really a scary time for young men who’ve done nothing wrong? Statistically, if you haven’t committed an act of sexual abuse or aggression then you have nothing to fear. The prevalence of false reporting is remarkably low. The courage it takes to come forward, the scrutiny which victims are placed under, and the norms of our society all serve as a discouragement for women to speak out, share their experience or press charges. But listen to the rhetoric or the current debate – and you would think that all men are potentially under attack.

I want to say loudly and clearly, I am not afraid and yet I am petrified.

As a white, heterosexual man I am not afraid about being attacked or being accused of perpetrating an attack. And I do not want others assuming a mantle of victimhood on my behalf. And yet as a man who is a brother and a husband I am fearful about the experience that my sister and wife have walking through this world. And as a man I am scared about the society we have created, and the understanding engendered of what it means to be a man and the repercussions this has for other men and women. And as a man who is a father to both a daughter and a son I am petrified as to whether I am up to the task of educating and raising them differently to make the change that this world so desperately needs.

So, what are we to do about this?

For too long people have talked about sexual assault and domestic violence as women’s issues. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are issues for all of us, and perhaps most of all they are men’s issues as it is predominantly men who are committing these crimes.

At the vigil against domestic violence this past Tuesday I spoke about the need to challenge our accepted societal definitions of what it means to be a man. In its original Latin American context to be macho had a completely different meaning. As Jackson Katz writes: “To be “macho” was to be well-respected, embodying traits such as courage, valor, honor, sincerity, pride, humility, and responsibility.” These are the traits we should be teaching our young boys, learning how to really be a man in the most positive sense of the word.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors we read that Hillel, one of the greatest Rabbinic sages used to say: “do not judge your fellow person until you have stood in his place.”[2] I cannot stand in a woman’s place. I cannot know what it is to be afraid in a parking garage late at night. I cannot fully comprehend taking countless precautions to ensure my safety when walking down the street. But I can listen. We need to hear women’s stories. We need to hear them from a place that assumes the truth in their words. We need to hear them from a place of respect and openness that makes them comfortable to come forward and encourages them to speak. We need to hear more women’s stories, but this means that we men need to ensure that women feel safe to share them.

Just over a week ago Monica Hesse wrote an article for the Washington Post entitled: “Dear dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you”[3] As a father and as a man reading her words was tremendously painful. As she writes: “For all the stereotypes that linger about women being too fragile or emotional, these past weeks have revealed what many women already knew: A lot of effort goes into protecting men we love from bad things that happen to us. And a lot of fathers are closer to bad things than they’ll ever know.” She had countless examples of women who had suffered abuse and who had not told their fathers for fear of how they would react: She didn’t want to break your heart, she didn’t want to see you cry, she was certain that if you knew, you would kill her attacker and go to prison, and it would be her fault.

As she suggested we have allowed too many taboos to be built up to protect men from being uncomfortable around the female experience, and in particular what she calls “lady pain”. Cramps, breastfeeding, menstruation are among the subjects we don’t discuss. And these taboos are then extended to issues of sexual assault and domestic violence as these women protect the good men in their lives. The onus is not on the women to speak, until we men can help make them feel safe to raise their voices. Societally we have not done a good enough job of this, especially over the last few weeks, but it is never too late to make a change.

In this week’s Torah portion of Noach we read about a world on the verge of destruction, and yet there is still hope for salvation and change. We are here as the descendants of those few brave souls who stood against the violence and corruption. And the symbol of God’s covenant was a rainbow. A bringing together of all the different colors to create a much more beautiful whole. This is an issue around which we must come together, regardless of race, religion, creed, ethnicity, political affiliation, gender or sexuality. Only then will we see the rainbow shining again above our world.

Shabbat Shalom.