Watching Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford during Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings was upsetting, shocking and commanded the better part of my attention (and that of my colleagues) for most of that day. The hearings made me realize how privileged I am to have been involved in Jewish community building for the past 20 years — and the weighty responsibility that comes with the role of serving as a moral compass and keeping my congregants safe.
The Jewish community is not immune to what we see happening all over the country: inappropriate sexual advances and the kind of speech that can ruin a person’s reputation.
Over the past two decades, I’ve had the great honor of leading young Jewish professionals in their 20s and 30s through one of the most trying and challenging decades of their lives when it comes to growth and maturation. My colleagues at the Manhattan Jewish Experience and I have had the pleasure of teaching and guiding young men and women from various backgrounds, engaging them in Jewish life, creating a conducive atmosphere to meet others and helping them celebrate some of the greatest moments of their lives. Babies, bris celebrations and over 300 marriages — I’ve lived it for years. One of the most beautiful aspects of my job is creating a fun and safe environment to meet other Jewish people, helping as many as possible find their soulmate and make it to the Chuppah. The overwhelming majority of people who come to MJE experience a safe and welcoming place in which to explore Judaism and meet other like-minded young people. However, part of my job as a rabbi also involves ensuring they are able to do so, even when it’s difficult. In the last few months, I’ve had to bar two individuals from attending events in my community.
In one instance, a brave woman came forward to bring to my attention that a certain participant was inappropriately touching women, making the environment hostile, uninviting and potentially dangerous. In a separate, unrelated instance, one participant spread unfounded and unsubstantiated rumors, soiling someone else’s reputation for personal reasons. These types of situations require an intricate balancing act between inclusiveness and developing a community of moral standing. I felt compelled to prioritize the latter. Since both participants refused to acknowledge or apologize for their actions, both are no longer a part of our community. These are the issues Jewish leaders must take the lead in exposing, curtailing and repairing.
Listening to the confirmation hearings caused me to reflect on the great challenges we face today in creating this safe and value-centric environment. Spiritual leaders don’t just have to be on the lookout for predators and toxic personalities in our midst — we also have to contend with the fact that much of society holds totally different values than the ones we are trying to uphold and celebrate. The ways in which young people approach dating and relationship building have dramatically changed in the years since I founded MJE. Internet dating, instant messaging and new apps have resulted in less consideration being given to the people we date. We just don’t feel the same kind of responsibility anymore to our fellow person, especially romantically.
Take one small example: the once-common practice of a man picking up and dropping off the women he dated is considered an outdated practice. Today, if someone is not to our liking, with a left-swipe of a finger we can quickly replace them with someone else, even on the same evening!
While Judaism celebrates love and treats finding a spouse as a sacred cause, our Jewish values teach us that dating is a process which must be conducted with consideration and care for the humanity of the other person.
Facebook, Instagram and other digital mediums have also made it incredibly easy for us to paint a negative picture of another person. We can so easily slander another person today, damaging another’s reputation with the post of a single picture or a comment taken out of context. Jewish tradition is very clear: we must never say anything untrue about another person. Even something which is true, but negative, we must learn to keep to ourselves. The exception, of course, is when we speak up to protect ourselves or a third party from harmful or wrongful behavior. When speech becomes an act of protection, it becomes a mitzvah to speak out. Whistleblowing, in that regard, is an act of heroism, because, in all probability, you won’t only be saving yourself, but also the next victim.
We have also seen radical changes in the sexual mores of our society. I believe the greater openness to sexuality today has made it easier for men who were never taught proper respect for women to take advantage of the women they encounter. I have witnessed this in my own community, and it is a challenge to both the safety of our meeting environments and an affront to sexual morality which Judaism holds so fundamental to our humanity. Community leaders must have the moral initiative to shape a safer and wholesome community, educating those who are unaware and protecting those who are at risk. Sexual impropriety that violates another’s sexual integrity can cause individuals to feel less than human, because it’s a fundamental aspect of who we are. This aspect must be respected, especially in tight-knit Jewish communities.
As I argue in my new book, Beyond the Instant, a return to the classic Jewish values of sexual morality and proper speech is pivotal to ensuring a safe environment in which to meet others. Moreover, these fundamental values can help us reshape the kind of society our world so desperately needs — one filled with holiness, love and a profound respect for our fellow human being.