Between the Lines: What the Talmud can teach us about the #MeToo moment

Between the Lines: What the Talmud can teach us about the #MeToo moment

At Limmud NY in Princeton, ancient texts shed light on contemporary crises

For those who think that the Talmud is an ancient and archaic text with little relevance to the 21st century, consider this passage (from Tractate Moed Katan, 17a): 

“There was a certain student about whom there were bad rumors. Rav Judah said: ‘What should be done? Should he be banned? But the rabbis need him! 

‘Should he not be banned? But the name of Heaven is being desecrated.’”

And there you have, in less than 40 words, the basic dilemma that still confronts us centuries later, whether it’s a man in power accused of inappropriate behavior with a woman in the workplace or a rabbi alleged to abuse young students in his charge. 

The question, now as then, is what, if anything, should be done, even if there is no legal option. The person in question may be a brilliant scholar, a popular figure, a charismatic teacher, a leader of industry, and/or a great fundraiser. The institution he represents fears being embarrassed by a scandal: “The rabbis need him.”

Yet there is a moral issue at stake. If the rumors are true, how can the alleged perpetrator be allowed to continue as before? Innocent people may be victimized. And the inaction would represent a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

For more than an hour last Sunday afternoon, a room full of attendees at the annual Limmud NY conference, held at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton, studied and debated the above Talmudic text and several other related passages at a session called “#MeToo and the Ethics of Anonymously Sourced Whisper Networks.”

Led by Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, who teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, the group participated in a discussion that moved seamlessly between a text almost 2,000 years old and news reports that have made headlines since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke five months ago.

Historic texts and discussions on the teachings of the sages — and their relevance today — played a major role in the annual four-day conference, which drew some 700 participants and included a mix of prayer, socializing, and celebration from noon Friday through Monday afternoon. 

Limmud NY is part of the international grassroots Limmud movement — numbering 89 groups in 42 countries — that emphasizes volunteer participation and leadership. Core values are Jewish learning, diversity, community, and respect.

Participants represented a wide range of religious beliefs and practices, and there were large numbers of retirees, families with young children, millennials, and college students. A variety of Shabbat services were held, and it was noted that the size of the Orthodox Partnership minyan — with separate seating and mixed-gender leadership of the service — outnumbered that of the traditional Orthodox service, with separate seating and male leadership. Reflecting the diversity of the participants, on Shabbat there was also a traditional egalitarian service, a neo-chasidic egalitarian minyan, a progressive service with prayer and poetry, and “Parsha Yoga,” whose description was a bit vague.

One of the five primary themes for this year’s gathering, which included more than 300 sessions led by 140 presenters (all pro bono), was the role of disagreement in Jewish life. At a panel discussion on the topic Saturday night, each of the three speakers acknowledged the depth and seriousness of the growing divide among Jews, but differed on how they respond to conflict. 

Josh Feigelson, dean of students at the University of Chicago Divinity School, said his natural tendency is to avoid conflict. He said he finds it helpful to “take conflict from the public level to the personal realm” by meeting in person with those with whom he disagrees. Rabba Yaffa Epstein, director of education in North America for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, said she doesn’t shy away from dispute. “My text is machloket [disagreement],” she said, noting that the Talmud consists of a seemingly endless series of quarrels over Jewish law. But the key, she added, is to give precedence to common cause and respect for one another.

Ariela Migdal, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that Limmudniks, as participants are called, are a model for avoiding schism by seeking out, engaging with, and sometimes learning from others with different points of view. 

Women scholars were in demand over the weekend, with Epstein offering five well-attended talks, and Hammer-Kossoy six, including the one on #MeToo and the ethics of “the whisper network.” At the outset of that session, Hammer-Kossoy explained what prompted her to choose the topic. She said she was approached some weeks ago by a former student who works in the media and had been sent the list, being shared among women in the media, of male media figures alleged to be sexually abusive. The student wanted to know if it would be ethically proper for her to look at the list. So Hammer-Kossoy, who has a doctorate. in Talmud from New York University, looked to the Talmud for guidance.

“Ancient texts are a tool to clarify our own views,” she later told me. “The texts help us reflect on our own understandings and hold a mirror up to our own values.” She said that Torah study helps to illuminate values at all times and can serve as “an eternal compass.” 

What the rabbi found, and shared at the session on Sunday, were examples of sages grappling with many of the same issues our society is dealing with now, like the relevancy of unsubstantiated rumors; the responsibility of a bystander to speak up versus the prohibition of spreading lashon hara (gossip); whether someone should be punished even if he cannot be convicted in court; and should the work of an alleged abuser be discounted.

(One highly satisfying but remarkably odd solution: According to the Talmud, in one case a student who was afraid to confront an abuser was advised by his rabbi to write a petition against the man: “Put in a pitcher, take it to the graveyard, and sound 1,000 shofar blasts against him for 40 days.

“He did so,” the Talmud says, “the pitcher exploded and the man died.”)

Perhaps more helpful is gleaning from the Talmudic passages that each person has innate dignity and should be treated accordingly; that people have a right to speak out upon becoming aware of abuse; and that there is a middle ground between convicting someone and absolving him, which could entail banning him in some manner. But there are also those who warn of the dangers of lashon hara and say that a person should not lose his position based on a rumor.

“Turning to Jewish texts to discuss today’s challenges reminds us of both the timelessness of our tradition and the timelessness of the challenges themselves,” Elana Stein Hain, who presented at the conference, told me. Stein Hain, scholar-in-residence and director of faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, noted that “some look to the texts for The Answer, for some it’s about The Question, and for others it’s about The Debate.” But whatever the reason, “turning to the Torah for these discussions is a way of acknowledging that the future should be built upon, and in conversation with, the past.” 

That awareness can be a comfort, and humbling, at a time when we tend to think the problems of the day are exceptional and unique.

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