Rabbi Rachel's Kol Nidrei Sermon

Although this topic is hard, it’s quite appropriate to be talking about it here on Yom Kippur. After all, this is a day when the traditional Torah reading at mincha on this holiest day of the year tackles sexual boundaries, forbidden relationships, and taboos head on. A day when we pray in the plural, about how “we” have sinned... because even though not all of us have committed abuse or harassed others, all of us have been part of a society that too often protects the bad actors rather than the victims. A day when we move outside of our physical bodies and enter the world of the spirit, but we can’t forget that we do have bodies on the other 364 days of the year. A day when we pray for forgiveness, for the chance to call a “re-do,” and to start over fresh. A day when we remind ourselves that we are all equal in life as in death... that there is an intrinsic human dignity that belongs to each of us, and how we treat one another matters – not only in public but also, especially, in private. A day for digging deeper, for feeling accountable, for finding it in us to change ourselves, our community, our society and the world.

A documentary called “What Haunts Us” was nominated for a special documentary Emmy this year. It’s about my high school. The filmmaker, Paige Goldberg Tolmach, graduated when I was in third grade – she was a good friend of my aunt. She was drawn to tell this story when she realized that in the class of ’79 – there had been 6 suicides, representing well over 10% of the boys in the grade. She uncovered abuse that had gone on, unchecked, for a full decade during the 70s and 80s, when a single teacher had preyed on adolescent boys. For the 20 victims at my school, the 50 victims counting the other schools where he taught in the area, the trauma endures, the damage to their sense of self. In other words, as Faulkner says, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

If you’ve been tracking my High Holiday sermons from year to year, you might feel like I grew up in quite a hell-hole – after all, I’ve talked about other horrors over past years, from hurricanes, to the Confederate flag and racism.

But It’s not just South Carolina that can claim gross sexual misconduct, abuse or exploitation. Nor is it only a story about private schools, and of course this didn’t only happen back in the 70’s and 80’s. The story plays out in sports – from college football to the Olympics gymnastics team. We are talking here about journalists and TV stars, Hollywood producers and directors. Sadly, religion is far from immune – predators have included Buddhist meditation teachers and Catholic Priests, in Pennsylvania as we now know, but also well beyond. And of course, I barely even have to mention that it happens in our government, at every level, including the White House.

It turns out that sexual abuse and harassment, rape, misconduct, and #metoo stories are part of our Jewish community too. In recent years and recent months and even just recent days, there have been so many allegations against “bad actors” in our Jewish world: Shlomo Carlebach who wrote so much of the music we sing in prayer; Ari Shavit, who just a few years ago was a Federation-sponsored speaker here in Seattle; against Steven Cohen, the prominent Jewish sociologist who helped our very own Kavana community design our Evaluation survey five years ago and analyze the data; and now against Michael Steinhardt – a Jewish mega-philanthropist and funder of countless programs, from Hillel to Birthright Israel to Open Table.

Although I was not directly affected in any of these cases, I have to say that all of this feels very close to home. I’m proud to be able to say that I know the filmmaker, or I’m friends with the some of the journalists who are breaking these stories, bringing truth into the open for the first time, and writing analysis. But I have also met countless times with Steven Cohen and would say that we’ve had a collegial friendship. I was at a meeting at Michael Steinhardt’s home last year in Bedford, New York... where he has a bizarre private zoo of exotic animals. Right now, there are many questions swirling in the academic Jewish world about what to do with these “bad actors” – what do they need to do in order to do teshuvah, when and under what circumstances we accept them back onto the public stage, boards, hire them as speakers, etc. There are also big questions about whether their bodies of work still stand... like, is Steven Cohen’s scholarship on the Jewish community tainted in some way by his fixation on marriage and reproduction? If we know that Michael Steinhardt not only breeds zebras and donkeys to create an animal he calls a zonkey(!), but also created Birthright at least in part so that college students would hook up with each other and hopefully, in his mind, produce Jewish babies, does that mean that the whole Birthright enterprise – which has sent over 600,000 young people from 67 countries to Israel since 1999 – is tainted!? These are interesting questions, but they are not our topic for tonight... I’m actually not interested in focusing on the “bad actors.” Because perhaps this is what they should be spending their Yom Kippur reflecting on, but all of us in this room know already that their actions are wrong.

That said, we are all part of a society that’s been complicit... like the administrators of the school I attended for twelve years, where there were whispers and rumors, but the headmaster, principal and board protected only the bad actor and not the children. Like the Catholic church, where priests were passed to new churches and new dioses over and over again, enabling abuse to continue. Like the Jewish world, where criticizing a big philanthropist for behavior that went well beyond boorish was considered unseemly, because after all he gives so much to good causes. Like America, where almost half of the voters in the last presidential election voted for a candidate who bragged about assaulting women in language I prefer not to repeat in a holy space.

I’m sure I’m not the only person in the room who could say “me too.” I’m sure I’m not the only person in the room who hasn’t spoken up too loudly about behaviors that we know cross a line or warned others. I’m sure I’m not the only person in the room who has told or laughed a little too loudly at crude “locker room” jokes while actually feeling uncomfortable. Chances are I’m not the only person in the room who was part of a Jewish youth group in the early 90’s, the heyday apparently of points systems for scoring hook-ups... oy. All of this is part of the cultural context that has allowed abuse not only to happen, but to continue, to stay a source of shame for victims, and to wreck lives.

This year, we find ourselves in the midst of a pivot, a generational shift, a big change. A And changes are painful. And so, as we turn this corner and engage in this process of teshuva – re-hardwiring some of our fundamental beliefs and behaviors – I want to spend some time thinking with you, on this Yom Kippur, about how we can help push the process along.

Although this topic is hard, it’s quite appropriate to be talking about it here on Yom Kippur. After all, this is a day when the traditional Torah reading at mincha on this holiest day of the year tackles sexual boundaries, forbidden relationships, and taboos head on. A day when we pray in the plural, about how “we” have sinned... because even though not all of us have committed abuse or harassed others, all of us have been part of a society that too often protects the bad actors rather than the victims. A day when we move outside of our physical bodies and enter the world of the spirit, but we can’t forget that we do have bodies on the other 364 days of the year. A day when we pray for forgiveness, for the chance to call a “re-do,” and to start over fresh. A day when we remind ourselves that we are all equal in life as in death... that there is an intrinsic human dignity that belongs to each of us, and how we treat one another matters – not only in public but also, especially, in private. A day for digging deeper, for feeling accountable, for finding it in us to change ourselves, our community, our society and the world.

We cannot just stop these horribly problematic behaviors without changing the underlying assumptions about gender roles and sexuality, changing the discourse itself, rewriting the context. In the language of my mentor Shifra Bronznick, this means “not focusing on the bad actor, but shifting the limelight to the context”. Or take it from Jodi Kantor, one of the NY Times journalists who really began the #MeToo movement, with the thoroughly-researched expose on Harvey Weinstein, for which she was awarded a Pulitzer prize this year. She recently wrote in an email correspondence:

And so we must examine the core, and the context. We must atone for the parts that we’ve all played in these systems, both knowingly and unwittingly (b’meizid andbishgaga), individually and collectively, over years and decades...

(And parenthetically, I’ll add that we certainly could make other parallels here. Making change in so many behaviors necessitates stripping back the layers to find what’s rotten far below, whether the topic is this one, or our interpersonal relationships, or latent racism, or just about anything else. Hopefully the model I’m proposing here is one that you can apply more broadly this Yom Kippur.)

“The most

stunning thing about metoo reporting... is its mysterious, potent qualities as a solvent. Revealing these harassment incidents reveals so much more, and makes us question

nothing less than the way power functions. That’s still something that I’m awed by every

day.”

Repair right now, in the aftermath of decades of sexual abuses, would mean a lot of

things. Clearly we need to listen to survivors’ stories and bear witness to their pain. And

going deeper, we also need a paradigm shift about sexuality, and particularly what

masculinity means and looks like. We need to teach kids that what used to be called

“boys will be boys” and tolerated with a shrug will no longer fly, and that consent

matters.

We need radical change: that is, we need to dismantle – to shatter – the systems

and structures that have protected the wrong parties and caused shame to the

wrong parties. And we need to rebuild, starting from scratch, from a place of

vision.

First, to the shattering. We have models for shattering, holy models.

So much of our Yom Kippur liturgy – particularly the selichot set, that is, the penitenti

prayers we’ll recite tonight – are grounded in a biblical story of smashing. I’m sure

many of you recognize these pieces of liturgy:

va-yered Adonai be’anan vayityatzeiv imo sham, Vayikra b’shem Adonai”... And

the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with Moses there, and proclaimed

God’s name...

va’yaavor Adonai al panav, yayikra... Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanun erech

apayim v’rav chesed ve’emet...” And God passed before Moses and proclaimed

the famous name, the 13 attributes

v’salachta la’avoneinu u’l’chatoteinu u’n’chaltanu”...Pardon our iniquity and our

sin, and take us for your inheritance.

• • •

Backing up, in the book of Exodus, Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives the

commandments from God, written on two stone tablets. But meanwhile, the whole thing

has taken too long and the Israelites down below have grown tired of waiting and

fashioned a golden calf to worship. In anger, Moses smashes the tablets. Exodus 34

begins with the command to Moses to carve two more stone tablets like the ones you

broke. That’s where God enters the story, and where our liturgy comes from.

In other words, this very closest connection with God – where Moses gets God’s cell

phone number, as it were... he learns the name to use in calling on God and is

promised forgiveness and closeness with God – all of that comes on the heels of a

colossal smashing. When these texts become the basis for our Yom Kippur service, we

are essentially being promised that there is always a possibility of a second chance.

God resides, ultimately, in the do-over. In the post-smashing, reconfiguring, in

the second set of tablets. The set that doesn’t come from God alone, but from the

powerful and dynamic partnership between people and God. And, returning to our

conversation, I firmly believe that God resides (or if you don’t like that language then

say that holiness resides) in the smashing... of the existing norms, of power dynamics

and sexual misconduct and our tolerance of it and our shame and cover-ups... and in

our reconfiguring, writing a second set of tablets, starting over again and establishing

new norms, new frameworks and a new context.

Then, the remaining question is: once we’ve smashed all of this, what do we replace

it with? Where do we look to find vision?

In my house, the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman has been playing, where there’s

a verse that goes like this:

'Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it's gonna take
A million dreams for the world we're gonna make

When it comes to vision, once again, the High Holiday liturgy is clear and can act as our

guide. On these holidays, when we envision the future, we envision the

restoration of a mythic past. Incidentally, that’s a nice twist on the Faulkner line I

quoted earlier... he says “the past isn’t dead, in fact it’s not even past.” The machzor

might say “the past isn’t dead, in fact it’s the future.” The language – which you’ve

heard tonight – is: “Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva, chadeish yameinu k’kedem” –

“Return us, Adonai, to You and we will return; renew our days as they were in the

garden of Eden.” For our paradigm of what the world should look like, we look to the

pristine and mythical past.

Do you remember the first things we ever learned about gender roles and power and

dignity and holiness and the human being, way back in the Garden of Eden, at the

beginning of the Book of Genesis/ Bereishit? “Vayivra Elohim et ha-adam b’tzalmo;

b’tzelem Elohim bara oto; zachar u’nekeivah bara otam.” Translating as literally as I

can: “God created the human being (or the earthling) in God’s image; in the image of

God, God created it; male and female God created them.” Do you hear the confusion?

Was there a single earthling, or were there two, male and female? Who, exactly, was

created in God’s image? Multiple midrashim try to make sense of this. One describes

the first being with the Greek word “androgynous” – that is androgynous, of

indeterminate gender, or by today’s parlance, non-binary. Another midrash says that

the first being was a hermaphrodite, with two faces and both male and female

characteristics and body parts, only being split apart later.

What is clear is that regardless of whether we’re talking male or female, androgynous or

non-binary or hermaphrodite, one being or two, humanity is said to have been created

in God’s image. We are godly beings, holy beings, in holy vessels of bodies... every

single one of us. At the core of our Jewish value system is the belief that human

dignity and infinite value is intrinsic to every single human. To coerce or abuse or

harass or rape another – and especially to do so within the context of a power

differential – is to pervert God’s intention in creating each and every human being in the

divine image. And the holiest thing that we can do now is to return humanity to the

mythical, pristine state of the Garden of Eden’s creation story... to build a society where

we recognize the infinite worth of each human being and treat each other with the

dignity that we all deserve. This would be the fulfillment of “hashiveinu Adonai eilecha

v’nashuva, chadeish yameinu k’kedem”.

This is not the totality of our work this Yom Kippur – God knows, there are so many

ways in which we yearn to improve ourselves and our society. But this is one important

piece that has been calling to me, and I’m happy to be able to call attention to this year.

With gratitude to my colleagues Danya Ruttenberg, Shira Berkovits, S. Bear Bergman,

and Guila Benchimol, I ask you all to join me in this special “Al Chet” prayer:

An Al Chet for the #MeToo Era

For the sin we committed through inappropriate use of power.
For the sin we committed by inappropriate sexual advances.
For the sin we committed by putting people in power without oversight.
For the sin we committed by not taking seriously the complaints of a colleague. For the sin we committed by not believing victims when they spoke up.
For the sin we committed by not being aware of our own power or privilege when making an advance.
For the sin we committed by pushing forward when we should have waited and listened.
For the sin we committed by believing that sexual victimization does not happen in the Jewish world.

For all of these sins, God, help us rectify the evil we have brought about, help us to restore justice through the hard work of repentance. Only then, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin we committed in choosing to think a person who is appropriate with us is appropriate with everyone.
For the sin we committed by choosing my own comfort over the safety of others. For the sin we committed by focusing on my intent rather than my impact.

For the sin we committed by prioritizing reputations and money over safety. For the sin we committed by ignoring sexual victimization as a problem until #MeToo.
For the sin we committed by performative wokeness.

For the sin we committed by failing to acknowledge my ignorance about sexual victimization.
For the sin we committed by waiting to stand against a perpetrator until we saw others doing so.

For the sin we committed by making light of victims’ suffering. For the sin we committed by contributing to rape culture.

For all of these sins, God, help us rectify the evil we have brought about, help us to restore justice through the hard work of repentance. Only then, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin we committed by causing survivors to doubt their truth.
For the sin we committed by misusing Jewish texts to promote silence.
For the sin we committed by not supporting survivors.
For the sin we committed by gaslighting victims and victim advocates.
For the sin we committed by cutting corners in best practice protocols.
For the sin we committed by talking more than listening.
For the sin we committed by prioritizing convenience over moral clarity.
For the sin we committed by urging those who have been victimized to forgive, especially before their perpetrator did the hard work of repentance.
For the sin we committed by prioritizing some victims’ voices over others.

For the sin we committed by requiring vulnerable people to depend on me, rather than investing in the development of healthy, decentralized systems that empower the entire community, and hold us accountable.

For all of these sins, God, help us rectify the evil we have brought about, help us to restore justice through the hard work of repentance. Only then, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

V’al kulam elohai selichot s’lach lanu m’chal lanu kaper lanu.

This year, let us work together to transform the places that haunt us into places where

we and others can feel safe. Let us do the hard work of teshuva – even if it mean

that we must smash some of what we’ve always believed about gender and

sexuality and power, and rebuild from scratch. Let us ground our relationships in

love, joy, and the core principle of human dignity. Let us hold each other accountable.

Let us return to the selves that we were meant to be, in the divine imagine, in the

garden of delights. And let this goodness radiate out from us, from here, until its power

can be felt in every haunted corner of our world.

G’mar chatimah tovah.