Parasha Vayishlakh: When Men Behave Badly

I knew what I would speak about this evening when I emerged from my office at noon on Wednesday and was greeted by Dorothy with the following words, “The rest of my day has been ruined.” At first I wondered If my presence had elicited that response, but she quickly followed her remark  that Garrison Keeler  of Prairie Home Companion had been accused of sexually harassing a co-worker and had been fired from his position at American Public Radio.  I am sure that those feelings were shared by many in our country. If Garrison Keeler, who has portrayed himself as the most wholesome man in America , now is  facing serious accusations of sexual harassment,  no wonder our faith in people  we look up to is been severely shaken.   By now a very long list of journalists, actors and politicians, of both parties, have been accused of sexual misconduct.

I know this is a difficult subject for all of us to talk about.  The multiplicity of issues raised are ones many of us would not even want to hear, let alone talk about. But silence is not an option, silence is not conducive to healing, and silence is precisely one of the ways in which we collude in keeping these insidious actions occurring and reoccurring in all spheres of our lives, public and private. These accusations bring up difficult moral questions for us. When we read about the behavior of these men we feel, disgusted, we feel revolted, we feel repelled. Their behavior is rightly condemned.  But   I have no doubt that many of us are confused, many of us have contradictory feelings.  What if I our political positions are close to Al Franken’s?  What if we feel torn because we vehemently condemn his inappropriate behaviors but value his experience and record as a Senator?   Or, let’s place ourselves in the position of an Alabama voter who now needs to make an important decision about voting for a man against whom serious accusations have been leveled by multiple people. Do they vote for Roy Moore, about whom they may now have serious reservations, or do they vote for a Democrat and thereby make it almost impossible to pass the Conservative agenda in the Senate?

Do we I now watch “House of Cards” with a clear conscience with the  now disgraced Kevin Spacey in the lead role? How do we now feel about watching television or movies starring the disgraced comedian Louis C.K.? Does Leon Wieseltier’s appalling behavior with women detract from his insightful writing or brilliant analysis? And what, in heavens name, do we do with the accusation of the woman who claims that Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, groped her when she was 19 years old? To add to the complexities, we know that even among those who engage in what is broadly defined as inappropriate behavior with women, there are different grades of inappropriateness. Do we treat everyone the same?

Before the internet it was well known in certain circles that the great Rabbi and song writer, Shlomo Carlebach, sexually abused women over the 40 years of his rabbinate. In the Spring of 1998 Lillith, a Jewish, feminist magazine, published an article entitled “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Shadow Side” which revealed to the public what only a few knew had been happening in private. We can condemn him—but should we still sing his melodies that he set to our prayers at our services?

This type of moral confusion, this ethical disorientation is also found in our parasha for this week. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, is kidnapped and raped by a local Canaanite prince. He claims he loves her, and sends word to Jacob, her father, that he wants to marry her. The family agrees, on the condition that all the men of the town the prince rules circumcise themselves. The men agree and circumcise themselves. After they do so Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi steal into town, kill all of the men who are now too weakened to fight back, kill the prince and rescue Dinah. The other brothers descend on the town, plunder it, and take all the women and children as war booty.

What is Jacob’s reaction to this episode of cunning and brutality? Does he reprimand his sons for breaking their word to the Prince, for violating an agreement that was entered into in good faith? Does he scold them for their excessive violence? Jacob says none of this. Jacob only worries about the effect of his sons’ actions on his own reputation. He worries that when the other Canaanites in the land hear about what happened, they will unite and destroy him. To which his sons respond, “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?” And Jacob is silent. Notice how silence here points to an alarming component of the abusive dynamic since Biblical times.

Only years later, when Jacob is lying on his deathbed, does he unambiguously condemn the violence of his sons Levi and Simeon. This, perhaps, speaks to the years that it may take to sort out the sordid revelations about some of our beloved cultural and important political figures. The world is by and large not black and white, but many shades of grey. These revelations about sexual abuse in the workplace raise moral and ethical issues that we will struggle with for many years to come as a nation, as communities, as individuals. A major part of the struggle is to voice it, to name it, is to discuss it.  Above all, we must not be silent.

Shabbat Shalom