Rabbi ADAM CUTLER
Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto
Rabbi MICHAEL DOLGIN
Temple Sinai Congregation, Toronto
Rabbi Cutler: After I received ordination but before I began working at Beth Tzedec, a colleague offered some unsolicited counsel. He told me to keep a picture of my wife in my office and to make sure that it was visible at all times – both to me and to anyone who might come in. He told me that the picture would be a reminder for everyone as to my commitments. I heeded the advice.
As rabbis, for the most part, we are automatically viewed as trustworthy and ethical. People regularly come to us at their most vulnerable and we are in a position to guide. Unfortunately, the record shows that rabbis are not immune from inappropriate behaviour with congregants as well as synagogue staff. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, there is momentum now to openly discuss clergy and places of worship with respect to the potential for harassment and misconduct. Rabbis should be at the forefront of this conversation.
How should rabbis and synagogues best prepare themselves to avoid situations of sexual harassment and misconduct?
Rabbi Dolgin: A synagogue cannot be a holy place unless people feel safe and respected. We need to work actively to create an environment that supports those who have been mistreated or victimized, while avoiding participation in gossip, rumour and innuendo.
In addition, while I agree that clergy and others who are in a position of authority or a caregiver role must be clear about our ethics and commitments, there is a bigger issue to be addressed by non-Orthodox rabbis in particular: as people who love our ancient texts enough to bring the questions of modern scholarship to them, we must recognize the power dynamics and gender complexities found within them. Like in Judith Romney Wegner’s 1988 book, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah, we must speak out and say that the status of women in our rabbinic tradition is, at best, problematic.
Orthodoxy is a static system that must find its own ways to address the interaction between power and gender in today’s Jewish society. As rabbis with a modern perspective, we regularly use our tradition to question the rhythms of modern society. Must we now affirm the voice of modern reality in challenging the assumptions of our ancient texts?
Rabbi Cutler: Thankfully, Judaism is not a closed system and we do not limit our beliefs and practice to what is found in the Torah. Rather, the Torah is the foundation and starting point for millenniums of textual growth and rabbinic insight. The unfurling of Torah, in its broadest sense, continues until today. As Hillel disciple Ben Bag-Bag teaches, when it comes to the Torah, we must turn it and turn it for it contains everything.
It is clear from the earliest strata of rabbinic literature that the rabbis recognized that some of their rulings and interpretations challenged the Torah itself. Yet, they nevertheless continued on the path they deemed appropriate. Such boldness likely enabled Judaism to survive and thrive. Today, as we contemplate change within our own communities, we must always carefully balance competing values, including the need to respect the traditions of our ancestors, as well as recognizing the inherent dignity of each person.
Rabbi Dolgin: Certainly we must balance competing values. However, when it comes to protecting the dignity of all persons, we must do more. As the circle of well-known figures who have demeaned and disrespected women grows by the day, we must have the courage to affirm a hierarchy of values.
Regardless of our place on the continuum of halachic interpretation, we can and must live out the following in our communities: all women and men are created in the image of God. Treating another inappropriately through the exercise of power or as an object of sexual desire is a chillul HaShem, a desecration of the divine name.
We cannot undo the misdeeds of the past, but we must set an example of a higher level of respecting one another for the future.