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Community Blog #WeToo

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

In a newly published essay for the Jewish Week, our esteemed colleague Professor Keren McGinity has revealed that she was sexually harassed by a senior academic at a Jewish professional conference in 2011. She spoke out not only on her own behalf but on behalf of all women – including the many women in the Jewish community – who have felt compelled to remain silent for too long.

I have expressed my gratitude and admiration to Keren privately — but I want to thank her publicly as well — for her courage in speaking out about what happened to her.  I join with her, and a growing number of other voices, in calling upon the Jewish community to do more to reckon with this urgent and important issue.

It is time for us to acknowledge that – as a Jewish community — #WeToo have spent far too much time and energy protecting colleagues who have engaged in sexual misconduct from suffering the consequences of their actions — instead of protecting the victims of their inappropriate or abusive behavior.

In a 1977 essay entitled, “Beloved Image,” the late feminist theologian Nelle Morton wrote about the power of “hearing the other to speech.”  “We empower one another by hearing the other to speech,” she wrote. “We empower the disinherited, the outsider, as we are able to hear them name in their own way their own oppression and suffering. In turn, we are empowered as we can put ourselves in a position to be heard . . . Hearing in this sense can break through political and social structures and image a new system. A great ear at the heart of the universe, at the heart of our common life — hearing human beings to speech . . .”

I have returned to these words often over the last year, as we have heard woman after woman step forward to speak up about the experience of being subject to sexual harassment and sexual violence in a culture that has colluded to make such speech painful and costly for so many of us.  I return to them now as I reflect on the silence that – as Keren McGinity has reminded us once again — still largely surrounds these issues within the Jewish community.

There is no single word that has more spiritual resonance for us as Jews than the word: “Shema.” Hear. Listen. We must respond to the “great ear at the heart of the universe” by softening and strengthening our own listening hearts, by bravely and tenderly “hearing one another to speech.”

We are commanded to do so.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is President-Elect of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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