From the rape of Dina to King David’s seduction of Batsheva, the Bible is filled with stories of sexual assault and harassment. But one of the first recorded instances of a woman standing up to those who would take advantage of her is in the story of Purim. In the very first chapter of the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus throws a lavish party for everyone in the country, and a very special party for everyone in the Royal Court. After seven days of drinking (quite an accomplishment by itself) Ahasuerus commands his wife, Vashti, to get dressed up in her finery and to “show the people and the princes her beauty.” What, exactly, he wanted her to do to display her charms is not recorded, but the fact that she refused to do it gives us some idea.
What happens to Vashti when she refuses to be demeaned by the King? She is removed as Queen, all her possessions and property are seized and she is banished from the palace.
Over the past six months we have witnessed a sea change in the way women respond to sexual harassment in our country – and in the way they are heard. For too long – way, way too long – women’s claims of sexual discrimination, harassment and even rape have been brushed off, and the more powerful the alleged perpetrator, the harder it has been for these women to be heard. Many were in such vulnerable positions that they simply could not speak up: their jobs, their careers and even their lives depended on their silence in the face of abuse.
Today they are speaking up. And people are listening. It has reached a point where we almost expect a new revelation every day – from business to entertainment to government, the once-mighty are, indeed, falling. So now the question arises: Where do we go from here?
It is not actually one question; it is a whole series of questions. The first is, How do we help these women? What do they need from us – from society, from their co-workers, from their friends? How can we do more than just be sad when we learn that someone we know has been subject to abuse?
The second question, which we are beginning to consider, is what role due process should take in these conversations. Do we believe every woman, every time? Do we convict on the first accusation, or the second, or the third, or the tenth? I really don’t know where the line is on this; I have no problem saying that Harvey Weinstein doesn’t deserve to head his company given the many accusations against him, but should we fire someone immediately if one person makes an accusation? For way too long we have ignored women’s charges; how, then, do we listen and really hear them, without throwing away our precious right of “innocent until proven guilty”?
We also have to ask if every behavior merits the same punishment. This is very difficult, because who are we to say what effect a lewd comment from a supervisor had on an employee? But we have to ask: is it as bad to make sexual comments as it is to touch… or do more than touch? Does sexual harassment of any sort warrant the same response – and yet, how can we even attempt to quantify the harm that such behavior causes?
And finally, a Jewish question: In all these cases, is there the possibility of teshuva – of apology, of restitution, of rehabilitation? We Jews believe that Sha’arei Teshuva – the Gates of Repentance – are open to all, but at the same time we understand that God will not forgive us until we have done everything in our power to make whole the ones we have wronged here on earth. At some point will we entertain this conversation, creating a path for abusers to be accepted once again in society, in business, and even in families?
Notice that I have far more questions than answers. I do not even pretend to be wise enough to know how to respond to these gut-wrenching questions, and at this point, so early in the experience, I think we need to be doing more listening than talking. But we should begin to ask the questions because – well, because that’s what Jews do.
So we are going to begin asking the questions. On Friday evening, February 16th, we will again make use of “Sacred Texting” to engage in a respectful, confidential conversation about these questions. Everyone is invited to attend, to participate, or just to listen. Bring a cell phone, tablet or laptop to join the conversation, and please give thought to the questions above before then.
Then on Wednesday evening, February 28th, we will celebrate Purim – and give a very appropriate shout-out to Vashti. She stood up to her abusive husband and it cost her dearly. Maybe the time has finally come when others can say “No” and be respected for their choice.
Rabbi Don Weber