I want to thank [Rabbi] Bruce [Elder] for inviting me to give a personal reflection tonight. I say this for two reasons. The first is that it is colleagues like Bruce and congregational leadership like that of Hakafa that reminds me the ways in which our communities can be places of meaningful reflection and constructive learning. That when there is something brewing in the world around us, we can come together- on the most solemn of evenings in our calendar- and sift through the complicated nature of our thoughts and emotions. The second reason I opened with this thank you is to frame my words. As a rabbi, I do not like to deliver sermons or teach Torah about issues of injustice or challenges without having some sort of positive response. A way to climb out of the difficult space we may be in and on which I may be shining a light. And, of course, there is no way to separate out my “rabbi self” and my “real person self”- rabbis are people, too, y’know. But these words of reflection come from a more personal place. I hope they add to a larger conversation and offer insight in some way. And yet, I am not yet in a place of resolution or prescription for moving forward. I am reflecting, sifting, thinking, weighing.
For those of you who may not know, I work in politics for a living. I work in the world of advocacy and campaigns and fundraising. So, in many ways, I have been sitting deep in the thick of this election cycle. And, yet, in other ways, I have kept it at a distance. The presidential race, in particular, has me keeping quiet and disengaging in a way that is quite unusual for me. And, because I am lucky, possessing much privilege, I can do this. I shut my screen, turn the radio down, stop looking at Facebook.
Professionally, I have been deeply aware of the hateful and even dangerous language used about various groups of people over the past year and a half. But on a personal level, I have stopped paying real attention. I am really ashamed of this. But that does not make it any less true. And, like most people, it took something outrageous to get me speaking. It took a blatant display of misogyny by someone who could, in just a matter of months, be sitting in the most important office in our country.
I will not recount the specifics of what has brought me to this point because I refuse to give any more air-time to the “story.” And, to be honest, I care very little about or for any one individual who speaks this way about women. What I do care about is that I have come to be living in a world where this type of speech has somehow become – if not acceptable- then accepted.
This moment is different than the moments that have come before. Such misogyny has not always been seen as “something that happens” or something we should just resign ourselves to or try to ignore. In the past, I don’t think a sizeable part of the American population would have been willing to simply look the other way. I cannot think of a time in my life- at least not in the past 25 years- where women or their bodies could be spoken about in the national public square with such disdain and degradation and not be condemned by everyone.
I do not want to speak about political party or leanings. Yes, what I’m saying is political. But its not partisan. It’s not even liberal or conservative or moderate or independent. What I am talking about is a level of basic respect- acknowledgement that no matter what, when I am talking about or with another person, I at least understand them to be a person- possessing a body, a mind and a spirit. I am talking about our daughters, our mothers, our sisters, our friends, our partners. Frankly, I’m talking about me.
The question that plays over and over in my mind lately is – “how did we get here?” How did we come to a moment in which societal norms and understandings seem to be- in some significant ways-in stark contrast to what they have been previously. And I don’t know exactly. I’m sure I could explore people’s fears, anxieties and uncertainty about the world and their own lives. I could start connecting the dots and put together a narrative that would make some rational sense. But, honestly, I don’t care to. I’m not interested in making sense of what seems to be a frightening reality- that denigrating women- our bodies and our agency- is no longer taboo. It happens. Its just “locker room banter.”
Instead, I’m bringing to you, my community, that such public demonstrations of hate and degradation are an indication that we still are desperately in need of this day, this Yom Kippur. We need to come together and talk about society’s ills and how they impact us. We also need to ask ourselves “how did we get here?” and build for ourselves a way out.
Again, I’m not fully clear how to do this. But I am considering how I can respond to internally. What do I need to be engaging with in the public space and what internal work do I need to do in order to chart a more constructive path forward. How can the ideas and images of Yom Kippur- and indeed this whole time of year- help me do that?
And in reflecting on all this, I keep coming back to the shofar. Not really the shofar itself but the way in which the sound of the shofar becomes meaningful. In ancient times, the shofar was blown for many reasons- a joyous occasion, a sacred moment, a battle cry, the beginning of something, the end of something. As we know, the sounds would vary depending on what was being communicated. No matter what the reason, though, the shofar was a call to attention. And, even more significantly, the people needed to hear it. Today, before blowing the shofar, we say a blessing, thanking God for commanding us to hear the Shofar. Hearing the shofar- its call to attention- is where the obligation lies.
This is where I am finding some guidance on how to be, think and act- or not act- in the current climate. I need to listen more and I need to listen more carefully. That is my obligation. Even when what I am listening to is not the powerful and beautiful sound of the shofar. Because while I want to shut off the noise- and sometimes we need to shut off the noise- I do need to be listening. I need to listen for people’s fears and unvented anger. I need to listen for the smaller ways in which whole groups of people are being treated like objects, instead of human beings. I need to pay attention to the conversations happening around me, in the media among people I disagree with vehemently. Even those who are saying things that violate acceptable social norms- I need to listen. I will not always have the most articulate response. Oftentimes, the moment will not call for a response although there will likely be a time to say something, loudly and forcefully. But if Yom Kippur can teach me anything, it is that the work of paying attention, listening carefully and reflecting on what is happening around me is a prerequisite to responding effectively.
I realized as I put these thoughts together that much of what I will continue to say is not specifically connected to the painful language being used about women during this election season. These thoughts are insights for how I can better approach external challenges that I find deeply disturbing- that hit at the core of who I am and what I believe. And November 8th is not going to bring an end to these types of challenges. The end of an election season will certainly not be the end of misogyny, hateful speech or any of the other ugliness that is thrown into such clear relief during this time of year. So I will use this particular experience as an opportunity to transform my transgressions. To move from disengagement to paying attention. From reacting to listening.
My prayer and hope for this year is that I can listen carefully enough, that I don’t come to next year asking “how did we get here?” I know the next year will bring its own challenges, but I am setting myself up to reflect thoughtfully. To respond with strength and conviction knowing that I took my obligation to listen seriously.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Rabbi Alison Abrams is the Midwest Regional Director of J Street.