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Emor: Speak Up!

April 30, 2021

This week’s d’var Torah on parshat Emor. I don’t mention the details of specific incidents in this drash, but those that have been made public are readily available in Jewish publications like The Forward. I also encourage you to read this statement from the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

One might think that, after years of preaching on the same Torah portions, rabbis might run out of material. But we like to leave no stone unturned, which means that, sometimes, a rabbi gives a sermon just on the title of the parasha, as a colleague of mine did last week.

Last week’s parasha was a double portion, which means it has two titles, Acharei-Mot, “after the death,” and Kedoshim, “holy.” There is a teaching that the juxtaposition of these two parshiyot is no accident. When read as a sentence, Acharei-Mot-Kedoshim can be taken to mean, “After death, holiness,” a biblical reminder not to speak ill of the dead.

In relaying this teaching, this colleague criticized several people who recently came forward, after the death of a respected rabbi, to share accounts of harassment they experienced as his students. These colleagues had already faced some criticism for speaking ill of the dead, when they responded to the glowing public remembrances of this rabbi with their own traumatic memories.

This colleague chastised the victims for waiting to speak up until after their harasser had died, and particularly for doing so while the family was still in mourning (which I imagine was incredibly painful). He claimed that the victims should have had the courage to face their harasser while he was still alive, rather than speaking up at a time when he could no longer defend himself.

Well, I have a response to this rabbi, and it is the title of this week’s Torah portion: Emor, “Speak!”

This week’s Torah portion describes how the spiritual leaders of that time—the priests—are to conduct themselves. They are to be vigilant about their own physical purity, the treatment and presentation of their bodies, their speech, their handling of donations, and their interpersonal relationships. If a priest is found to have a defect, he is no longer fit to serve the Israelite community as priest.

While we would find many of the specific rules to be outdated and even ableist, the overarching message can still ring true: Those who serve and lead our people need to be held to the highest possible standards of conduct. And if they cannot meet that standard, they have to step aside to make room for someone who can.

I want to make very clear that this does not mean that we can’t make space for our leaders to be human, to make mistakes and to repair them. God knows that most leaders wouldn’t last very long if there wasn’t the possibility of teshuva, repentance and forgiveness, for our mistakes, both large and small.

But when a leader is not willing or able to recognize, apologize for, and change their bad behavior, they become a danger to the community, and they must not remain in positions of power. In recent weeks, it has become clear that there have been several powerful figures in our movement, both past and present, deceased and still living, who were permitted to retain positions of power—or were given new ones—even though it was known that they had previously abused that power.

Rooting out immoral behavior is not only the responsibility of the leader in question, but also of the institutions and communities they serve. Which means we rely on those brave people who speak up—whenever they find the courage or the need to do so. And we also rely on our movement’s leaders to listen to their stories, and take swift and immediate action to make sure our institutions and communities are safe places for everyone.

Part of this is process is recognizing why many people don’t speak up when they encounter harassment or abuse in their school, workplace, or faith community. Even in the secular world, studies show that victims are afraid to report harassment, abuse, and assault in the workplace because they fear they will be met with “disbelief, inaction, blame or societal and professional retaliation” such as workplace hostility, negative references, a reputation as a “troublemaker,” and lost job opportunities. Kal v’chomer–how much the moreso!–in a religious community that is smaller and extremely interconnected, where everyone knows everyone, and where our leaders are revered on a spiritual level as well as a professional or academic one.

This has often resulted in our institutions choosing to protect the reputation of the perpetrators, rather than considering the well-being of the victims and those that might encounter those perpetrators in the future. As more and more of these accounts come to light, we are seeing the consequences of institutional silence. Some of the victims, many of them women and LGBTQ individuals, have left the Jewish professional world or even the Jewish world entirely because they did not feel safe in it, and because they did not feel heard. And that is heartbreaking.

I’m proud of the work that the Women’s Rabbinic Network has done, and continues to do, to bear witness to these accounts, to support the victims, and to hold our movement accountable for all the ways in which victims have been silenced and perpetrators enabled. We are calling for accountability, transparency, and safety in our movement’s institutions.

This parasha’s instructions for the priesthood end with the commandment, “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people…” (Leviticus 22:32). Rabbi Abaye teaches us that God’s name can be sanctified, or profaned, by the interpersonal conduct of those who study and teach Torah. If a Torah scholar conducts himself poorly, those who encounter him might say, “Woe to his teacher who taught him Torah. So-and-so who studied Torah, see how destructive are his deeds, and how ugly are his ways.” Whereas if a Torah scholar conducts himself well, one might say: “Fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, … see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds” (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86a).

It has come to light that too many of our institutions have kept silent when our leaders embodied the former category. Now is the time for our movement to show the world that we are committed to sanctifying God’s name through both our words and our actions.

And it all starts, as our parasha does, with a single commandment: “Speak!”

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz