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March 30, 2018 11:16 am

#MeToo and the Torah

avatar by Robin Goldwyn Blumenthal

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Chassidic masters say that in order to ascend to the highest heights, it is sometimes necessary to descend into the depths. The #MeToo movement represents just such a moment for women.

Although the impetus for this movement arises from a negative set of circumstances precipitated by allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, it — in fact — has great power to unleash the formidable strength of women, and to change our world for the better.

This moment was envisioned more than a quarter of a century ago by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson — the Lubavitcher Rebbe — who also predicted the fall of communism years before anyone thought it was remotely possible. “After thousands of years of male dominance,” he foretold, citing various mystical texts, “we now stand at the beginning of the feminine era, when women will rise up to their appropriate prominence, in creating a spiritual revolution and transforming the world into a beautiful home for God.”

Today, we are beginning to see this vision take shape. The #MeToo movement, where women are at last raising their voices to shed light on the abuse and harassment that has so often afflicted us in our supposedly “liberated” modern world, has arrived, and it has the potential to profoundly affect society.

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“Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us up to deeper realities,” says Rabbi Simon Jacobson, author of Toward a Meaningful Life, dean of the Meaningful Life Center in New York, and a scribe for Rabbi Schneerson. He spoke at Chabad’s annual gathering of women in Crown Heights last month — the International Conference of Women Emissaries — where thousands of women from all over the world gathered to celebrate our womanhood, our strength, and our attachment to the ideals of kindness and spirituality embodied in our foremothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

Rabbi Jacobson expressed the idea that #MeToo represents a critical turning point. The movement signifies our reclaiming of our innate power by standing up for ourselves, and the import of this cannot be underestimated. As women speak out against male aggression, we have an opportunity to reestablish universal standards of behavior that are elucidated in the Torah — Judaism’s guide to moral behavior.

The advent of the #MeToo movement affords us the chance to raise awareness, not just about women’s right not to be violated, but to clarify appropriate boundaries and establish ground rules for healthy relationships. Indeed, secular society can learn a lot about the psycho-spiritual male and female archetypes set forth in the Torah.

In a recent essay on gender differences, Rabbi Jacobson explains that man and woman represent two forms of divine energy — the male and female elements of a single soul. The female side is more of an inward energy — the majestic element of humanity, which projects an inner dignity. By contrast, he writes, masculine energy is more externally-oriented. But the nature of man, while aggressive, is not brutish. This is discussed at length in the Kabbalah and other spiritual traditions, as well as in psychology. Think ‘yin and yang.’

For man and woman to be complete, however, they must each possess both energies; the power of strength and the power of subtlety;and the power of giving and the power of receiving. Ideally, these energies are merged seamlessly.

All this has been disrupted in modern society. To be sure, women have made many advances in what used to be known as “a man’s world.” But have we done so at the expense of our innate power? Women, as the nurturing foundation of the home, are constantly being pulled in two directions, always making choices between family and work. That is not to say that women shouldn’t pursue careers, but that we should think carefully about how to achieve a balance in our lives.

Although it is up to men to alter their behavior, it is women’s responsibility to set appropriate parameters and to value ourselves more highly. The #MeToo movement is a step in the right direction. But women need to do more than vocalize our victimization by men. We need to establish a moral compass — both at home and in the workplace. Although attacks on women can happen in any circumstance, we can recognize that the way we present ourselves to the world sends specific messages about how we view ourselves, and how we expect others to respond.

As for male power, “it was never meant to be controlling; it was meant to sublimate a hostile world and turn it into a divine garden.” writes Rabbi Jacobson. Similarly, he says, women must not simply protect themselves, but they must lead a movement that men will embrace, in demanding and expecting higher standards in sexuality, in the workplace, in the home and for the children.

We can do this without sacrificing our hard-won gains in the workplace. We can start by emphasizing the divine aspect of the sexual union, not its transactionality. We can sanctify marriage by working with our spouses to build a home that is connected in some way to the divine. We can at least ponder the effect that uncensored television has on the delicate lives of our children.

Taking these steps will not only enrich our own lives, but they will be consequential for society. Rabbi Jacobson cites the Talmudic sages, who say that it was in the merit of the women that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. Even when Pharaoh issued his terrible decree to drown all the male babies in the Nile, the women never lost faith. So too, our sages say, it will be in the merit of the women that the final redemption will come. And it will be the feminine divine dimension that will be revealed, the dignity and majesty of the inward energy.

We are entering an era where spirit will be more important than matter, and #MeToo is the first step for women to stand up for ourselves and the world around us. Just as Israel had to go down to Egypt and slavery before it could be redeemed and given the Torah — a divine mandate for living — so too women can use the bitterness of the #MeToo movement as a springboard for change.

It is time for women to reclaim our true power, for us to emulate the amazing women of the Torah and to be heard. We have the opportunity to herald a spiritual revolution — a higher state of consciousness and awareness. To do this, we need to establish a new normal, a new code of conduct toward one another. #MeToo has opened the door to change. Let us not be afraid to walk proudly through it.

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