When you hear the blast of the shofar, what should you really be hearing?
According to the Talmud, you should hear howling. The howling, the crying, the screams of women.
The scriptural readings for the Days of Awe are filled with women’s cries.
- Hagar crying out for the fate of her son, Ishmael. In the words of the biblical scholar Pamela Tamarkin Reis: Hagar is the first person in the Torah — which is to say, the first person in history — to weep.
- Sarah, thinking that her son, Isaac, had died. In the words of Rabbi Ruth Sohn: the angel that saved Isaac’s life was not an angel at all. Abraham only imagined that it was an angel. It was really Sarah, screaming at him to save the boy’s life.
- Hannah, who wanted a child. In the words of the feminist thinker, Tova Hartman: The way that Hannah prayed — silently and then emotionally — is the model of what it means to approach God.
- Rachel, crying out the entire Jewish people. In the words of an Israeli writer named Rivka Luvitz: God created Rachel’s tears during the first six days of creation. They are simply that ancient.
5778 has been the year when, as a society, we confronted the wounds of patriarchy. This was the year of the fastest growing social movement of our time — #metoo — the stories of women (and men, as well) who have accused powerful and accomplished men of sexual harassment.
It is about sex. It is about violence. It is about the profanation of intimacy. It is about the sin of using people. It is about the sin of making people into tools for our desires, and instruments for our ends. It is about the sin of turning people into objects. It is about the sin of abusing power.
Many of the men who have behaved despicably have produced great work.
Question: Is it kosher to admire their work, and to quote their scholarship, and to cite their writings? To what extent do our moral failings — what we do — utterly pollute what we are?
More than that: How long should the punishment last? How long the ostracism? Is redemption for the abuser ever possible? If so, when?
This moment in our culture is the Shema koleinu moment. Hear our voices.
Have we really heard the voices of women who complain of harassment? Do we believe them? Do we make excuses for the men who are responsible? Do we blame the victims?
- The voices of women who are Jewish professionals. Imagine a woman who is a federation director. Imagine a man who is a federation director. They are the same age, in similar sized communities, with similar sized campaigns. Dare we ask: which one, the man or the woman, earns more money?
- The voices of Jewish women scholars. Their insights rarely appear in our teaching.
- The voices of women who volunteer for high prestige Jewish organizations. Many of them have been the victims of sexual harassment. The tales are unreal — stories of women whose supervisors tell them that Mr. Big Donor would like to spend some time alone with them.
Those are the relatively privileged women. There are so many others.
Have we heard the voices of the mothers at our borders? Did we hear their screams as authorities put their children into cages, and drugged them?
It is not only the voices of women. What is now incumbent upon us is to hear the voices of those whose voices are not often audible.
The best book that you will read this year — about Israel, and about Judaism — is Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi.
Yossi lives in the Jerusalem neighborhood of French Hill. It is in the extreme northern neighborhood in Jerusalem. It is where Jerusalem ends.
From his porch, Yossi can see a Palestinian village. Yossi imagines a Palestinian neighbor. Yossi opens his heart to his neighbor.
As we Israelis celebrated our reclaimed sovereignty and achieved one success after another, your people exchanged homes and olive orchards for the scorched earth of refugee camps, where you raised children without hope, the unwanted outcasts of the Arab world. I mourn the lives wasted in the bitterness of exile, your despair against my joy. For many years we in Israel ignored you, treated you as invisible, transparent.
Both Jews and Palestinians must hear and honor each others’ stories. Even before there can be a two-state solution, there needs to be a two-narrative solution. Jews need to hear about how Palestinians took the keys to their family homes in Jaffa and Haifa. Palestinians need to remember how Arabs slaughtered Jews in Iraq, how they forced Jews from their homes in Syria.
Let’s talk about politics. We all have relatives, or close friends, or associates with whom we disagree vehemently on fundamental political and social issues. How do you stay in relationship with those people — assuming you want to?
Next time you hear, feel, and/or sense that an argument is coming, ask the following question. “How did you arrive at your opinion on this matter?’ Then you lean forward — and you listen.
It is not easy.
First, because you hear things that you really don’t want to hear. But second, when you listen, you become vulnerable.
Because when you listen, that act of listening can actually change you. After all, what is the central commandment of Jewish life? Sh’ma Yisrael: Hear. Listen.
The big mitzvah for the Days of Awe is: lishmoa kol shofar. To hear the voice — the voice! Not the noise! Not the sound! To hear the voice of the shofar!
It is to imagine that in the inarticulate blasts that we hear, that if we strain our ears, we can hear a whole new language.
This article appeared at RNS and was adapted from the author’s second day Rosh Hashanah sermon at Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla.