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The shame of silence, the flame of a voice

18/03/21 14:06:27

Mar18

On Monday, I changed my schedule, I rearranged my diary so that I could join the Women’s March for Justice at Treasury Gardens. I’ve been in this beautiful setting many times, either on my way to a meeting or to perform a wedding ceremony. I’ve never been there for a protest, I’ve never seen so many people -especially women -gathered there, I’m never felt the kind of energy that I did this past Monday.

As a rule, I’m not comfortable in large crowds like this. I’m suspicious of crowd- think, fearful of mob mentality. The golden calf, the Nazi rallies and more recently the mob violence across the USA, have deepened my mistrust of the crowd. Events like this often draw extremists and encourage extremist behaviour. To be sure, there were some of these elements at the March -some of the placards were downright rude, narrow and offensive, some of the rhetoric, strident and somewhat hysterical. However, on the whole, I felt privileged to be part of this significant event. I felt privileged to join the many Jewish women who marched across the country; one of the leading organisers of the Australian March was Professor Kim Rubenstein. The frustration and anger of the speakers (and the crowd) was matched by the surge of positive energy and solidarity.

This march was significant because it marks a turning point in our culture, it reflects an important sea change in our attitude towards and treatment of women in Australian society. As journalist Melissa Fife has pointed out women are calling for change in five areas: leadership, sexual harassment processes, consent education, cultural change and making the criminal justice system work better (for sexual assault victims and survivors).

If there is one phrase that seems to encapsulate the tenor and tone of women’s frustration it is – time to break the big silence. The brave young Australian woman (Chanel Contos), who went public about her teenage sexual assault in Vaucluse (and who has drawn more than 5000 assault stories from across the country) made a trenchant point: she points to the irony of experiencing a rape culture in one of the most privileged parts of the world. We live in a gloriously open society, yet we live with some deep and unconscionable silences- including the treatment of women (and to mention one other, that of Aboriginal people).

As Jewish people we should be only too familiar with the danger of silence and we should become all the more familiar with the devastation of sexual assault. We know the cost of silence, what it means when individuals and nations ignore the abuse, maltreatment and murder of Jews. The Kabbalah characterises the oppression of Jews in Egypt as the oppression of silence. No voices cried out in support of the Hebrews, the victims themselves were subdued and rendered powerless. We know the power of the voice as is passionately expressed in the poignant prayer, Shema Koleinu, Hear our voices God! We can identify with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in which the raped Lavinia has her tongue ripped out.

The prominent Chassidic teacher and psychiatrist, Rabbi Abraham J Twerski, who died recently, wrote a trail blazing book about spousal abuse in the Jewish community. He titled it -The Shame Borne in Silence. Many prominent rabbis and leaders have subsequently called out on the silent epidemic of abuse of women both in the Jewish and wider community. It is indeed an egregious reality.

The Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia commenting on the six Judges Associates who were harassed by the former Justice Hendon:” We are ashamed that this could have happened at the High Court of Australia”. We, the leaders of the Jewish community, we the rabbis of the community, should also say – “We are ashamed that women in our country can be treated like this”.

Let’s draw on our own tradition for its teachings about sexual integrity and recognition of the Tzelem Elohim, divine image imprinted on every soul. Let’s reject the misogynistic voices in some of our rabbinic texts and draw on the refined and compassionate voices in so many others of those texts. Let’s reframe the discussion on masculinity and provide respectful relationship training in all our Jewish schools. For both our boys and our girls. Our religious schools should lead the way in teaching not only about modesty and restraint, but also about respect and recognition. There is a fearsome battle that needs to be waged against the assumptions of male power as there is against the availability and acceptance of pornography and it’s demeaning of women.

At our seders this year as we reflect on the magnificent women who shaped the Exodus story, lets also use opportunity to express our dismay at and opposition to the unacceptable treatment and diminution of women in our society and culture (at all levels); to add our support to those courageous women seeking change.

There are exceptional Australian Jewish women in business, law, the arts and education and across the board. There is however much we can still do within our community to confront the misogyny, increase the number of women especially on our Orthodox Shule boards, encourage the visible representation and involvement in decision making of (especially young) women in our community.

Let’s however not dwell only on the gnai or shame that frames the first part of the Haggadah telling, but focus on the shevach, the gain and pride that marks the second part of the tale.

The leadership of Moshe began at a humble bush that burned but was not consumed. A flame was lit here that would burn its way into history, that would ignite a philosophy of social justice and compassion, that would put a fire into the souls of the Jewish people, that would illuminate the way and light up the voices of all those who sought a better world. This flame burnt brightly at the march on Monday.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Sat, 17 April 2021 5 Iyyar 5781