One of the first times I walked into my shul’s ladies’ room, I noticed a sign on the stall door. It included information about how a person could seek help if they were suffering from domestic abuse. It said something like “Abuse can even happen in the Jewish community. We’re here to help.”
Although I was proud of my shul for advertising safe spaces where women could turn for help, this advertising also was disheartening to me. I surmised that perhaps there were people who might think that the Jewish community is immune to such sorrow. Perhaps because we are a light unto the nations, a righteous people?
There is great debate in this week’s Torah portion about whether Noah, who was saved from God’s flood, was truly righteous. More specifically, the Torah says Noah was righteous b’dorotav (“in his generation”). On the one hand, this could mean Noah was truly righteous, a description he earned because of the way he led his life nobly during that time. On the other hand, if Noah was righteous in comparison to the rest of the evil people “in his generation,” is that really saying much about Noah?
When we look at one of Noah’s actions, we might call to question his label as a righteous person. After Noah and his family were saved from the flood, Noah emerged from the ark, planted a vineyard, got drunk, and then uncovered himself. In essence, Noah lost his inhibitions. The story then spirals downward as Ham, Noah’s son, shows him great disrespect. Does this sound like a story describing a righteous person?
Let me be clear, our tradition permits drinking. We encourage a good l’chayim at a simcha. We even sanctify time on Shabbat and holidays using wine. But when drinking leads to unsafe conditions for us or others, that’s when a l’chayim –- meant to celebrate life -– instead puts a dampener on life. This is precisely what Noah does.
Of course, I could suggest several reasons why Noah turned to alcohol to soothe himself. He was lonely. After all, he was stuck in an ark with only his family and some animals for far longer than anyone on earth would like. (Need I remind you of the early days of covid quarantine?!) Noah may have also felt the pressure of the weighty task that God placed on him –- to build an ark, to save the animals, to –- you know -– perpetuate humanity. Noah could have experienced deep guilt, too -– wondering why he, of all people, was chosen to be saved. This all combines to create significant pressure. And when we experience that kind of pressure, something must give. We need an outlet for our discomfort. In this way, I suppose I could justify Noah’s behavior. But … I won’t.
I will not justify Noah’s behavior because doing so would underscore the idea that righteous people are justified in making mistakes. In our modern world, using this line of logic perpetuates a frightening justification for covering up missteps, that we turn a blind eye when something is brought to our attention about the missteps of others. Because of the way we view our esteemed leaders, we never want to believe some of the bad things that others will tell us about them. We may even convince people who share these stories that they are overreacting. We play mental manipulation with them or gaslight them because we don’t want to accept that the righteous person we hold in such high regard would ever do something like that. Whether those we deem righteous are politicians, teachers, coaches, or religious leaders, we default to disbelief because of all the good-natured ways that these righteous people have supported us.
But perhaps we just got lucky.
Perhaps Noah was coined as righteous to teach us, after his drunken episode, that even righteous people make mistakes. That especially our leaders –- with all the pressures added to their plates –- are prone to making poor choices in a moment of weakness. Noah’s drunkenness is a wake-up call to all of us regarding the permissive cultures that we create around areas of abuse, addictions, and neglect. And it’s not okay.
We have seen countless religious leaders and institutions involved in behavior that goes against the values of the very organizations they lead. Many of us, embodying the #Metoo movement, stand with -– and believe -– the victims of these lapses in judgment. But not all of us do, because we are so busy holding our leaders so dear to us.
As an ordained rabbi, I reflect on how I was entrusted to be a leader in the Jewish community without having to prove myself as a safe space -– that is, without much screening around areas of abuse. Don’t get me wrong: I do my best to provide a safe space for my congregants and the children in our classrooms. Their physical and emotional safety are my top priorities. In addition, because I work in a building with a nursery school, I do have to undergo abuse screening and a background check. At the same time, I know that not all of my colleagues have to go through this. I wonder how it could possibly be safe to throw religious leaders into the sea of assumed righteousness, without much training on abuse prevention. We can do better. We’ve got to do better.
I am also proud that organizations with which I’m affiliated -– camps and schools -– have taken measures to train their staffs and volunteers around abuse prevention measures. Thank you. I was also deeply grateful for the abuse prevention Keilim Toolkit written by Sacred Spaces, an organization that dedicates its mission to preventing institutional abuse in the Jewish community. It is a gift to synagogues and non-profits for which I am grateful.
While all these measures are in place, I am still aware that we need more help. Recalling the sign in the ladies’ restroom, I am fully aware that abuse indeed does happen in the Jewish community. If you are in a position of authority, I urge you to find ways of collaborating in your organization to create policies, offer education, and enact other measures to prevent abuse.
Righteous people mess up. Even Noah makes mistakes. But if we can help prevent those mistakes, why wouldn’t we?