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Jewish Ethics, #MeToo, and Crowd-Sourced Responsa

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This article was originally published on eJewishPhilanthropy on September 13, 2018

In 5778, the hashtags #TimesUp #MeToo #GamAni sparked a broad communal conversation about abuses of power on the part of individuals and institutions, within and beyond the Jewish community. The year brought revelations of misconduct among celebrities and government officials, and in Jewish schools, organizations, and synagogues. Now, powerful people who abuse their power are being held accountable, and this is a development that is welcome and long overdue. That doesn’t mean it is easy.

Seeing trusted leaders fall is confusing. Reliving moments of harm and humiliation is painful. Even when we have clarity on the misdeeds of the past – a challenge in itself – deciding on a response that is just and proportionate is confounding. And what makes all this even more difficult is that the very sources we might seek out for ethical guidance – revered rabbis or the texts of our tradition – are themselves suspect for perpetuating the problems of gender inequity and abuses of power we are seeking to address.

At The Center for Jewish Ethics, we are proponents of deliberate decision-making that brings people into conversation with each other and with the traditional texts that are the repository of accumulated Jewish wisdom. This year, the particular ethical challenges unleashed by allegations and revelations of widespread abuse prompted us to reconsider what ethical guidance looks like. The #MeToo movement has given voices to the voiceless, reminding us that the wisdom we need right now is not the exclusive purview of rabbis and received texts – it lives as well in the accumulated experience and insights of people who for too long have been silenced and overlooked.

We are proud to share a resource we call “Crowd-sourced Responsa,” a growing, evolving archive of sources from across the internet that we see as responding to Jewish ethical questions in the era of #MeToo. Writers have considered a number of questions such as: What does victim-centered justice look like? How do institutions that have protected abusers make amends? What principles and practices can prevent abuses of power in the future? How do we balance the dignity of someone who has been accused with the imperative to protect the vulnerable? We did not always find clear answers to these questions, and in some cases, we found compelling arguments that pulled in opposing directions. We bring a diversity of views together in the hope of expanding and deepening communal conversation about the ethical principles that are at stake in addressing and preventing harassment and abuse.

Responsa are a traditional form of Jewish guidance: historically, when Jews encountered new situations that presented ethical dilemmas, they would turn to rabbis for guidance, sending questions that trusted authorities would answer by letter. The writing of Responsa persists to this day in traditional and liberal streams of Judaism, and we also continue to pursue this kind of careful, scholarly engagement with classical sources, even as we are developing new approaches.

Crowd-sourced Responsa reimagine the nature of authority and expertise, inviting us to discover ethical wisdom in a breadth of contemporary voices, culled from the press and social media. The questions and responses that we gather and curate express ethical wisdom that emerges from communal conversation and from lived experience. We invite you to consult this wisdom, and to add to it.

May 5779 truly be a year of transformation so that heightened attention to harassment and abuse brings real and lasting change. Collectively and individually, may we discern ethical principles and practices to guide us in the pursuit of justice and compassion.

Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, PhD., is director of the Center for Jewish Ethics.

Director of Center for Jewish Ethics, Assistant Professor of Rabbinic Literature, RRC

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