The Ethical Stakes of Social Bans
The #MeToo movement presents us with an ethical conundrum: Often, it is only through the publicity of allegations of wrongdoing that the truth will come out, but once an allegation is made public, from the perspective of the accused, the worst punishment has already occurred.
Jewish texts do not resolve this dilemma, but they do offer examples of ancient rabbinic deliberations and debate about similar issues. Sometimes, the Rabbis use public shaming as a strategy for enhancing their own power, and sometimes they use it to intervene when others abuse power. In the sources below, we find a range of rabbinic opinions and actions as they seek to address wrong-doing and rumors of wrong-doing that cannot be adjudicated in court. Both passages are drawn from a longer discussion about the rabbinic institution of Nidui, a temporary ban on social interaction.
The sources below all center on Rabbis. As you read them, consider what it would mean to center on the victims and survivors of misconduct and abuse.
1. When Leaders Do Harm:
A Legal Debate
Why do you think the ancient rabbis made a special enactment regarding misconduct by the president of the court?
In what ways does the enactment of Usha hold the powerful responsible for misconduct? In what ways does it allow for a double standard?
Imagine that the rabbis who gather in Usha engaged in a process of values-based decision-making: What values does their decision convey?
What differentiates Reish Lakish's teaching from the enactment at Usha? What values are most salient for Reish Lakish?
What lessons about institutional abuses of power do you draw from this text?
Is there any ethical justification for concealing the offenses of rabbinic students? of other leaders?
What would it mean to extend the consideration that the Rabbis extend to their colleagues and students to all people?
2. A Long Narrative about when Leaders Do Harm
Is there a hero in this story? How would you characterize the rabbinical student? Rav Yehuda? The sages who gather to reconsider the case?
How do you think the rabbinical student in the story got a bad reputation? Do you find any clues about what he did wrong in the text?
How does Rav Yehuda describe the two sides of his dilemma? In what way does his dilemma resonate with #MeToo cases today?
How do you interpret Rabba bar bar Ḥana's response? What message is he using the verse and its interpretation to convey?
When Rav Yehuda decides on excommunication, what values does his decision convey? When he later looks back on his decision, are there other values that come in to his appraisal?
When Rabbi Ami later reconsiders the case, he want to release the rabbinical student, but his older colleagues close ranks. How do you assess the Rabbis' use of institutional power? Does this part of the story make you re-think the beginning of the story?
What is the symbolic significance of the rabbinical student's death? Why a bee? Why his "member" (penis)?
What is the place of investigation in this story? Did Rav Yehuda do his due diligence?
In the end, the Talmud seems to recommend that Rabbis who feel compulsions to sin do this in secret. This is a very disturbing turn. To what degree does this story perpetuate silence around misconduct?
Do you think the storyteller is in favor of bans of ostracism?
Is there any part of this story you would take as a model for institutions seeking to prevent and address sexual misconduct today? Are there parts of the story that illustrate what *not* to do?