The Torah of #MeToo - Tainted

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

אָמַר רַב הוּנָא בְּאוּשָׁא הִתְקִינוּ אַב בֵּית דִּין שֶׁסָּרַח אֵין מְנַדִּין אוֹתוֹ אֶלָּא אוֹמֵר לוֹ הִכָּבֵד וְשֵׁב בְּבֵיתֶךָ חָזַר וְסָרַח מְנַדִּין אוֹתוֹ מִפְּנֵי חִילּוּל הַשֵּׁם וּפְלִיגָא דְּרֵישׁ לָקִישׁ דְּאָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ תַּלְמִיד חָכָם שֶׁסָּרַח אֵין מְנַדִּין אוֹתוֹ בְּפַרְהֶסְיָא שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וְכָשַׁלְתָּ הַיּוֹם וְכָשַׁל גַּם נָבִיא עִמְּךָ לָיְלָה כַּסֵּהוּ כַּלַּיְלָה

Rav Huna said: In Usha it was enacted: If the president of the court offended, he is not excommunicated. Rather, they say to him the words of the verse: “Keep your honor and stay at home” (II Kings 14:10). If he offends again, he is excommunicated, due to the desecration of God’s name.

This conflicts with Reish Lakish, for Reish Lakish said: If a rabbinic student offends, he is not excommunicated in public, as it is stated: “Therefore, shall you fall in the day, and the prophet also shall fall with you in the night” (Hosea 4:5)It should be concealed like the night.

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

הָהוּא צוּרְבָּא מֵרַבָּנַן דַּהֲווֹ סְנוּ שׁוּמְעָנֵיהּ אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה הֵיכִי לֶיעְבֵּיד לְשַׁמְּתֵיהּ צְרִיכִי לֵיהּ רַבָּנַן לָא לְשַׁמְּתֵיהּ קָא מִיתְּחִיל שְׁמָא דִשְׁמַיָּא

אֲמַר לֵיהּ לְרַבָּה בַּר בַּר חָנָה מִידֵּי שְׁמִיעַ לָךְ בְּהָא

אֲמַר לֵיהּ הָכִי

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן

מַאי דִּכְתִיב כִּי שִׂפְתֵי כֹהֵן יִשְׁמְרוּ דַעַת וְתוֹרָה יְבַקְשׁוּ מִפִּיהוּ כִּי מַלְאַךְ ה׳ צְבָאוֹת הוּא

אִם דּוֹמֶה הָרַב לְמַלְאַךְ ה׳ יְבַקְּשׁוּ תּוֹרָה מִפִּיו וְאִם לָאו אַל יְבַקְּשׁוּ תּוֹרָה מִפִּיו שַׁמְּתֵיהּ רַב יְהוּדָה

לְסוֹף אִיחֲלַשׁ רַב יְהוּדָה

אֲתוֹ רַבָּנַן לְשַׁיּוֹלֵי בֵּיהּ וַאֲתָא אִיהוּ נָמֵי בַּהֲדַיְיהוּ כַּד חַזְיֵיהּ רַב יְהוּדָה חַיֵּיךְ

אֲמַר לֵיהּ לָא מִסָּתְיֵיהּ דְּשַׁמְּתֵיהּ לְהָהוּא גַּבְרָא אֶלָּא אַחוֹכֵי נָמֵי חַיֵּיךְ בִּי

אֲמַר לֵיהּ לָאו בְּדִידָךְ מְחַיֵּיכְנָא אֶלָּא דְּכִי אָזֵילְנָא לְהָהוּא עָלְמָא בְּדִיחָא דַּעְתַּאי דַּאֲפִילּוּ לְגַבְרָא כְּווֹתָךְ לָא חַנֵּיפִי לֵיהּ

נָח נַפְשֵׁיהּ דְּרַב יְהוּדָה

אֲתָא לְבֵי מִדְרְשָׁא אֲמַר לְהוּ שְׁרוֹ לִי

אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ רַבָּנַן גַּבְרָא דַּחֲשִׁיב כְּרַב יְהוּדָה לֵיכָּא הָכָא דְּלִישְׁרֵי לָךְ אֶלָּא זִיל לְגַבֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי יְהוּדָה נְשִׂיאָה דְּלִישְׁרֵי לָךְ אֲזַל לְקַמֵּיהּ אֲמַר לֵיהּ לְרַבִּי אַמֵּי פּוֹק עַיֵּין בְּדִינֵיהּ אִי מִיבְּעֵי לְמִישְׁרֵא לֵיהּ שְׁרִי לֵיהּ

עַיֵּין רַבִּי אַמֵּי בְּדִינֵיהּ סְבַר לְמִישְׁרֵא לֵיהּ

עָמַד רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי עַל רַגְלָיו וְאָמַר וּמָה שִׁפְחָה שֶׁל בֵּית רַבִּי לֹא נָהֲגוּ חֲכָמִים קַלּוּת רֹאשׁ בְּנִידּוּיָהּ שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים יְהוּדָה חֲבֵירֵינוּ עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה

אֲמַר רַבִּי זֵירָא מַאי דְּקַמַּן דַּאֲתָא הָאִידָּנָא הַאי סָבָא בְּבֵי מִדְרְשָׁא דְּהָא כַּמָּה שְׁנֵי לָא אֲתָא שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ

לָא מִיבְּעֵי לְמִישְׁרֵא לֵיהּ לָא שְׁרָא לֵיהּ

נְפַק כִּי קָא בָכֵי וְאָזֵיל

אֲתָא זִיבּוּרָא וְטַרְקֵיהּ אַאַמְּתֵיהּ וּשְׁכֵיב עַיְּילוּהּ לִמְעָרְתָּא דַּחֲסִידֵי וְלָא קַיבְּלוּהּ עַיְּילוּהּ לִמְעָרְתָּא דְּדַיָּינֵי וְקַיבְּלוּהּ

מַאי טַעְמָא

דַּעֲבַד כְּרַבִּי אִילְעַאי דְּתַנְיָא רַבִּי אִילְעַאי אוֹמֵר אִם רוֹאֶה אָדָם שֶׁיִּצְרוֹ מִתְגַּבֵּר עָלָיו יֵלֵךְ לְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין מַכִּירִין אוֹתוֹ וְיִלְבַּשׁ שְׁחוֹרִים וְיִתְעַטֵּף שְׁחוֹרִים וְיַעֲשֶׂה מַה שֶּׁלִּבּוֹ חָפֵץ וְאַל יְחַלֵּל שֵׁם שָׁמַיִם בְּפַרְהֶסְיָא

There was a certain rabbinical student who had a bad reputation.

Rav Yehuda said: What should be done? Should I excommunicate him? But the Sages need him! Should I not excommunicate him? But this would be to desecrate the Name of Heaven!

He said to Rabba bar bar Ḥana: Have you heard anything with regard to this issue?

He said to him: Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: What is the meaning of that which is written: “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah at his mouth; for he is a messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:7)? This verse teaches: If the teacher is similar to a messenger of the Lord, then seek Torah from his mouth, but if he is not, then do not seek Torah from his mouth.

Rav Yehuda excommunicated him.

In the end, Rav Yehuda took ill. The Sages came to inquire about his well-being, and he [the one who had been excommunicated] came together with them. When Rav Yehuda saw him, he laughed.

He [the excommunicated scholar] said to him: Was it not enough that you excommunicated me, you even laugh at me?

Rav Yehuda said to him: I was not laughing at you; rather, as I got to the next world, I am happy that I did not flatter even such a man as you.

Rav Yehuda died.

He [the excommunicated scholar] came to the Beit Midrash and said to them [the Sages]: Release me!

The Rabbis said to him: There is no man here as important as Rav Yehuda who could release you, but go before Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah so that he can release you.

He went before him.

He [Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah] said to Rabbi Ami: Go, examine his case. If he ought to be released, release him!

Rabbi Ami examined his case and decided to release him.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani stood up on his feet and said: With regard to the maidservant of Rabbi's household, the Sages did not make light of the excommunication she imposed for three years; with our colleague Yehuda, how much the more so!

Rabbi Zera said: What does this mean that this aged man [Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani] who has not come to the Beit Midrash for how many years now appears? Conclude from this that he ought not be released!

He was not released. He left, crying. A bee came and stung him on his member and he died.

They brought him to the burial cave of the righteous and he was not accepted. They brought him to the cave of the judges and he was accepted.

What is the reason?

Because he acted in accordance with Rabbi Illai, for it is taught: Rabbi Illai says: If a person sees that his impulse overcomes him, let him go to a place he is not known, wear black clothes and wrap himself in black, and let him do what his heart desires but let him not profane the name of Heaven in public.

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?