When hundreds of worshippers struck their chests in unison at last week’s Yom Kippur services, many had something new in mind: the recent reckoning of the #MeToo movement in the Jewish community.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, rabbi-in-residence at Avodah, a Jewish social justice organization, co-authored an “alternate version” of Al Chet and Ashamnu — the part of the Yom Kippur liturgy focused on repentance — that spoke to “our #MeToo era,” she told The Jewish Week.
The addition is the latest in an ongoing effort to ensure that ancient tradition and ritual speaks to an ever-more informed — and “woke” — audience. Similar to the ongoing transformation of the seder plate — to which, most recently, a Jewish human-rights group added a tomato as a reminder of workers’ rights and fair trade — the supplementary text addressed a sensitive cultural moment.
“While the traditional liturgy is eternally relevant, Hebrew is not necessarily accessible to everyone,” said Rabbi Ruttenberg, a vocal advocate for victims of sexual harassment and assault. The text she co-wrote was intended as a “bridge,” she said, linking the current national and communal moment to the words on the page. “It was especially important to me that people could connect with the text, particularly in a time when our society is struggling to articulate the role we have played in enabling a toxic culture.”
The lines read, in part: “For the sin we committed through inappropriate use of power./ For the sin we committed by inappropriate sexual advances. / For the sin we committed by putting people in power without oversight.”
Congregations across denominations integrated the liturgy into their services, including B’nai Jeshurun the prominent Upper West Side non-denominational (formerly Conservative) congregation; Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox congregation; and Romemu, a home for the Jewish Renewal movement on the Upper West Side.
“I did not expect much was going to happen with it,” said Rabbi Ruttenberg, who was “overwhelmed” by the prayer’s reception. “It’s a powerful statement about our community.”
Shira Berkovits, founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, a startup nonprofit organization that helps Jewish communal institutions prevent and contend with abuses of power, worked with Rabbi Ruttenberg on the ad hoc effort to write the alternative liturgy.
“Almost all people hold power of some sort over another, and many abuse that power at some point or another, even if only in a small way,” said Berkovits. Even “fierce” advocates for victims may be able to find themselves in the words, she said.
“We can do better to prevent our own abuse of power, to stop enabling others’, and to stand squarely on the side of victims and justice.” The prayer, which speaks about the sin of “prioritizing nuance over moral clarity,” is particularly relevant today,” Berkovits said, “where there is so much value placed on empathizing with all sides.”
“In reality, sometimes we need a little less nuance and a little more moral clarity,” said Berkovits.