Rosh Hashanah: A Time For Divine Consent
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Rosh Hashanah: A Time For Divine Consent

What the High Holidays can teach us about consent and the #metoo movement.

Prayer means different things to everyone. Pexels
Prayer means different things to everyone. Pexels

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a teenager at orientation for summer camp, a retired doctor got up to talk about STDs and then segued into consent. To a room full of young Jewish men he said: “If a girl says ‘no,’ she means no. If she says ‘don’t,’ she means don’t. And if she says ‘stop,’ she means stop. But if she says all three together – well then there is room to negotiate.”

We all laughed, unaware of how we were contributing to a climate of misogyny and violence against women. Times have changed since that talk in the pavilion, but I’m not sure how much, to be honest. Now, with twenty-five more years behind me, and with a teenage son and daughter myself, I feel that just as repentance requires a change in action, so too is there an urgent need for communal detoxing, especially from male Jewish leaders and role models

The objectification of women and the invariable violence that ensues is nothing new, unfortunately. We read the biblical narrative of Dina being raped by Shechem, and the forced beauty pageants in the time of Queen Esther. Every year before Rosh Hashana we also read about the Eishet Yefat Toar – the woman of attractive appearance.  

When a soldier went out to war and found a non-Jewish woman he desired, he was permitted to take her captive and she would go through a process said to make her less attractive. At the conclusion of this thirty day period, the soldier was encouraged to release her, but was also given the option to marry her. The verse uses a strange word for this transitional period: “yerech,” meaning month. The Zohar says this refers to the current month, Elul.

What advice is the Torah offering to combat the inhumane desire to exercise dominion over women?

The laws of Eishet Yefat Toar are given in the context of the verse, “When you go out to war against your enemies” (Deuteronomy 21:14). The rabbis point out that the verse shouldn’t need to mention “enemies.” Obviously if you are going to war against them, they are by definition your enemies. Rather, the rabbis frame “enemies” here as the Yetzer Hara – our internal evil inclination. Indeed Rashi, on this verse, quotes the Talmud that “the Torah is only speaking in opposition of our evil inclination.”

So what advice is the Torah offering to combat the inhumane desire to exercise dominion over women? And why is this relevant to the month of Elul in preparation for Rosh Hashana?

The Gaon observes that there are two words for desire in Hebrew: “cheshek” and “chefetz.” The word that is used by Shechem in the rape of Dina (Genesis 34:19), about the woman captured in war (Deuteronomy 21:14), and with Esther (2:14) is chefetz. It is not coincidental that it is also the word used for an object. When we perceive someone only as a thing that can fulfill our desire, then we dehumanize them.

When we perceive someone only as a thing that can fulfill our desire, then we dehumanize them.

The alternative word for desire is cheshek, an elevated way of yearning and passionate longing, the way that G-d does towards us (Deuteronomy 7:7) and the way we are meant to cleave to the Torah (Yevomus 63b).

Elul is the time when G-d created the world because G-d’s perfection also has needs, primarily the need to give. The Ramchal writes, “Since G-d alone is the true good, G-d’s desire will be satisfied only when benefiting others.” This month invites us to reflect on how God engages in relationship with people. G-d’s intimacy is an invitation that requires active consent from another.

When G-d wants to be close to us through the Sabbath, G-d tells Moses, “I have a precious gift in my storehouse… Go and let them know” (Shabat 10b). We do the same on Friday night when we greet the shabbat bride. We turn and face the entrance, share our intent… and wait.

G-d’s intimacy is an invitation that requires active consent from another.

Each week we say in kiddush, “And the Children of Israel guarded the Shabbat.” We are reminded that things which are powerful need to be protected to make sure they are only used for good. In Hebrew, the first letter of each word spells the word for intimacy, rendering it “and they protected sacred space.” It is a communal responsibility to create a world that respects all people as people.

Rosh Hashanah is the day that G-d created a boundary in our relationship and an expectation that we respect it. It is also the day that we didn’t listen and ate from G-d’s forbidden fruit. As unrecognizably different as the world is from that time, and from my world from twenty-five years ago, the working parts unfortunately are the same, and the quest to honor the rights of others continues.

This year again has seen the horrific dehumanization of people in our country: children torn from their parent’s arms at the border and put in cages, people of color afraid that just living could cost them their lives, women continuing to be objectified, harassed, and abused, and a bill in Massachusetts this November that would legalize discrimination against transgender folks in public places if passed.

How can those of us with the privilege of our voices being heard raise them more powerfully on behalf of those whose needs and rights are being violated?

These atrocities are only possible when we fail to see all people as equally created by the Divine, but rather as a chefetz – an object that can be exploited or disposed of if it doesn’t align with the vision of those with perceived power. These policies are moving quickly and in worse directions.

How can those of us with the privilege of our voices being heard raise them more powerfully on behalf of those whose needs and rights are being violated? What can we do to amplify the screams of those in the world that protest “No, I am not okay with this!”

With each blast of the shofar, envisioning the cries of those still oppressed, let us realign ourselves with G-d and model the practice of active consent, combat efforts to dehumanize people, and commit to the unrelenting struggle to fulfill the holy desire of a world where all are free, safe, and respected.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.

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