Delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer, Kol Nidre
Avinu Malkenu: We have strayed and sinned before you.
Anachnu chatanu/ We have done wrong.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha–
For our sins, our God, v’al kulam-for all of these, kaper lanu-lead us to atonement.
This High Holy Day season is the first time our entire community is gathering, since the nation has been shaken by the increasing awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
This could be a difficult sermon to hear if you have been harassed or assaulted. You are not alone. This could be a difficult sermon to hear if you have harassed, assaulted or devalued women, and you are working on the difficult path towards tshuvah/repentance.
Thanks to Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Tarana Burke and Alyssa Milano, “Me Too,” has been our teacher this year. Although it is not women’s or victims’ or survivors’ responsibility to fix sexism–a problem that hurts not only women, but all genders– the brave Me Too accounts have helped to demonstrate the magnitude. It’s your neighbor posting MeToo. Actually, many of your neighbors.
Sexual harassment and assault are not only a problem among public figures; if it’s out there, it’s in this room, and in us. We have done wrong, not only in acts of sexual harassment or assault, but in our tolerance of systems that uphold gender power imbalance. Al chet shechatanu lifanecha–for the sins we have committed against You with sexual misconduct and abuse of power, lead us to atonement.
Men experience sexual harassment and assault, and there are female perpetrators, but it’s the misconduct against women, that is the epidemic. Because sexual harassment and assault are not about sex; they are about power. And societally, women have less power. When our society treats women differently from men, it is about unequal power.
There are many areas of gender bias, that I care about, but will have to save for a different sermon, including the pay-gap, rape culture, men’s repentance paths, and LGBTQ+ rights; and for the purpose of tonight’s message, I will speak with some gender binary simplicity. I’d like to focus tonight on the notion that, when we treat women differently than the way the treat men, it leads to a power imbalance in society, that enables power abuses, such as: the devaluing of women, and sexual harassment. And, I’d like to focus on how each of us can identify our own power, and use it.
How easy it is for us to miss the problem. My male friends tell me, they want to do right by women’s equality, but they tell me how easy it is to miss the sexism, or to let it slide. In Psalm 90, the Psalmist calls out: “O God, You can see our concealed shortcomings.” Indeed, often, gender bias is concealed—implicit, quiet, or so normalized that it’s accepted—hardly noticed.
Last year at Berkman Mercaz Limud (our religious school), a father and his young daughter and son, let’s call them, Sophie and Max, were greeted by a gentleman. This man sweetly said to Sophie, “you are so beautiful!” And the father said to the man, politely but loud enough so that Sophie and Max could hear it: “She is smart and she is kind.”
The Yom Kippur afternoon Torah portion, Kiddoshim, teaches: “Rebuke your friend.” Don’t humiliate, but, don’t let it slide. Tradition rejects quiet bystanding. Speaking up in this way is not easy; it feels awkward. How many of us agree with this father, but have not spoken up. It’s time for us to determine: We are going to speak up. These children see their father rejecting the way society treats girls and boys differently.
So our boy, Max: After a lifetime of hearing his father speak up for the important reasons his sister should be valued, what do you think the impact will be? Picture Max as an adult. I imagine this boy will be much more likely to value women as equals, and I imagine both Sophie and Max will challenge situations when women are treated differently than men.
Now, had the father remained quiet, or had he agreed—not just this one time but constantly, because she gets such appearance comments all the time—had he agreed: “Thank, you, yes she is beautiful,” that too, would have sent a message. Perhaps then, his son and daughter would be conditioned to become less likely to speak up in the face of sexism.
Studies show that, most women do not speak up –nor do bystanders around them– when they experience devaluing comments, or when they experience sexual harassment. Why such silence?! What are people afraid of? Losing a job? Perhaps. But I believe that most of all, women are trying to protect their dignity– to avoid allowing their character to be put on trial.
Where is this fear rooted? In reality. In my formative years, I witnessed the Professor Anita Hill hearings in Oct. 1991. As now-Justice Clarence Thomas was being considered for the United States Supreme Court, Professor Hill shared her experience of his sexual harassment. The all-male, all-white Senate committee, grilled Professor Hill. Senator Arlen Spector (of blessed memory), a friend to women’s reproductive rights in many other seasons, accused Hill of being “unfair” to bring the accusation; and committee chairperson Senator Joe Biden, now an advocate for women, neglected to bring a sexual harassment expert witness, leaving Anita Hill to explain what sexual harassment is! So many of us women watched, praying that we would never find ourselves sitting in the seat she occupied. Not in a Senate hearing, not in a courtroom, not in an HR office. It’s no wonder when women are inclined to accuse anonymously.
The hearings process gave permission for people to abuse power in the workplace and to demonize accusers when they do step forward; we see this still today. The Senators, the nation, believed Anita Hill; it just didn’t matter. Sexual harassment was acceptable; some of the members of that Judiciary panel could themselves have been accused of harassment. The system protects itself. Beyond the US Senate, our systems protect themselves.
What can we do with an inequality so entrenched in our society? How do we confront systems that protect the predator, that tolerate the abuse of power? We begin by turning to Jewish wisdom.
In our ancient and patriarchal tradition, women’s voices are missing. Yet, in our texts we encounter teachings about power which can ground our understanding of Jewish values that apply today.
In the Torah’s story of Babel, the people of the city endeavor to build a tower with its top in the sky, in order to make a name for themselves. But God takes it down, saying: “If…this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do, will be out of their reach.” Nothing out of their reach. Unchecked power.
When God sees unchecked power, God dismantles it.
When we see unchecked power, we must dismantle it.
The power imbalance, misuse and abuse that enables inequality, is the same power imbalance, that enables sexual harassment, and is the same power imbalance that enables the devaluing of women, and the blind eyes that surround it.
So what can we do, to dismantle it?
I am grateful that so many people, especially men, have asked: what can we do to help? It is as if they are asking, how do we partner with Sophie and Max’s father, and determine: we are going to speak up. This is about power, and so we begin by taking steps to balance power. I’d like to offer you, one action list designed for all genders, and a second list designed specifically for men.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha– For our sins, O God, lead us to atonement. I invite you to join me, in these actions that we can take, no matter our gender. Let’s call this first list, the Dismantle Gender Power Imbalance Action List. (I know, it rolls right off the tongue.) We have been conditioned to act in ways that maintain sexism– this is not a blame list; it’s a betterment list. OK, here’s where we start:
When a woman tells you she has been harassed, believe her.
When you start a conversation with a woman, notice how easy it is to default to a comment about her looks. Resist that temptation. Women are judged by and get so many comments on their looks, that it devalues their work and other contributions.
If you see a person touch someone who looks uncomfortable with it, say something.
If a woman has an earned title, and you are in her professional setting and in a professional situation, address her using that title.
If you hear a sexist joke, say: That’s not funny and you’re better than that.
If you hear your dentist refer to the hygenists as “the girls,” say: please speak about
professional adult females in your office, as women.
Lead with an understanding that no arena, achieves its potential, until different kinds of
people are represented–not the boardroom, the Senate, the synagogue—so pursue diversity in leadership cultivation, hiring, and professional mentoring pipelines.
Bring anti-bias training, to the places where you lead.
Many areas of change will be strengthened by men’s initiative, and I welcome your partnership. I do not blame you for sexism; we inherited it. And now, you have the opportunity to do something about it. Let’s call this second list, the Dismantle Gender Power Imbalance Action List for Allies:
If you are invited to participate, on an all-male panel or committee, decline, and say why.
Negotiate for, and take, parental leave.
Don’t participate in all-male networking, whether at the bar or on the golf-course.
Notice if more meeting or conversation time is filled with men’s voices, than with
women’s. Practice self-restraint; cede the floor.
Imagine if, in October 1991, two of the most powerful men in our nation, had had the courage to use their power, to educate the Senate committee, and the nation, about sexual harassment. They might have been sacrificing their jobs, their friends, their power, their status.
I am not challenging victims to step forward; it is not the victims’ responsibility to accuse. I am challenging the rest of us, during times when we are not the victims.
Now, which items from the Dismantle List, apply to areas where you have influence? Imagine the place in your life where you have the most power, the most status, the most to lose. There, you witness sexual harassment, or anything that maintains gender power imbalance. You allow yourself to see it. When you witness abuse of power, by someone who can strip you of your power… do you accommodate the predator, or do you allow yourself to notice?
Now, what would it take, to make a change to that entire system? Even if you do not witness harassment, how do your circles — your office, your school, your committee, your kitchen table– how do those systems treat women and men differently? When you see aspects of a system that benefit you, but limit women, do you speak up? Are you ready to make a sacrifice?
Perhaps the Dismantle Gender Power Imbalance Action List sounds easy enough. I admit: I don’t think it’s easy. I have pretty solid feminist credentials: I serve on the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Task Force for the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate; I wrote the chapter on Judaism and Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Reform Movement’s new Social Justice book; I have a degree in Women’s Studies. And yet, I do not think it is easy to speak up. I too, have failed.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha: for the sins I have committed when I chose to stay quiet so someone would like me. My child’s school sports list was emailed: Varsity soccer. Varsity Girls’ soccer. Varsity hockey. Varsity Girls’ hockey. When boys are the norm, as if they have no gender, and girls are the other, because they have a gender, the gender power is out of balance; when boys and girls are treated differently, girls are devalued. But my kid is starting a new school. I didn’t want them to think I was difficult. So I kept quiet. On an easy one! Instead of risking a small sacrifice for the pursuit to dismantle gender power imbalance.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha: for the sins I have committed when I accommodated sexism for my own gain. I wrestled with whether to share this story with you, but I want you to know, I understand how hard it is to stand up to sexism.
Some time ago, we had a guest who was involved in a fundraising effort at Rodeph Shalom. When I introduced myself, he proceeded to say things he would never say to a man. He questioned my title and authority based on my gender, he spoke with sexual innuendo, he leaned in too close, and he had that look on his face. If you don’t know the look, consider yourself lucky; most of the women in the room know the look.
This was not my first sexism rodeo; I’ve faced worse, as many of us have. So I knew how to respond in the moment. I firmly but politely set clear boundaries with my words, and I physically stepped back to put space between us. And then I left the room, with the hope that my response was enough, to set a tone. But, do you see what I did not do? I did not demand that our guest act properly with our staff and congregants. I did not protect others. I did not risk tempting him to walk out of the building. Our congregation was depending on him. I protected the institution, by accommodating the predator. Later I learned that he was, in fact inappropriate with female staff members and congregants. Nothing egregious, but not in alignment with our safe, values-driven community of profound connections.
I am not at peace with my response to our guest, and I know that our entire Dismantling Gender Power Imbalance Action List, is harder than it sounds. I need to work on it; I need to atone. We all do.
So pervasive is inequality, that we have grown accustomed to it–sometimes we don’t even notice. Psalm 90 prods us: “God, You can see our concealed shortcomings.” The Psalm inspires us: look more closely, find shortcomings, so they are no longer concealed from our own understanding.
This has been a ground-shaking year of gender justice perspective, and yet, we have only just begun. We have not seen the sacrifice yet. A handful of high-profile men, does not correct an epidemic. As much progress as has been made, women and men are still treated differently. Sexism remains permitted.
Anachnu chatanu/ We have done wrong.
We have accommodated the predator.
We have protected systems that treat men and women unequally.
We have not made sacrifices, in the face of unchecked power.
We have closed our eyes to the people of the city, who endeavor to build a tower with its top in the sky,
in order to make a name for themselves, as if nothing is out of their reach.
It is time for our tshuvah— our change.
It is time to reveal concealed shortcomings, in our circles, our institutions, and in ourselves.
It is time to pursue gender justice, in every corner of our society.
When God sees unchecked power, God dismantles it.
When we see unchecked power, we must dismantle it.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha– For our sins, O God, for all of these, lead us to tshuvah.
Sermon given on Sunday, September 9 by Rabbi Eli Freedman
HaYom Harat Olam; today is the birthday of the world. Tonight, Erev Rosh Hashanah, we begin the New Year of 5779. And tomorrow morning, in the words of the song we just sang:
Let the sun rise,
On a new day,
To warm the land,
To warm our hearts,
To warm our hands.
Let the sun rise on a new day. What a powerful message for this New Year and for everyday of our lives. We have the ability, each new day, in every sunrise, to warm the land, to warm our hearts, to warm our hands; to make the world a better place. This is the message of the High Holy Days.
But all too often, in today’s 24 hour news cycle, it is hard to remember that the sun will rise on a new day tomorrow. I have heard from many of you this year about about your concerns; overwhelmed with the brokenness in our world; left with nothing but feelings of hopelessness.
There are so many problems that seem out of reach. The Supreme Court, the genocide in Syria, world hunger; they feel insurmountable. And while there are many in our community working on issues across the globe, from Washington to the Middle East, it sometimes feels like we are making little difference and we become disheartened.
We can, however, make an immediate, noticeable, lasting, difference for the neighbor who is food insecure, or the child who is reading far below grade level, or the refugee in need of babysitting while taking ESL classes. None of these is extraordinary. None would get 500 of your friends to take to Facebook. But these small and ongoing repairs are a path to building community, and ultimately to changing the world. As it says on the inscription of my tallit:
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה
It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:16)
I recently saw the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” If there is one thing that Fred Rogers understood better than anyone, it is the power of community. The idea of being a good neighbor was central to Mister Rogers’ ideology. “Life is for service,” he wrote, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood taught me and an entire generation that civic engagement, taking an active role in our communities, being a good neighbor, can change our world.
Fred Rogers was a minister. Although he never sought to push his own religious views on anyone, it is clear that his ideology of civic engagement was rooted in his faith. Rogers’s theology can be traced to the biblical notion of “neighbor.”
As it says in our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah portion, K’doshim, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” While the biblical use of “neighbor” was probably defined by proximate geography or by religion, for Mister Rogers neighbor was a moral term.
Similarly, at the 1963 March on Washington, Rabbi Joachim Prinz famously said, “Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity”
Yet today, the notion of a neighborhood in which everyone belongs has been replaced by divisiveness, exclusion, and seclusion. Rogers was well aware of our own propensity towards isolationism — an early episode of his show featured King Friday, the ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, attempting to build a wall around his kingdom to protect it from change. Mister Rogers’ theology was radical in 1968 when his show debuted, and it remains radical today. That’s why it resonated. That’s why it’s still necessary.
There was another religious leader writing almost 2000 years earlier whose radical theology was also rooted in the power of community – Rabbi Hillel. Like us, Hillel lived in interesting times. During the reign of King Herod, life in Israel was not easy. Hillel saw corruption, inequality, persecution, and senseless violence firsthand. We can imagine Hillel and his contemporaries becoming overwhelmed with the problems in of their world; paralyzed by the magnitude of the injustices around them.
But rather than just retreat from the world, Hillel had a simple answer:
אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר
Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirkei Avot 2:4)
Just like Mister Rogers’ invitation, “Won’t you be my neighbor,” Hillel’s words call us to engage in our community. Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, in his Social Justice Commentary of Pirkei Avot, elucidates this verse, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” writing:
One may understand this teaching as requiring submission, obedience, conformity, and acquiescing to dogma. But this cannot be the case, since the essence of being a Jew is cultivating oneself to swim against the tide. We must be individuals of struggle rather than a people of simple acceptance. Nonetheless, we cannot be anarchist or libertarian. Judaism requires that we build communities and societal systems to support one another.
“Do not separate yourself from the community.” But Hillel’s words do not end there. In the very next verse, Hillel continues:
וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ
In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be a mentsch. (Pirkei Avot 2:5)
Hillel’s words feel so relevant today. It sometimes feels like everyone is acting immorally and we have become acclimated into thinking that this kind of behavior is okay. It is far too easy to become normalized to the immorality and to want to just give up.
But Hillel says, “No! When faced with an unjust world, strive to be a mentsch.” Although he never makes the connection, I wonder if Hillel was speaking about the biblical character, Noah. We read in Genesis:
נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹֽרֹתָיו
Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation. (Genesis 6:9)
Why end with the phrase, “b’dorotav – in his generation?” This modifier, “in his generation,” can be read two very different ways. In one reading, we could say that Noah was just ‘meh.’ Objectively speaking, he really wasn’t that righteous – it was only because everyone else on earth at the time were so wicked that by comparison Noah was a real stand-up guy.
Conversely, we can also read the phrase, “in his generation,” in light of Hillel’s statement, to say that Noah was truly exceptional. To be righteous and blameless when everyone around you is acting inhumane is even more difficult. What a powerful message. And one that many in our community already know so well.
I want to tell you about some of our congregants who are already working to strengthen our neighborhood and give back to the world in the face of inhumanity all around them.
We have a group of congregants who have been cooking brunch for the residents of Bethesda Project’s North Broad shelter on the second Sunday of every month for many years. And this past year, we began a new project called Hunger Response where we cook meals in our Rodeph Shalom kitchen to donate to the shelter.
Many of you already know about our MENTOR program, a cadre of loyal volunteers who go into schools to tutor. A volunteer once told me about bringing her fourth grader a book on animals, since she knew it was an interest of his. It was the first book this little boy had ever owned.
I recently met with a bat mitzvah student who is volunteering at HIAS, babysitting refugee children while their parents are in ESL classes. The student told me how meaningful the project is, as she is not only helping families in need but also forming lasting bonds with these children who have been through so much.
Our congregants understand what it means to engage in community, to be good neighbors; and we as a congregation are better for it. In their book, “Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America,” lay/clergy partners, Judy Seldin-Cohen and Rabbi Judy Schindler make this very argument.
In one of my favorite sections of the book, they relate a well known story about volunteerism and advocacy. They tell the story of a villager who sees a stranger thrashing in the current of the nearby river. Without stopping to think, the villager jumps into the river and pulls the stranger to safety. Soon a schedule of lifeguards is established, and every few days another villager is hailed as a local hero after pulling another stranger from the river. As more and more resources are devoted to rescues, finally someone stands up and says, “Maybe we should travel upstream and see why so many people are falling into the river.”
The message is simple – we can line the proverbial river with lifeguards, pulling out strangers who fall into the current of hard time. And we can also travel upstream, enlisting our community to remedy the sources of this suffering. The hope is that volunteering is a first step that naturally leads to looking upstream.
When cooking meals for residents at the Bethesda North shelter, we travel upstream to think about the root causes of homelessness and food insecurity. When we know the name and the story of a homeless person, we are empowered to advocate on his behalf.
When volunteering with our MENTOR program, we travel upstream and notice the inadequate funding of our public schools. When we know the name and the story of an underserved student, we are empowered to advocate on her behalf.
And after spending countless after-school hours with refugee children, we travel upstream and feel compelled to advocate for refugee and immigration justice in our country.
I think Hillel and the sages (read: Mister Rogers) push us to act locally so that our actions might lead us to global advocacy.
We have an amazing opportunity this spring to put these sentiments into action at the Reform movement’s biennial social justice leadership conference, the Consultation of Conscience, on May 19th – 21st. Led by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the RAC, our movements advocacy arm in Washington, D.C., the Consultation empowers congregations through leadership development; opportunities for network and community building; and active dialogue culminating in an afternoon of advocacy on Capitol Hill.
Past speakers at the Consultation have included activists and leaders like: Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, who has worked tirelessly to promote the cause of prison and criminal justice reform.
Our vision is to take a whole busload from Rodeph Shalom. It will be a chance to live out our faith in the public square; to take Hillel’s words of civic engagement and make them a reality.
But we don’t have to wait until May to look upstream. This fall we are working once again with our multi-faith community organizing group, POWER – Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild on a voter engagement drive. Keep a lookout for opportunities to register voters, phone bank, or canvass in our neighborhood in the coming weeks.
When Fred Rogers briefly came out of retirement to host a TV special after September 11, he said: “We are all called to be ‘Tikkun Olam,’ repairers of creation.” This was quite a departure for Rogers, as he never preached religion on his show – only kindness and equality.
So why mention ‘tikkun olam,’ the Jewish imperative to repair the world from its brokenness?
Perhaps it was Rogers’ unfailing optimism which connected him to this Jewish value. Even in the darkest moments, he would look for a silver lining.
“When I was a boy,” Rogers recalled, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
In a moment, we are going to continue in our service with Avinu Malkeinu, THE prayer of the High Holy Day season. We ask God to hear our voice, to have compassion on us, to halt the onslaught of sickness, violence, and hunger, to halt the reign of those who cause pain and terror and ultimately to renew for us a year of goodness.
But we know that God does not work in isolation. And so we ask You, God, Avinu Malkeinu, Almighty and Merciful:
Help us to find the helpers
Help us to be the helpers
Help us to pull our neighbors out of the river
Help us look upstream
And help us remember that tomorrow
The sun WILL rise,
On a new day.
I was on the phone with a friend last week after an especially long day watching Josephine and our new addition, Nora, all by myself. My friend asked, “So how was babysitting today?”
“I was not babysitting,” I said, keeping my voice as gentle as possible to correct them. “When you’re their father, it’s called parenting.”
Laurel recently went back to work full time, and while of course, many would refer to her as a working mom, to quote our senior rabbi, “When is the last time you heard someone use the term, ‘working dad?’”
In all respect to my friend and those that use the term “working mom” and not “working dad,” I think these cases highlight a classic misconception in today’s society; when women are watching the kids, it’s what they’re supposed to do, whereas when men watch their kids, it’s some sort of special event.
As many of you know, I just returned from two months of parental leave after the birth of our second daughter. I am immensely grateful to our entire congregation, and especially the lay leadership and my colleagues, for allowing me to have this special time with my family. Three a.m. feedings, hour long walks to get Nora to sleep, so many diapers, and of course lots of cuddles truly helped me bond with our new daughter, and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget. I recognize how blessed I am to be part of a community that values parental leave and know that not everyone has these same opportunities.
However, there are many men who do have the opportunity to take parental leave, but shy away from it. A nationwide Department of Labor study found that more than 70% of new fathers took 10 days or less off work. Some reasons for this low rate of paternity leave include societal stigmas ingrained in traditional gender roles and the fear of income loss.
And these are real concerns. A University of Oregon study found that taking time off for family reasons reduced men’s earnings. When men reduced their hours for family reasons, they lost 15 percent in earnings over the course of their careers. Which, by the way, is still not as much as the 20 percent wage gap in general between men and women in this country.
However, the benefits of fathers taking parental leave far outway the these concerns. Liza Mundy of the New America Foundation, author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Our Culture, helped push the concept of paternity leave into the ongoing national conversation about “having it all” as working parents with her Atlantic article, “The Daddy Track.”
Mundy points out that fathers who take paternity leave and play an equal role in the difficult first few weeks with a newborn tend to stay more active in the child’s life as he or she grows up, creating a more even distribution of household and baby responsibilities, and avoiding the “second shift” paradox (when working mothers do most of the household work, even though they work full-time).
Mundy further concludes that the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women and the businesses and nations that employ them, since paternity leave has been shown to “boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains.” In other words, it’s a smart economic strategy for governments, because it shrinks the gender pay gap and helps ensure that women, who, in many countries, are often better educated than men, return to the workforce after having children.
Paternity leave is a feminist issue. It is about gender equality. Paternity leave is a unique opportunity for fathers to use their male privilege to help their wives and all women in the workforce.
And paternity leave is a Jewish issue as well. In this week’s Torah portion, we check back in with the famous Daughters of Zelophehad. In case you don’t remember from last week, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, five women, were the only heirs to their father, Zelophehad’s property. The law at the time said that only men could inherit property, and thus their father’s household would fall to some other relative. However, they petitioned Moses, asking that the law be changed to allow them to receive their rightful inheritance.
Moses then uses his privilege, as a man and as a leader, to help these women. Just like fathers who take parental leave and risk income loss or perceived affronts to their masculinity, Moses takes a risk and goes before God. Even for Moses, we can imagine this moment was filled with fear and awe – you just don’t go up to God and ask for something willy-nilly.
Moses models for all of us, and especially those with privilege, what it means to be willing to give up some of his own security to lift up the voice of the oppressed.
Also, in this weeks double portion we find various regulations concerning the status of women’s vows. The portion describes the circumstances under which a woman’s vow may be annulled. We read that if her father or husband hears the vow on the day that she makes it, he can nullify that vow. Setting aside for a moment, the uncomfortable, blatant misogyny of our tradition, we can learn a lot from this passage.
Once again, we see men with privilege and the opportunity to use that privilege to lift up the voice of the oppressed. Imagine what it would have been like in those days for a man, a husband or father, to allow his wife to make a public vow and not comment on it. In this case, silence was actually a sign of acceptance. In his silence, a man had the ability to make a statement about gender equality. Imagine the message he could send to the entire community about a woman’s agency and her ability to think for herself and make her own decisions. And remember that this was all done in the public square.
That last piece is very important. Men can take all the paternity leave they want, but if it is done in secret, it does not have the added effect of helping others. Thankfully, there is a shift going on in today’s corporate world, with many tech companies in particular leading the way. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook took two months off and was incredibly vocal about it – setting an example for all of his male employees to follow.
Similarly, Twitter senior client partner Bob Belciano, who helps mentor new fathers and took 12 weeks off after his son was born, was recently quoted in a New York Times article about paternity leave saying, “If you don’t take [the leave], it’s borderline idiotic.” This seems to be the consistent message young dads get from senior managers and older fathers in this new age of gender equality in the workplace.
In responding to the Daughters of Zelophehad’s plea, Moses says that their request was just. Working for gender equality is not merely a nice thing to do, it is an issue of justice. So here are a few things you can do, fellow feminist dad (and everyone else who cares about justice):
- If you have access to paid paternity leave, take it. ALL of it. And be public about it.
- If you work for an employer that offers “primary caregiver” leave, call it out for what it is: a discriminatory policy that perpetuates damaging gender stereotypes.
- If you work for an employer that offers different lengths of parental leave to mothers and fathers (beyond the 6–8 weeks medically necessary for women to recover from childbirth), call it out for what it is: a discriminatory policy that perpetuates damaging gender stereotypes.
- If you don’t have access to paid leave, ask for it.
- If your family can afford it, take unpaid leave (the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides for 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for some categories of employees). If you use this benefit, thank the women who fought for it.
- Do you have a male colleague, friend, or family member contemplating taking leave? Encourage them to take the full amount.
- Contact your Senators and Representatives, at the federal and state level. There is currently legislation pending in U.S. Congress called the FAMILY Act, which would provide 12 weeks of paid family leave (to include parental leave, personal medical leave, elder care, etc). In the absence of federal action, many states and municipalities have also introduced legislation. Tell your local reps to take action!
- If you live in New Jersey, congratulations (sorry, PA)! You have some form of paid family leave. When you use this benefit: thank the women who fought for it.
Together we can create a society of gender equality and justice. Ultimately, my hope is that one day people won’t refer to fathers as “babysitting” their own children, and instead refer to them as “working dads.”