Rabbi Jill Maderer
Congregation Rodeph Shalom, March 11, 2022
Vashti is Now: Accountability in the Reform Movement Sexual Misconduct Reports
Next week, we celebrate Purim. It is undisputed: the Purim story is implausible—never happened. Megillat Ester/the Book of Esther is a farce. A text for a ridiculous time when the Jewish calendar prescribes that we let go of the weight of the world and laugh. And trust me, at our Sunday morning shpeil and carnival and our Wednesday Erev Purim celebration, you will see: I welcome that lighter side of Purim. For when we fulfill the mitzvah/the sacred act, to hear Megillah and we see the shpeils/the creative skits, we should laugh. It isn’t real.
And. Even comedy offers some truth. That’s what makes it funny— a shared understanding. With Megillah, sure enough, moments worthy of a serious look, before Purim arrives. Moments when we say: yes. That tells our story. We see our world, our society, ourselves. When Esther faces fear and finds her bravery in the words: maybe you are here for just this time- maybe you have attained power for just this purpose. And we hold up a mirror to ask ourselves: for what purpose are we here? For what purpose can we use our power? It’s our truth, too.
And Vashti. Before Esther enters the picture, the Megillah teaches: King Ahashverosh attempts to coerce Queen Vashti into dancing naked for his party guests. Queen Vashti refuses. And she is never seen again – Banished, killed, or somehow disappeared. For years, I’ve told this coercion part of the story, by mocking Ahashverosh, making fun of this silly man — or of any man – who does not understand how wonderful it is to be with a partner who can think for themself. Twisting it into a positive message that we can draw out of our megillah.
But tonight, I’d like to be sure to do so with eyes wide open. Not in a Purim moment of levity, but in a harder look at the truths in our narrative. In the explicit lessons we ought to learn.
What does King Ahashverosh’s story say about consent, and what does our storytelling of an abusive king — cast as a silly fool – say about accountability? In ultimately protecting the Jews at the end of the story, Ahashverosh does finally see things Esther’s way, and ally with our people. But we cannot allow ourselves to forget the king’s role in the first half of the story. The king abuses his power with Vashti. And in an often glossed over part of the story about the king’s acquisition of a new wife, he is in a position to coerce the young women who are brought to him to audition for the position of queen. Bad enough that he would be judging the young women on their looks, it was assuredly not only their looks that were involved in the pageant. Reflecting a different time and society, the text does not even pretend the women have agency.
And the king…is it because the king eventually helps to save the Jews, that when it comes to his abuse of women we tend to let him off the hook? Do we forgive Ahashverosh his misogyny because he joins our stand against Jew-hating? Tonight, let’s lift the masks and uncover the truth. Let’s not miss this: in his abuse of women, the king takes no responsibility. He is never held to account. And we cannot pretend that only happens in ancient Persia. Aren’t there today, too, the many who feel license to coerce, who abuse power, and often because of their talents, contributions, or status, they are never held to account. Silenced, their victims witness their impunity.
Indeed, something of Vashti’s truth is shared with many women and people of all genders who sit and listen to Vashti’s story, and knowingly nod and understand. Victims and survivors who have been unseen, unheard, dismissed, disappeared.
The Reform Movement just issued the last of the 3 sexual misconduct reports of the leading institutions of our national Reform Jewish community. Our Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College/HUC, our rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis/CCAR, and our Movement of congregations and summer camps called the Union for Reform Judaism/URJ, conducted independent investigations of past misconduct and shared publicly their devastating reports. I honor the courage of survivors who came forward and also respect those who have chosen not to. If my raising this topic for you triggers trauma, please consider reaching out to clergy or to the resources offered below.
Of our seminary, HUC: the investigation reports decades of sexual abuse, harassment, a culture of protection of abusers, of gender-based bullying and professional gatekeeping, and of sexist attitudes. Hundreds of women were harassed or assaulted by men in the very highest levels of power including HUC presidents. Women before my time look back on their ordination—a memory I have the privilege of cherishing—and they recall their abuser or their friends’ abuser laying his hands on them, tarnishing their sacred moment. HUC has committed to a process of tshuvah/repentance that includes accountability, learning, restitution, and change.
Of our rabbinic arm, the CCAR: the investigation reports on an ethics process, in need of repair. Already the CCAR has taken steps to improve and professionalize the ethics work and has committed to create a better future, both for victims and for accused rabbis. Accountability is critical for the victims, for justice, and for safety. And also, a process for accountability is important because we are all imperfect. We all have the capacity to do wrong, real harm, and need paths for repair. Not all offenses are of the same severity; that’s the problem with zero-tolerance policies. There is a difference between someone’s worst moment, or in the case of a predator, someone’s many moments. So paths of tshuvah are complicated. I’d guess you can say, as I can: I know people who have been victims and I know people who have been accused or have perpetrated. It is my care for all of them and my love of the rabbinate that makes me long for fair processes and just outcomes.
Of our Movement-wide arm, the URJ: the investigation reports a history of URJ staff and camp professionals’ harassment, covering up, and boundary-crossing. In my involvement with Camp Harlam I am grateful to say I have witnessed a new reality. For years, URJ camps have become a shining example of transformation past societal wrongs into safe practices. What I have seen in places like URJ Camp Harlam and URJ Six Points Creative Arts Academy are environments for youth that are as safe, respectful, and Jewish values-driven as any setting that I have experienced, anywhere.
And still, no justice can feel complete. Among the many tragic effects of misconduct, I see the fate of Vashti. So many of these victims dismissed, unseen, even vanished. Their disappearance from Jewish life reflects deep pain that breaks my heart. But it is not only the victims’ loss. It is the Reform Movement’s loss, the Jewish People’s loss. Potential talents, clergy, would-be leaders, congregants, Early Learning Center parents, souls…lost to the Jewish world.
We will never be able to reconnect them all. What has been taken, cannot fully be restored. So we devote ourselves to ensuring: we do not allow for another Ahashverosh.
I do not believe the misconduct reports reveal a particular problem in the Reform Jewish community.
The reports reveal a problem—a truth—that exists throughout our society, our institutions, our communities, Jewish and not. It is not only hundreds of women who were abused by power at HUC; it is hundreds of all genders in your workplace, at your school, in your neighborhood.
Those words from the Book of Esther “you are here for just this purpose” demand the Reform Movement, our congregation, and each of us, hold up a mirror and ask ourselves: “for what purpose can I use my power?” compelling us to bring our voice where we have influence:
- to do the hard work of improving systems that hold predators and enablers accountable and guard against retaliation;
- to update staff trainings, reporting practices, and HR manuals;
- to reject excuses for the abusers who are contributing to their field or donating to our cause;
- to transform cultures of absolute power and covering into cultures of safety and respect;
- to listen when someone discloses even if they accuse someone you admire, even if your support puts at risk your own friendship, career network, financial gain, or reputation;
- to never ask what she was wearing,
- to share resources for survivors’ healing—to combat shame and ensure no one faces pain alone;
- to learn more about how we can shape communities that are worthy of trust.
This is the ongoing work for our congregation, and for us all.
As for the Reform Movement reports, by undertaking the investigations and releasing them publicly–imperfect and incomplete though the reports may be—and by committing to repair, the Reform Movement has acted with integrity, modeling for us, tshuvah. It is ours to stand with our Movement, to not avert our eyes from injustice, to take responsibility in the pursuit of safety, equity, and truth, for the past, present, and future.
On Purim, we bring the joy. And for this moment, we uncover hard truths.
Refuse to be Ahashverosh,
the one with no accountability.
And refuse to be his enabler.
See Vashti in her story of invisibility.
Hear Vashti’s calls from banishment.
Know Vashti in our story of tshuvah.
Because Vashti is not in Persia,
and Vashti is not in the 5th century BCE.
Vashti is here, Vashti is now,
her fate, our responsibility,
her story, our truth.
In this holy community, may we use our power for justice,
Compelled to heed the words of Megillat Esther—
you are here for just this purpose.
If raising this topic triggers trauma or pain for you, please consider reaching out to clergy or to a resource:
WOAR: Philadelphia’s Rape Crisis Center, woar.org;
Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, https://www.cctckids.org/
Jewish Family and Children Services counseling and support groups, https://jfcsphilly.org/
While we have no reason to believe there has been misconduct at Rodeph Shalom, we seek to ensure everyone’s safety, so we have set up a confidential email for reporting misconduct in the congregation: firstname.lastname@example.org
You may read the reports here: