NEW YORK — Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony last week in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the sexual misconduct allegations leveled against him, have ignited conversations across the political spectrum, from how assault survivors often keep their accusations private out of fear or trauma, to whether people should be held accountable for actions they committed as teenagers, to how the credibility of the allegations is to be assessed.
We asked rabbis how Jewish law and ethics can help us understand the misconduct claims. Here are their answers via email, which have been lightly edited for grammar and style.
The path to repentance
Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kossoy is an instructor at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a nondenominational yeshivah in Jerusalem. She has taught about how the Talmud helps us understand the #MeToo movement and the ethics of anonymous allegations.
Jewish tradition gives us several important lenses for understanding the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh. On the one hand, the Talmud tells us, “A priest who kills a person is disqualified from performing the priestly blessing” (Berachot 32b). Some acts — even if they are not prosecutable in court — forever stand in the way of high leadership.
On the other hand, as of today, the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh pertain to incidents in the far past. Is there no chance at all for a person to move on from mistakes? Commenting on the above statement in the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch preserves a debate about whether repentance restores the killer’s priestly privilege (SA OH 128:35). According to Rabbi Joseph Karo, “a prosecutor cannot turn defense attorney” — spiritual rehabilitation doesn’t privilege a murderous priest to bless the nation. Rabbi Moses Isserles disagrees: Jews forgive.
Regarding the victim
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the co-founder and president of New York’s Yeshivat Maharat, which ordains Orthodox women as clergy. She has written about women leadership in the era of #MeToo.
The #MeToo movement has compelled society to grapple with many key questions: Do people lie about assault for their own gain? Should we extend statute of limitations? How should we define the parameters of sexual harassment? Do perpetrators deserve redemption? But I believe the most fundamental question we should ask, and of primary concern in our Jewish tradition is: Has the victim suffered?
Indeed, the Gemara’s posture is to protect the victim from physical harm. “One who wounds his neighbor is liable to pay for five damages: permanent impairment, pain and suffering, healing expenses, unemployment, and shame” (Mishna Baba Kama 8:1).
The rabbis understood that there are multiple layers of harm that can be inflicted on another person. In addition to physical pain and suffering, a victim may also suffer from inability to be productive and successful at work. He or she may need “healing expenses” in recognition that there is real work and time to the healing process. The damage caused may be permanent, no matter how far back it occurred.
Finally, a victim also experiences shame, emotional distress, beyond visible physical wounds. So, the question that I believe we must all instinctively grapple with first is about the welfare of the victims. Have they suffered? And, have appropriate damages been paid?
The rights of the accused
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the president of the Coalition for Jewish Values.
The Torah says: “Lo yakum eid echad b’ish… Al pi shnei eidim oh al pi shloshah eidim yakum davar” — “A single witness shall not stand up against any man… according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses shall a matter be confirmed” (Deuteronomy. 19:15).
Those two witnesses, neither of whom was the accuser or any close relative of the accuser or the accused, were fully investigated and interrogated before they were accepted. The Torah is very concerned about the rights and reputation of the accused, and that is the Jewish view.
A deeply flawed process
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief strategy officer for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press. She has written about how Jewish communities should deal with harassment of female rabbis.
The text of Deuteronomy 16:20 comes to mind: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” The repetition of the word “justice” in this verse reminds us how critical the pursuit of justice is to a healthy society.
Commenting on this verse, Rashi proposes that it is the appointment of honest judges that allows society to thrive. Ibn Ezra goes even further, suggesting that the duplicated word means that each side in a suit must pursue justice, whether each party will benefit or not, implying that the pursuit of justice is a higher value than partisanship.
In contrast, the Kavanaugh hearings are a deeply flawed process, driven by partisanship and designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate the truth. The minimal amount of documentation on Kavanaugh that has been provided is problematic enough. Added to that the accusations of sexual assault that have arisen that are not being properly investigated, and the rush to bring the hearings to a rapid close, all seem intended to circumvent the path of true justice. That this is being done in order to name someone as a judge to the highest court of the land is a perversion of justice that is destined to bring about chaos and mistrust of the legal system, the opposite of a healthy and thriving society that Judaism posits as an ideal.
How we treat the other
Rabbi Jacob Staub is a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. He has written about gender dynamics and sexuality in light of #MeToo.
A central teaching of Mussar, Jewish ethical literature, is that we are each obligated to treat the other according to his or her needs. It is upon us not to assume that we know what they need. Rather, we must go out of our way to uncover what they lack and serve them according to what they need. By contrast, the behavior described by Judge Kavanaugh’s accusers reflects an orientation that is diametrically opposed to this Jewish principle. Their stories paint a picture of men using women to satisfy their own needs without any concern for the lifelong traumatic impact that treatment may have upon them.
—JTA News and Features