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Beyond #MeToo – Continuing the Conversation

on Wednesday, March 14 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Time Magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year was “the silence breakers, the voices that launched a movement.”  That movement, well known by its hashtag, #metoo, continues to hold accountable violators of abuse and exploitation.  The movement is several months old and shows no signs of slowing. Just last week, a South Korean politician once considered a presidential contender resigned after his secretary publicly accused him of repeatedly raping her.  Victims, particularly of the powerful and influential have become empowered to speak up with confidence that they will be supported, not derided, for calling out those that have abused their power and acted grossly inappropriately or criminally. This sea change is welcome and represents a major step forward for society.

But is it enough?

It seems to me that despite real progress with respect to supporting and believing victims and punishing wrongdoers, the #metoo movement has almost exclusively focused on litigating past indiscretions. Discussion of best ways to prevent future problems seems limited to changing workplace harassment policies and making sure young men are taught what should be obvious lessons in how to interact with and treat women.  There has been little to no conversation about changes and policies we as a society can employ going forward that address the underlying issues surrounding the protection of people from unwanted advances and abusive interactions.

Creating a no-tolerance environment and a culture of listening are excellent steps towards prevention.  But it isn’t sufficient to protect victims of aggressive behavior.  Ascribing blame to only the perpetrators ignores the fact that this crisis is also the result of decades of fundamental, societal issues that remain largely unresolved. The few voices who have called for us, in the wake of this movement, to reexamine some of our society’s norms and mores and to improve our general sense of modesty have been heavily criticized, ridiculed and even demonized.  If one dares suggest that we consider the broader culture and its impact on these issues, he or she is unfairly accused of blaming the victims and summarily labeled as defending the perpetrators.

Dismissing voices that call for a return to modesty and even worse, painting them as somehow part of the problem and not the solution, amount to nothing more than a deflection and a way to avoid taking a good, hard look in our collective mirror.  Ignoring our increasingly licentious culture means living with a blind spot. To be absolutely clear: We should and we must hold accountable men and women who exploit their positions of power to take advantage. At the same time, if we truly care about improving our society and protecting its vulnerable, we must hold ourselves accountable to better and higher standards.

The many celebrities who have been outspoken on this issue have made an important contribution.  But as Torah Jews, should we really concede our standards and practices to, and take direction from, an industry that has profited and thrived off of objectifying women and selling sexuality, and continues to do so despite the rise of #metoo?  Of course, there is absolutely no behavior that ever excuses or justifies harassment, abuse or exploitation. But, that doesn’t mean adjusting our collective practices and choices going forward can’t be part of a solution.

Commitment to a more modest lifestyle should not be labeled prudish or fanatical.  While the world struggles for solutions, we are blessed that our sacred Torah and holy tradition provide timeless guidance and wisdom in this area, as in every other.  Long before Freud, the Torah knew that this impulse is uniquely strong, and that nobody is immune from its impact and influence.  The laws in the area of interpersonal relationships are guided by the principle that אין אפוטרופוס לעריות, there is nobody fully trustworthy when it comes to sexuality (Chullin 11b).

How many brilliant, accomplished men and women have we seen fall because of horrifically poor judgment in this area that proved to be self-destructive. Our greatest, most righteous and respected leaders in Judaism expressed their humanity and vulnerability in this area.  Indeed, the only person in Tanach whom we refer to as “haTzadik,” Yosef, earned that appellation because he exhibited superhuman restraint and discipline against a most formidable seduction.

Consider the impact if the world would embrace the principles behind the laws of yichud and negiah alone, let alone many others.  A few years ago, I asked Dr. Ruth Westheimer what she thought were the most important ingredients for a healthy and strong marriage.  I was very surprised when among her answers she said a steadfast commitment to observe the laws of yichud.  She explained that especially in our world of enticement and access, it is so important to remove temptation and opportunity before they ever arrive by pledging to never be alone with a non-family member of the opposite gender.

Considering a peck on the cheek, a hug, or an arm on the shoulder as casual contact with no other significance diminishes the meaning of those acts when undertaken with those with whom they should carry great meaning and pleasure.  Furthermore, we have come to learn that they aren’t always casual, and we don’t always know the intent of all parties.  If someone abstained from these social gestures because they had a germ phobia or a health sensitivity, we would honor their boundaries with respect and sensitivity.  Why should anyone look those who are strict in this area because Jewish law prohibits it with judgment or disdain?  In a world that has become sensitized to the issue of uninvited and unwanted touch, wouldn’t observing the practice of having no physical contact with the opposite gender create more personal space and a greater sense of security and comfort?

Shortly, we will mark Pesach and with it celebrate the exodus from Egypt.  God promises to extract us, to take us out from sivlos mitzrayim, classically translated as from under the burdens of Egypt.  However, the Imrei Chaim, Rav Chaim Meir of Vizhnitz explains, that tachas sivlos mitzrayim means, I will redeem you from “sivlos” as in “savlanut,” from being patient and from a willingness to endure the culture of Egypt.  The redemption comes through reaching a place of being disgusted and repulsed by the degradation and defilement of Egypt.  When you no longer have sivlos, savlanut for the culture of mitzrayim, that is when you are on your way to redemption and to kedusha, to holiness.

There are many things we must maintain patience for, but let part of our response to this new movement be to feel fed up with allowing ourselves and our standards to be defined by pop culture, the fashion industry, advertising agencies, and Hollywood writers.  The western world in which we live, a world that has blessed us with extraordinary gifts and opportunities, has also introduced standards and values that should be foreign to us and even repulsive to us.  We believe that God not only created the world, but with His infinite wisdom, He prescribed laws and a system that are designed to create the most moral, safe and holy society.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha’Kohen Kook writes (Orot Ha’Kodesh 3:296) of a time when the world will look with admiration at the Jewish people’s quest for sexual purity.  We have given the world great technological advances and medical breakthroughs.  The time has come to lead by example of what it means to participate in and contribute to the world around us, without compromising or conceding our standards.  Doing so will shape the world to not only be holier, but safer as well.



The Danger in Anger – How to Avoid this Most Self-Destructive Trait

on Thursday, March 8 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Though things have generally gotten back to normal and life for most of us has gone on, the horrific tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is still very much on our minds, both here in South Florida and in the greater country. As is the case with most events that attract this much media coverage, recent weeks have seen several “national conversations.” Gun control, mental health, and school safety and security have all been the subjects of endless debate and analysis, much of it important and worthwhile. But, one underreported aspect of the shooting that still haunts me is rage. How could a person be filled with so much anger, so much uncontrolled rage, that he is able to devise and execute a sickening, murderous rampage?

The beginning of this week’s Parsha commands us, Lo seva’aru eish b’chol moshvoseichem b’yom ha’shabbos, do not kindle a fire in any of your residences.  Of course, this pasuk is the source of the the prohibition to literally light a fire on Shabbos. The Shelah Ha’Kadosh, R’ Yeshaya Ha’Levi Horowitz, offers a homiletical interpretation. He suggests that eish, fire, is an allusion to anger and rage and the passuk is telling us that a person must never, ever let anger or machlokes burn on erev shabbos or shabbos.  The Zohar says that moshvoseichem, the Torah’s directive to guard your house from fire, refers to your heart and guarding it from being filled with fire: anger, bitterness, or negativity.

The word “rage” comes from the Latin rabies, meaning madness.  Giving in to rage is an act of madness because you give up so much.  The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 2:3) writes that anger diminishes a person’s overall quality of life:  “Those who frequently become angry have no quality of life; therefore, [the Sages] instructed us to distance ourselves from anger to the farthest degree, until a person acts as though he does not sense even those things that would justifiably anger a person.”

Shabbos is characterized by serenity, tranquility and fulfillment.  There is no room for even the appearance of anger, impatience or controversy. Erev Shabbos is particularly predisposed to anger as everyone is rushing and hurrying with much to do. We are faced with children who are not cooperating or adults who are not meeting our expectations of what needs to be done.  On Shabbos too, we can easily be tempted to be angry when the meals don’t go the way we want, our nap is disrupted, or the rabbi went on too long with his derasha.  This is why, the Shelah explains, the Torah specifically warns us: Lo seva’aru eish, abstain from anger on Shabbos.

We often think of anger as an instinctive emotion, a reaction that we cannot help or control.  Clearly, the Zohar, the Shelah and others didn’t see it that way.  After all, kindling a fire is prohibited on Shabbos because it is meleches machsheves, constructive work, it includes an act of creation.  Anger, too, is a creation, not simply a natural reaction.  When we get angry, we have made a decision, consciously or subconsciously, to create anger and to allow ourselves to be angry, but we don’t have to.  Lo seva’aru eish, don’t create anger.  Be in control and resist the urge which can in fact be overcome.

Rav Asher of Stalin wonders why the pasuk in last week’s parsha—Elohei Maseicha Lo Sa’Aseh Lach, don’t create/worship a foreign deity—is immediately followed with es chag haMatzos tishmor, observe Pesach?  He explains that the lead-up to Pesach is a stressful time where one can very easily become angry.  We get angry with the prices of Pesach food, angry with our spouse or children for bringing chametz out of the kitchen, angry that we aren’t going away for Pesach, angry that our family members are coming to town.  Allowing ourselves to get angry is giving in to self-worship, to thinking we are in charge, we can control, or things have to go our way.  Part of getting ready for Pesach and getting rid of chametz is getting rid of our anger.  Don’t give in to the urge, don’t create anger.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand what kind of anger can cause someone to violently take others’ lives, especially children. But it’s no secret that anger is something every one of us struggles with on some level and can always find ways to improve. Especially now as we prepare for Pesach, we should all strive to fulfill Lo s’vaaru eish b’chol moshvoseichem – let’s try to go into Pesach without giving in to the urge to be angry, to yell, to be negative.  Imagine the freedom we can feel at the seder if we arrive having been liberated from the prison of anger and the negative consequences that come with it.



“I Need Your Help” Our Custodian Theo’s Last Request From Me

on Thursday, February 8 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Selling Theo Chametz

For more than a decade, Theo Henry was more than simply our custodian at Boca Raton Synagogue. He was truly a part of our family. Literally thousands of minyanim, programs, events, and classes could not have happened without his hard work and dedication.  Theo was a permanent presence in our Shul: setting up, cleaning up, turning over rooms, and most importantly, flashing his big smile when you walked by and said hello.

On Tuesday, we learned that we will tragically never see that smile again.  At only 29 years old, Theo was taken from us suddenly.  The outpouring of reactions from so many of our devastated members is the greatest testament to the role that he played and the special place he had in our community.

On the one hand, Theo had the job description of a typical custodian.  He, along with our amazing other custodian Junior, was responsible for the cleanliness and maintenance of our campus, and for ensuring that everything from classes to kiddushes to simchas were set up properly and cleaned up from appropriately.  Theo had a great work ethic and took pride in his job.  He did it so well that one space could be used for four or five different purposes in one day requiring multiple breakdowns and set-ups and the attendees of each program had no clue what else happened in that space that same day.  When you came back for Mincha on Simchas Torah afternoon, you had no idea 2,000 people were singing, dancing and eating all over the campus just a few hours before.  When you came to shul Shemini Atzeres night, there was not one leaf left from the thousands of hoshanas that were beaten on the floor that morning.  When you arrived to burn your chametz, you didn’t realize that Theo was there at 5 o’clock that morning to get the fire started and burning properly.

Each year at the Shul dinner I would publicly thank Theo and the other staff.  Theo was never there to hear it; he would walk out because he didn’t want the attention or praise.

Theo was quiet by nature, an introvert who was more comfortable with earphones in his ears and a vacuum in his hand than a conversation or small talk.  He made himself invisible, blending into the background by seeing to it that our campus functioned so seamlessly you barely noticed him.

But our beloved Theo was so much more than a custodian and his contributions extend far beyond his professional responsibilities.  Theo was selflessly devoted to our community and its members and with no recognition or fanfare, went above and beyond in ways that nobody knew about.

Let me tell you about a few, with a disclaimer that this represents only a small sampling:

  • Theo was BRS’s custodian, not chauffeur, and yet countless times he inconvenienced himself to drive people on Shabbos. When a sick person needed to get to the doctor or medicine needed to be picked up from a pharmacy, Theo drove.  When numerous women had fertility treatments that required them to discretely make their way to the lab or clinic for a treatment, Theo took them.
  • When someone’s air conditioning broke on a Shabbos in the heat of the Boca summer, though Theo had no training, expertise or requirement, he was there trying to fix it. When an older member asked him to push his wheelchair to Shul in 90-degree heat and heavy humidity, he didn’t hesitate.
  • When our esteemed member Rabbi Gene Klein z”l passed away and his funeral was on Christmas, though Theo was off, he came to work that day. When asked why, he said, “I knew Rabbi Klein, and I don’t have family down here, so this is where I need to be.”
  • After any event that had leftover food, Theo would call someone from the community he knew could use some help to come and take when nobody was around, so he could preserve his dignity.

Theo knew more about the halachos of building a sukkah, the proper way to set up a menorah, the laws of heating food on Shabbos, than many Jews. He didn’t just agree to follow our rules, he revered them.  When people left their siddurim and chumashim sprawled around the shul, sometimes upside down or still open, Theo affectionately collected them with great respect and honor and put them back on the shelf.

Recently, for the only time since I have known him, Theo asked if he could meet with me.  I assumed he had a complaint about something or wanted a raise.  When I asked, “Theo what can I do for you,” he said, “I need your help.  There are two people in the Shul that I care very much about and that I am very close with, but they are barely talking to each other.  What can we do to bring them together?”  Theo’s definition of helping him was not a raise but helping him bring people together.

All week I have been trying to remember my last conversation with Theo. I have been wondering if I thanked him enough for his hard work and dedication, and if I showed adequate appreciation for what he does for our community and for me personally.  If I knew I would never see him again, was there something more I wanted to say?

Sadly, this week serves as another reminder that life is very fragile, and we have absolutely no idea what tomorrow will bring.  Don’t leave important things unsaid.  If you are estranged, work it out while you have the opportunity.  If you owe someone gratitude, make sure they know how appreciative you are.

Our rabbis call gratitude hakaras hatov, recognition of the good.  Being thankful begins with recognizing, taking a moment to identify the acts of kindness and the people performing them.  It is so easy to fall into a sense of entitlement and to forget to be grateful, especially to those who seek to be invisible, to do their work routinely, quietly, and humbly.

Theo was a big person with an even bigger heart.  We will miss him, his smile, his banter, his devotion, and his dedication.  The most appropriate way to honor Theo’s memory is by making sure to acknowledge and thank the other Theos in your life, those in the background and out of the spotlight, but without whom your life would look very different.



A Most Unusual Unveiling – The Value of Telling Your Family Story

on Friday, February 2 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Though my grandmother died 29 years ago and my grandfather passed away almost 40 years ago, my family just gathered for their hakamas matzeiva (unveiling) on last Friday morning. It isn’t that it took that long to honor them, rather there was a new unveiling because they were just moved from the cemetery in Staten Island to the new BRS section of the cemetery in Beit Shemesh. (Disinterring for burial in Israel is permissible – Shulchan Aruch y.d. 363)

My grandparents fled Germany in 1939 after their store was destroyed on Kristallnacht and my grandfather was beaten badly which left him with a spinal injury his whole life. They lost almost their entire families. Incredibly, almost all of their descendants now live in Israel and it is truly amazing that they have now come home to be with them.

In last week’s parsha, we read of how Moshe fulfilled his promise to Yosef not to leave his bones in Egypt, but to bring them for final burial in the land of Israel. Our rabbis say Yosef had a special chiba, an affection and love of Israel. My grandparents also loved Israel dearly. In the early 1970’s, on their first visit to our Holy Land, my grandfather wrote in a letter: “As we traveled from Haifa to Jerusalem we passed the graves of our forefathers, to the Masada, to the Dead Sea, and the Wailing Wall…As I stared before all these holy places, I could not help myself and cried for joy in disbelief that I was really here, and all I learned since my childhood about the Holy Land is real, and I could feel and touch everything.”

Moshe taught us that when we experience redemption, we don’t turn our back on the past, but we put our past on our back and take it with us into the future.  My father shared with all of his descendants and with my cousins and their children our comprehensive family narrative and story. He reviewed our ancestors names, the places they lived, the stories of those who perished in the Shoah, and the miracles of those who migrated to America and to Israel.  We recorded his talk so that our family story is now preserved for future generations.  It was very poignant when most of my cousins and I recognized our own names in the stories of those for whom we are named and better understood our role in the chain of our family continuity.

For years researchers have sought to understand, what holds families together? What are the ingredients that make some families united, strong, resilient, and happy, while others are in disarray, fractured, broken, and fragile? Why are some families functional and others utterly dysfunctional?

As it turns out, the single most important thing you can do for your family is to develop a strong family narrative. A few years ago, the New York Times had a fascinating article entitled, “The Stories That Bind Us.”  Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University did research which concluded: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your collective ability to bounce back from difficult ones.

Our future is stronger when it is built on our past. It is critical to know where we come from, if we are to identify where we are meant to go.  Take the time to research your own background and as importantly, to communicate it to your children and grandchildren.  Not only will it preserve your family’s story, it will help create a happier, more resilient and closer family.

I look forward to the day when, with God’s help, all of my grandparents descendants will be together in our homeland joining our forefathers from yesteryear and from yesterday.