Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rekindling Our Light: We are responsible for the world

Last evening we hosted Rekindling Our Light, an interfaith prayer service in remembrance of victims of domestic violence, especially women students. We gathered, we lit candles, we prayed, we sang, we sat in silence.

I found the experience incredibly powerful and spiritually moving. I am grateful so many students attended, and I am grateful to The Rev. Ann Willms and United Ministries for organizing it.

Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus came together to offer prayers, each in their own tradition. We remembered the murder of Yeardley Love, a 4th year student who was murdered last year allegedly by her boyfriend.

We remembered Morgan Harrington, a student from Virginia Tech who turned up killed, left in a remote field, after a rock concert here in Charlottesville.

We remembered many others.

We prayed for peace, we prayed for an end to all forms of violence, and we asked for forgiveness for our neglect, our ambivalence, our ignorance.

My friend Jake Rubin, the rabbi with the Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia (Hillel), was with us last night at Rekindling Our Light. Last Saturday marked Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, the day of asking for forgiveness. Rabbi jake preached powerfully about domestic violence last Saturday, and I am offering his words to you today. I believe this is an important sermon and I hope you will read it:

Yom Kippur 2010
By Rabbi Jake Rubin
Today as we are fully immersed in a period of self reflection, I want to talk about a difficult subject that affects us all whether we know it or not. There is a line in the Al Het, one of the confessionals we say on Yom Kippur, which says, “For the sin we have committed against you through violence.” Generally we think of UVa as a peaceful place, but we know that this is not always the case. We were reminded of this all too well last year on multiple occasions. Yeardley Love’s murder was certainly the most obvious example of this reality but there are many others.

Though it is not the most pleasant topic, today, I want to talk about intimate partner violence, or sexual assault, and our response to it as a community. Intimate partner violence is a pattern of physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abusive behaviors used by one individual to control another. It includes rape, sexual assault, and physical, emotional or psychological abuse.

This summer in the wake of the Yeardley Love murder, I had the opportunity to participate in a Survivor Support and Ally Training Workshop with the Women’s Center at UVa. Though I certainly knew about Yeardley Love’s case and that intimate partner violence was prevalent on college campuses, I had no idea as to the extent of its prevalence nationally and even more disturbing its prevalence here at UVa. According to national statistics, over the course of four years in college, a woman has a 25% chance of being a victim of sexual assault. That is 1 out of every 4 women. Look around the room. Conservatively there are 80 women here, that means the chances are that 20 of the women here today could be victims of sexual assault.

And just in case you might think that UVa is different than other college campuses, a study done at UVa a few years ago of almost 800 undergraduate female students shows it is actually worse – 29% of those surveyed were victims of rape or of attempted rape and 34% were victims of unwanted sexual contact and these figures probably underestimate the actual rates. In this same study 43% of the sorority members in the study had been raped or had been victims of attempted rape. The primary factor – alcohol and drugs. If these statistics aren’t scary enough, according to this study 61% of perpetrators were boyfriends, dates, or friends. Only 3% of these crimes were carried out by strangers! While I have given you statistics regarding women, it is important to note that men can be the victims of intimate partner violence too.

These numbers were shocking to me and should be disturbing to you. Many times I have heard people and you may be one of them say, “Well that is disturbing, but we don’t have these issues in the Jewish community. “ They and you would be wrong. The Jewish community has the same rates of intimate partner violence as those of other religious groups, somewhere between 15 – 25%. In addition, as full members of the University community and on the most fundamental level, the human community, this problem is all of ours together to confront.

On Yom Kippur, we say multiple confessionals that are laundry lists of the sins that we have committed throughout the year. All of these confessionals end with a –nu ending, ahsamnu, bagadnu, or al het shechatanu. This ending is the plural - meaning we have sinned not I have sinned. As I mentioned last night, this is to emphasize that even if we have not committed these sins ourselves, we have a responsibility as a community to ensure that these things do not happen under our watch.

To underscore just how important this communal responsibility is in Judaism, there is a rabbinic principle that a person cannot be put to death for a capital offense unless there were two witnesses who each prior to the capital offense warned the perpetrator that what they were about to do was punishable by death. From this we learn that it is the community’s responsibility to stand up and stay stop. It is our responsibility to make sure that intimate partner violence is not happening within our own community.

There are two other important Jewish values at play in this conversation. The first is b’tzelem elohim, or the idea that we are all created in the image of G-d. This is a core principle in Judaism, and it emphasizes the inherent worth of each and every person. We are to treat every person we meet, whether we know them intimately or not, as if there were divinity within them. We honor human beings as holy, we treat them with respect, we do not abuse them. To commit acts of violence against another human is deface the likeness of G-d.

This value of humans as created in the image of G-d should be understood in another way too. That is, we not only must treat others with respect but we also must honor ourselves. This means we have to respect ourselves enough to know that no one deserves to be in an abusive relationship. Each one of us has an inherent worth and nobody, nobody, should think that they are somehow at fault for being abused or that they deserve to be abused. There are so many resources in Charlottesville and at UVa for anyone who is in an abusive relationship – I am here, SARA, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, and the UVa Women’s Center are here too – no one should ever feel alone and like they cannot get help.

The other Jewish value that I believe is central to this discussion is found in Leviticus, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The rabbis also believed that that if you were responsible for the death of one person, it was as if you destroyed an entire world. Again this underscores the importance of each and every life, but it is also a call to action. We cannot remain silent if we know someone is in danger. If you know someone is in an abusive relationship, Judaism teaches that you must say something. Offer to help get them in touch with someone who can help or share your concern with someone who is in a position to help. This is being an ally, and it is our responsibility as Jews and as humans.

In the coming weeks, we will be bringing in an organization called Jewish Women’s International and they will be providing training on how to recognize abuse and how to be an effective ally. There are also numerous student groups on Grounds that you can get involved with that work to raise awareness for this cause. Please keep your eyes open for this programming and attend these important trainings.

We as a Jewish community have an imperative to do tikkun olam, to repair the brokenness in our world. One of the most powerful illustrations of this idea is found in today’s haftarah in the book of Isaiah. In the haftarah Isaiah tells the Israelites that Gd doesn’t care if the people fast on Yom Kippur if in their day to day lives they treat people poorly and do not care of for the vulnerable in society. Isaiah speaking for G-d says, “Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed to free, and to break every cruel chain. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?” The message is clear actions speak louder than words. We can pray all we want on this day or any other, but if it is not coupled with action we are not truly doing tikkun olam.
Sometimes this idea of repairing the world can be a difficult and somewhat daunting task. Where do we begin? How can we help? When we treat each other with respect and honor the divinity within each of us, when we break the silence and stand up for what is right, and when we help someone who is an abusive relationship, we piece by piece begin to repair the brokenness in our world. There is a wonderful rabbinic teaching that says, “We are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we free to refrain from it.” Together, as a Jewish community, let’s begin to be allies to those in abusive relationships, let’s make it clear to the University community and to any other community of which we are apart that we will not remain silent while our friends, family, roommates, classmates, partners, or anyone else are being hurt. Shanah tovah.

1 comment:

Christie said...

Last evening's service was wonderful. Thank you, Jim, Anne, Nic, Albrecht, Emily, Daniel, Tony and Iris (hope I am not forgetting someone....) for all of your hard work and coordination. Following the serivce several of us had the good fortune of sharing dinner with Noora, who invited us to join her at the Islamic Center some Sunday evening soon. It is an invitation I will definitely take her up on. Yesterday evening was a wonderful avenue for reflection, healing and making new friends within the community. Thank you for making this possible.