NEW YORK — As Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, he had to answer questions about sexual misconduct allegations leveled against him. In recent weeks, three women have alleged that the judge engaged in inappropriate behavior, including assault, as a high school or a college student.
The allegations have ignited conversations across the political spectrum, from concern over attacks on the presumption of innocence to 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 validated or rejected.
We asked rabbis how Jewish law and ethics can help us understand these often contradictory responses. Here are their answers via email, which have been lightly edited for grammar and style.
Regarding the victim
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the co-founder and president of the New York-based Yeshivat Maharat.
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, Bava Kamma 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 be-ish . . . al pi shnei eidim oh al pi shloshah eidim yakum davar” — “A single witness shall not stand up against any person . . . according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses shall a matter be confirmed” (Deut. 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.
Holding leaders accountable
Rabbi Aviva Richman is a faculty member at Hadar.
The Bible makes a distinction between sex crimes in a city and a field. The rabbis interpret the“city” not as a matter of population density but culture. A city is a place where people care about sexual assault and respond. In this context, the rabbis focus on the responsibility of the community and leadership to respond to and ideally prevent sexual violence.
Under this rubric, one medieval Talmud scholar characterizes the entire Persian empire under king Ahashverosh (Ahasuerus) as a field. Since the supreme leader of the land was a womanizer, acting like he was sexually entitled to any woman he wanted, no one in his kingdom took sexual violence seriously.
When our national leaders dismiss accounts of sexual assault because “nothing happened,” or refuse to put in place and follow clear protocols to respond to these accounts, they are setting a tone that has ripple effects well beyond the bench of nine justices.
This is a moment where we have to ask ourselves, do we live in a city or a field? We must hold our leadership accountable to take sexual assault seriously. Otherwise, the most robust system of courts and justice is really just an empty field.
Public service is a privilege
Rabbi Mira Wasserman is director of the Center for Jewish Ethics and assistant professor of rabbinic literature at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
A story in the Talmud (Moed Katan 17a) anticipates current events: Terrible rumors about a local rabbi reach Rav Yehuda, a leading rabbinic authority in Babylonia.
Rav Yehuda deliberates about what to do: On the one hand, the accused rabbi offers valuable services to a local community; on the other, the rabbi’s tarnished reputation degrades his office (in Talmudic language, “profanes the name of G-d”).
In the end, Rav Yehuda decides to act on the allegations and ostracize the accused. On his deathbed, Rav Yehuda expresses satisfaction that he did not bow to pressure to flatter an important man but was rather governed by principle.
These are the principles I draw from the story:
1. For the rabbis, there is a high standard of evidence. In the absence of corroborating testimony, a plethora of allegations — no matter how persuasive — do not suffice to convict the accused of a crime.
2. Public service is a privilege, not a right. Judges, like rabbis, are to be held to the highest ethical standards. Serious allegations — even in the absence of evidence — suffice to exclude the accused from a respected office of leadership.
3. True leadership means applying these principles to everyone, without regard for the status of the accused.
Bias vs. the search for truth
Rabbi Avi Weinstein is the head of Jewish studies at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, a community day school in Overland Park, Kan.
The classic rabbinic assumption is not that “we can’t handle the truth” — it’s just that we can’t get to it.
The dialectic method so familiar to traditional learners is meant to mitigate personal biases in order to approximate arriving at the “truth.” We aspire to know the truth.
Ultimately, realizing it is always elusive. When the esteemed senators arrive with publicly announced foregone conclusions regarding the candidate, this does not augur well for this, the most lofty of aspirations. A judge in Jewish tradition had to be wary of his own biases as well as the limitations of clever argument.
The charges levied against the judge would most certainly be disqualifying, but would the suspicion alone be enough for him to be dismissed? How much smoke does there have to be before we assume that there is a fire?
On this, there could be a variety of opinions, but all would agree that acumen alone would not be sufficient for a Jewish judge to be acceptable. It comes down to how one evaluates suspicion without hard evidence, and that brings us back to our biases, which inevitably cloud our aspiration to learn what is true.