Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Sermonic Response to Ray Rice and the Issues of Domestic Abuse


Below is an expansion of the sermon I gave last Shabbat morning.  It includes the fuller introduction I had originally written, which was cut for brevity and clarity of my spoken remarks.  It also includes some minor adjustments and additions as events have played out over the last 4 days, and some very sage suggestions made by a couple of people whose opinion I very much respect in response to the words actually delivered.

I am pleased that these remarks have sparked a continuing conversation of substance that is already leading to action within our congregation, as we are now planning an informational program for November 2nd, and discussing how to use the Holy Days to have information available to raise awareness of issues and programs.

As always, I welcome thoughtful, respectful response -- even more than usual, as this is a REAL issue that needs our attention!

Making Sure We are Able to Come In in Safety
A Sermon of Response – Parshat Ki Tavo
Rabbi Steve Weisman, Temple Solel Bowie MD, September 13, 2014

First rule of sermon writing – have a clear head… so preparing Thursday may NOT have been the best idea in the world!  13 years later, and the flashbacks are still so jarring, the memories and images and emotions so vivid.  And I and mine were among the lucky ones! Given this reaction – and it happens EVERY year – I cannot even begin to imagine what someone truly suffering from PTSD deals with!

I share that honesty to begin this morning, because the topic I want us to discuss and think about may be just as challenging – if not for all of us, then certainly for some of us.  Our portion on this Shabbat is Ki Tavo – when you come in; it follows last week’s Ki Teitzei – when you go out.  Many have been the sermon for one or the other of these Sabbaths over the years that played solely on the names – in order to be truly comfortable coming in, you first must go out – physically, spiritually, emotionally – to fully appreciate just what it is that you are coming into.

Coming as they do each year, as part of the month of Elul – our season of introspection, soul-searching, and atonement-seeking in advance of the upcoming High Holy Days – this can hardly be seen as a coincidence.  That reality, plus the meat of the portion that deals with blessings and curses, often as the opposite sides of the same coin, and the need for self-discipline and adherence to our Covenant with God, combine to make this a truly powerful Shabbat message in any given year.

For me, today, and I suspect for many of you as well, that power, that poignancy, is greatly increased this year by the headlines of our week.  If ONLY we were free to acknowledge that Thursday marked the 13th anniversary of 9/11, that would have been powerful enough to influence our reading of Torah for this week.  And on this Shabbat when we turn upside-down our normal ritual pattern, in a subtle mirror of the changes that day brought to so many lives!  Stop and think about it – Jewish children born in the shadows of that day’s tragedy are celebrating becoming b’nai mitzvah on this Shabbat!  Can there be a clearer message that, even through tragedy, life, Jewish life, goes on!?

But, on the eve of that anniversary, we listened, or at least I did, as our oft-maligned Commander-in-Chief, a man who committed himself to bringing our young people home from fighting on foreign soil, laid out his plans for how America will lead the world’s fight to stop the Islamic State terrorists in their tracks, and break their hold over so many who did not invite them in, and how he did so with a clearly defined strategy that does NOT obligate the use of American troops on the ground for anything but training purposes, and then, fewer than 500.

And if THAT were the only headline of the week, we could still have a powerful and important debate, hopefully free from ideological bias and personal opinions of the man, on an incredibly important and challenging issue for us as Americans AND as Jews.  But, remarkably, Wednesday night and Thursday served largely as a distraction from the REAL issue of the week –

Ray Rice!  Everybody sick of hearing about this currently ex-football player with the Ravens, and the video evidence that surfaced this week that made the incident in which he beat his then fiancĂ© in a casino elevator back in February, was allowed to enter an intervention program and have his record expunged, and earned a whopping 2-game suspension from the NFL look like the brutal, remorseless assault it appeared to be on camera?  I know I am!  Except:

An incident that occurred months ago dominated the news and our discussions this week to the point of nearly dwarfing the equivalent of a declaration of war on the eve of the anniversary of one of our nation’s darkest and most unforgettable days!

Sadly, MOST of the smoke and mirrors this week have led us to every place BUT the only real issue raised by this whole sorry, obnoxious incident that really matters. Yes, in the long term, it may matter greatly whether the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens, or even the local police and prosecutors in New Jersey took this case seriously enough, or acted appropriately, or preferred to sweep things under a rug, or possibly even willfully ignored evidence or lied when inconvenient truths came out from other places.  Yes, in the long term it may matter why these two people went through with their marriage even after this shameful incident, or why they appear hell-bent on staying together and supporting each other, or even what the true context of the hideous scenes we have now seen on grainy videotape really was.  Indeed, referring to it as the Ray Rice incident alone distorts where our focus should be!

But, the bottom line is that, unless there is a context so bizarre and so well hidden as to defy even the most trained professionals’ ability to recognize it, the centerpiece of this week’s headlines, denials, conspiracy theories and celebrity-obsessed focus should be the still too prevalent issue of domestic abuse (a phrase I changed at the last minute, with the breaking news of another player’s – Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings – alleged violence against a child or children)!  An issue that continues to bedevil our society, challenge our ideas of what healthy relationships and behaviors look like, defy our ability to prevent it, and leave far too many permanently scarred victims in its wake.

A statistic:  In the aftermath of the release of the video earlier this week, the National Domestic Abuse Hotline reported an increase of 72% in report calls!  A clear example of a cursed act becoming a catalyst to a potential life-saving blessing for many.  Proof that ANY improvement in preventing the moral ambiguity of high-profile cases like this will improve life for more than just those directly involved.  An affirmation of the Talmudic teaching from Sanhedrin:  One who saves a single life, it is as if they have saved an entire world.  But a sadly temporary, passing response, which tells us how much worse the issue really is, and cries for response even more!

A statistic:  According to the National Coalition for Domestic Violence -- 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 10 men have experienced or will experience physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime.   These numbers are somewhat fluid – another source says it is 1 in 3 black women, 1 in 8 Latino women, 1 in 17 white women, yet another, 1 in 4 women overall.  Whichever is accurate, those numbers are mind-blowing – their practical application even more so. 

Women – look to your right and look at the next woman you see in that direction; then look to the left.  Now look forward, and back.  If none of the 4 women you just saw is a victim of domestic violence, then, according to the general statistics, you would be expected to be.  Men – look around the room and recognize the minyan, the traditional quorum of 10 needed for public worship (and in the traditional world, they MUST be menbeyond bar mitzvah!)  According to these numbers, in ANY traditional minyan, there is likely to be a victim of domestic abuse.

Or look at it this way -- for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the 1 in 17 figure for women is the one that should apply to our congregation, and that the number for men is exaggerated by a factor of 2 (and btw, NEITHER of those assumptions should be statistically valid – they should lead to underestimation of our reality!  Using those numbers, given our current membership, then statistically, we should expect 6 men and 10 women in OUR community have experienced abuse (and the scary part here is that this methodology UNDERestimates our 18 – 24 year old population, considered to be the highest at risk age group!)  At that statistical level, which again, is less than what the reported statistical expectation would be, it is almost impossible to accept that we DON’T have at least one, and probably multiple real life victims living in our midst!  And THAT is a frightening realization, especially when we ask ourselves if we know who they are, or what we are doing to help them!?

This is not the first time I have spoken on this issue – publicly, or from this bimah.  A decade ago, when I first raised the subject, we were still working hard to overcome the myth that domestic abuse does not happen within the Jewish community.  It does, and sadly, at numbers comparable to the population as a whole.  Friends, this is NOT someone else’s problem, NOT a phenomenon happening somewhere else.  If it is NOT happening here, and I pray to God with everything I have that it is NOT, it is ONLY by the grace of God, or dumb luck, that we have been spared, and whichever of those is the source of our good fortune is likely to run out sooner rather than later.

I do not share these statistics and this math to bring us down – although admitting the truth when we have been in denial for so long often has that effect.  I share in the hopes of encouraging us to find solutions.  After all, compare the relative lack of awareness and knowledge of the issues in the Rice case – when the issue is domestic abuse – to those in the Peterson case, which deals with child abuse – a subject about which MANY reporting laws have been enacted! 

After that first sermon 10 years go, we started posting contact information from J(ewish) C(oalition) A(gainst) D(omestic) A(buse) in both the men’s and ladies’ bathrooms – because those are places that abused partners often can go without their abuser AND without generating potentially life-threatening suspicion that they might be seeking help.  In those first few months, as soon as the information would go up, someone would tear it down.  It wasn’t until we tried again a couple of years later, that we finally were able to keep this potentially life saving information on the walls, where, thankfully, it still can be found.  An improvement, but sadly, one which may have been achieved only after a victim, forced to confront a truth they still could not admit, and therefore choosing to act out by removing the reactive agent, was driven from the safety of our community, denied the opportunity to gain from our support and strength.  Clearly, we can, and must do more.

We must make this house of God, this center of our extended Jewish family and communal life, a safe haven for ALL people in ALL circumstances to come into.  We need to learn the telltale signs; to recognize the bruises, especially those that appear repeatedly on a regular schedule; to understand the psychology of abuse that allows abusers to hide in plain sight, and prevents their victims from seeking help, or even talking to a trusted friend honestly, we must become alert to the subtle emotional changes that are often the only outward clues.  We need to be willing and able to ask the tough questions, with non-judgmental compassionate concern; and we need to be willing to involve ourselves in something that is not easily seen as ours to get involved with, and do so without hesitation, like we do with indications of child abuse – when we have reason to believe that abuse is happening.  And if we cannot gain the entry we need to (dis)prove our darkest fears, or offer concrete assistance ourselves, we need to know to whom we can turn to hand off safely.

And, if that isn’t difficult enough, as this incident demonstrates, mostly in the worst ways, we have to be careful NOT to get overzealous in our cause, seeking out cases every place we have the slightest suspicion that there might be one; not to assume that every mostly private situation that looks like something always is; not to overreact to what we think we see.  The need to be sure, because of the trusts that often need to be broken to get help to those who need it without increasing their risk, and the severity of the need to act immediately when the abuse is real, these create a daunting reality – one which often scares away even those who in any other case would appropriately be the first responders offering support.

It is easy to get overwhelmed in the reality of personally recognizing a true case of abuse, just as it is easy to get overwhelmed with the constant headlines of a high profile case like this, to develop a fear of involvement or a fatigue, and not be available to be part of the solution.  This is why we cannot wait until we have a confirmed incidence; this is why we cannot be distracted by all the sideshow aspects of the Rice case, or just change the channel.

Karen Slone, the lay head of the social action committee of our sister congregation, Temple Emanuel, in Greensboro, North Carolina, wrote a powerful piece in response to this week’s distractions and carryings on.  In it, she did what many of us wish we could do in a serious moment of such highly charged public emotion – she looked at the emperor, and called him out for being naked!  She regretted that Ray Rice was suspended indefinitely – not because it took the video coming out to make it happen, but because by so doing, it took away the opportunity to make real progress against abuse. 

Her response?  Elegant, simple, and far more appropriate and effective than the suspension will be.  I elaborate on it only slightly, to make it more aware of the NFL’s realities, and have reordered the suggestions for logical reasons.

First -- mandatory anger management and relationship counseling – with no chance of reinstatement until all the counselors sign off that real growth has occurred.  If that takes a season, or two, or more – so be it!  What SHOULD matter here is both prevention (of future incidents), and recovery.  The leagues, and we as the public, need to stop looking at this as a legal issue, and look at it as a public health issue – the abuser is suffering an emotional (or mental) illness, and needs to be freed from other responsibilities and burdens to seek treatment and recovery.  Therefore, the path taken this week by the Vikings and Peterson, by which he has voluntarily accepted an “exempt” status that allows him to step away from playing in order to seek help and get himself together , while maintaining his income from the team, and allowing the team to protect their rights to his services when he returns (thereby sparing the league further embarrassment, loss of sponsors and other income, and possible law suits from the union and other players in similar circumstances).

Second -- a truly painful fine – perhaps the equivalent of the time missed in “exempt” status, once he is found guilty or in any way admits to his guilt – something that will assuredly make him think twice before ever abusing again.  And a suspension once he is cleared to return, as a way of acknowledging that his actions harmed the league and others besides himself and his partner.

Third, 20 hours per week of unpaid community service in a women’s shelter, for the same time he is away from the playing field.  Something that allows him to see victims other than his own, and be of service to them.

Fourth, make him the spokesperson for PSA’s against domestic abuse that run once every quarter of every televised professional football game every week for that same time that he is not playing – a combination of a modern high-tech scarlet letter that will be burned into him for life, and some actual teaching and awareness raising for society. 

Fifth, both the league and his team must match the money that he forfeits in fines, making them contributions to local shelters, anti-abuse efforts, and treatment programs to interdict and treat potential abusers before they abuse.   

THAT is a comprehensive program of proactive and reactive measures that actually address the issue of domestic abuse – and not just a PR band-aid designed to protect the value of franchises and a brand!  And Karen derives this, in part, from Heschel’s comment on human behavior in wartime – “… some are guilty; all are responsible.”  We need to take responsibility, and demand responsibility from those who make billions of dollars off the talents of violent men!

We need to start there – to take responsibility by raising awareness for ourselves and others, and by supporting shelters, anti-abuse and prevention programs locally.  But we also need to be prepared to go out ourselves – out from our comfort zone – and help to bring in those who are lost and in need of our support.  We cannot wait for them to come in on their own actively seeking our help, because that is an all-too-rare occurrence.  We have to make sure that they know that they are welcomed and valued – and safe and protected – here, with us. Nothing less will do.

It is the message of Ki Tavo.  It is the message of our atonement-seeking season.  It is Heschel’s powerful message, about which we will be hearing more in the coming weeks.  It is the message of the blaring headlines of our week now ended.  It is who we seek to be as a k’hillah k’doshah – a holy congregation!  And it is the only way to be part of the solution, rather than being dragged down into the problem!