In an underground parking garage in downtown San Francisco recently, it became blindingly clear that I will never understand what it means to say #metoo.
I was calmly walking to my car, and saw a woman walking in the other direction, apparently looking to leave. I had a feeling that she was looking for the exit where I had just come from, so I said “this is where you go,” and pointed in the correct direction.
Then I saw her hesitate. She looked at me, and then she looked down into her purse, looking for something. I don’t know what she was looking for, but I saw her hesitate. She didn’t know who I was, or that I was safe, or that I was just looking to help.
And then it occurred to me: I’ve never had the experience of walking into or out of a parking garage, during the day or at night, in the stairwells, afraid for my safety.
We’ve all witnessed these past months the wrenching testimonies of women of all ages, all orientations, every shade of skin, how vulnerable they are because of cruel men, intoxicated by the power society confers upon them. So many women have spoken, so many powerful men have been toppled by the women they assaulted. Every day another horrific history is told, in every field and sphere and (almost) every strata.
Just two weeks ago, a young woman celebrating her Bat Mitzvah in my community addressed this topic in her speech, connecting it to the abuse of women in certain biblical narratives. And I realized I hadn’t spoken publicly yet. I hadn’t been brave enough to say anything. She humbled me by grappling with the patriarchal stories of our tradition, something I as a religious leader hadn’t yet done. This short essay is my first attempt. I want to be brave like my student and learn from her powerful model.
There I was, in a San Francisco parking garage, suddenly aware that I will never understand what it is to be a woman. There I was, a male rabbi in his own synagogue, aware that I had remained silent far too long.
I bear enormous responsibility as a man in the world to do something about sexual assault and harassment against women: teaching not just my daughters but my sons, teaching myself, standing up in community as part of the problem. This is a cultural sin that falls on men, not on women. I am a man. This is on me. I am aware that I am unaware, that I can’t possibly understand.
Truly, it can be confusing to be a man today. But better to live with the painful awareness of my own male privilege than to unconsciously perpetrate or model abuse of power over the women around me.
And so, as a man, this is what I promise to do: I will remain aware. I will listen better. I will do my best.