#MeToo movement meets halacha at Princeton

#MeToo movement meets halacha at Princeton

Collegiate Jewish law debate promotes study, diversity

CMBD founder Abraham Waserstein, left, with members of the University of Washington debate team, from left, Nicole Jevons, Samantha Eden, Talya Gilboa, and Doria Nelson. The team won first prize in its division, which included students with limited Jewish textual background. (Photos by Michele Alperin)
CMBD founder Abraham Waserstein, left, with members of the University of Washington debate team, from left, Nicole Jevons, Samantha Eden, Talya Gilboa, and Doria Nelson. The team won first prize in its division, which included students with limited Jewish textual background. (Photos by Michele Alperin)

Is it halachically OK for a young woman whose boss, a rabbi, has pressed her for details about her sex life to warn others through a #MeToo whisper network?

This question was at the heart of the case debated at the second Collegiate Moot Beit Din (CMBD) on March 1-3 sponsored by Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel.

The event was ramped up this year to achieve the goals set by founder Abraham Waserstein, a sophomore at Princeton University: to have a debate competition that would “connect real-world moral questions to high-level Jewish learning” reflecting pluralism, regional diversity, and varying levels of Jewish knowledge. In attendance were 60 students from 16 universities in Canada, Israel, and the United States; the inaugural event in 2018 drew 15 students from nine universities. The 2019 weekend also included a pluralistic Shabbaton, with services, meals, and discussions.

Geographical diversity was particularly important to Waserstein. “If we had a Northeast competition, I would consider it a failure; the merit is creating community with students throughout the world.” And in fact an Israeli team from IDC, the interdisciplinary school in Herzliya, won first place in its division, “the  Sotomayor.”

Because so many teams participated, said CMBD development director Isaac Hart, a Princeton freshman from Glen Rock, students were able to participate in “different levels of competition, based on their backgrounds.” Such an approach, he said, “allows people, even if they didn’t go to Jewish day school, to have a really successful learning experience.”

Nicole Jevons, a senior at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, grew up in Yakima, Wash., where her intermarried parents and family attended a Reform synagogue. “I’ve always been the most interested in my family to seek out Jewish learning,” she told NJJN. She spent summers at the Reform movement’s URJ Camp Kalsman, but attended a high school with no other Jews. When she came to college, she said, “I knew it was important for me to expand my Jewish learning and expand my practices.”

Brandeis University students, from left, Leon Krayem, Devora Krischer, and Sasha Manus won second prize in their division, which encompassed students with deeper Jewish backgrounds.

Knowing Jevons’ goal, when UW Hillel’s Rabbi Dana Benson learned about CMBD, she told Jevons that she “had to do this.”

At the debate students tackled a case, commissioned from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, concerning Sarah, a young woman whose boss, a rabbi, had pressed her for intimate details about her sex life. She was considering setting up a private #MeToo whisper network — an informal online information chain shared by women naming suspected sexual harassers or abusers — to warn other women in the Jewish youth organization where she worked.

Meeting several times to review the case, Jevons and her teammates examined texts that focused on the concepts of rebuking a transgressor, not idly standing by when someone is in danger, not gossiping, and not humiliating another. They then reconciled their different perspectives to develop a potential solution for Sarah within the confines of Jewish law. Their team won first place among the six teams in the Kagan division, whose teams used only the texts provided by CMBD; the other two divisions accommodated more advanced students and allowed them to bring additional texts as references.

Rachel Chabin, a senior at Stony Brook University, New York, who grew up in Queens, said she was drawn to CMBD because it combined two of her favorite things: “Jewish community events and getting to study Jewish texts and law.” CMBD, she said, “challenged me to consider issues more deeply that I hadn’t thought of previously.” In particular she wrestled with the drastic changes in a woman’s position in society that have occurred since the texts were composed and compiled. Those sources, she said, “have a different perspective on women’s status and women’s rights and trying to reconcile these two perspectives honestly.”

Among the CMBD judges were, from left, Rabbi Jane Kanarek, associate dean and professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College in Boston; Rabbi Avi Strausberg, professor of rabbinics and director of national learning initiatives at Hadar; and Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Sasha Manus of Oakland, Calif., and Devora Krischer of Teaneck, both graduates of Jewish day schools before enrolling at Brandeis University, won second place in the Ginsburg division. They began by evaluating whether whisper networks in general were permissible according to Jewish law, then evaluated the specifics of Sarah’s case. Krischer said they looked at whether the rabbi/boss’ interactions with Sarah were “actual harassment or bad flirting.” Manus said the case did not have “an easy solution”; Krischer stated: “This is Gemara in real time.”

Waserstein told NJJN that their choice of topic may have been what drew so many more students to CMBD this year. “The #MeToo movement is one of the most influential and important developments of our time,” he said, “and we wanted to see if Jewish law could help us advance the mission of the #MeToo movement.”

Judges asked the teams critical and challenging questions based on their eight-minute presentations and considered the students’ responses when naming the winners. The judges were experts in Jewish law and education from diverse institutions. According to Rabbi Ira Dounn, senior Jewish educator at Princeton Hillel, they were pluralistic Jewish educators “who could compassionately and intellectually challenge the teams and their arguments in ways that would hold them accountable for what they said and ways that would help them clarify their positions in deep and meaningful ways.”

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser, of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, was the only judge returning from last year. CMBD is “one of the high points of the year”; it was “inspiring,” he said, to see “Jewish studies raised to that level of importance and concern among college students.”

As a judge, Prouser said he looked for “nuance and sensitivity,” with students embracing “the tension in the question” and “recognizing that there are competing values and you are not in a situation where this is a perfect answer or an answer that is absolutely clear.”

Students gather during a break at CMBD.

Another judge, Marjorie Lehman, associate professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said, “The question is whether or not Jewish law, or halacha, can inform difficult ethical issues that we face in our world, including those that come up around #MeToo. This conference shows that looking deeply into Jewish sources … can act to provoke deeper thinking into creative solutions in something like sexual harassment cases.”

Waserstein developed CMBD under Princeton Hillel’s Co-Create program, which enables students to initiate projects on campus that reflect their passions. This year CMBD was able to expand and subsidize much of the travel and board for participants due to a grant from the Maimonides Fund, which is dedicated to education and Jewish identity in North America and in Israel.

The main idea of CMBD “is to expose more and more people to [this] deep Jewish engagement and educational experience,” Dounn told NJJN before the debate. “The ultimate goal is to make CMBD an important event on the calendar of Jewish education for college students.”

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