[Sermon] Words and Deeds, Yom Kippur

12 October 2016
Rabbi Richard Jacobi

For those who missed it, last night I talked about our inner selves, about our thought and feelings, about our emotions, prejudices and fears, and about how mental health and well being need our focus and our commitment. I ended by suggesting that the important reason why we should fear God is that when we act out of fear of God, we act well. When we act out of fear of humanity, all too often we act badly.

This morning, I wish to spend a few minutes discussing words and deeds with you. Both matter, because both affect other people – we can be and are hurt by the words other people utter, just as we can be hurt by their actions, and vice versa – our words and deeds can hurt others. The nature of the confessions we have just recited in our service reflect this: “For the sins we have committed against you by our thoughts…by our words…by our deeds.” (MRC p.260)

This is the moment when I have to hold Donald Trump to account for his words, both eleven years ago and this week. For those who have managed to miss this story, Trump was video-recorded saying in 2005, among other things, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” His next statement was to say he could grab them anywhere, and he uses a slang term for an intimate part of a woman’s body. Then he said “It looks good”, clearly referring to the young woman who was meeting them of their coach. The last minute showed two men taking advantage of their power to put pressure on a woman. In his apology of the next couple of days, Donald Trump issued an apology of sorts, describing his conversation as “locker-room banter”.

I have spent many a Sunday afternoon in changing rooms, our equivalent of what he called the locker room. The company I kept in that cricket team was varied – from archaeologists to IT consultants to teachers, and so on. For a few years, a couple of players were even in the internet pornography business! I’m telling you this to show that it was a rag-tag bunch, who helped keep my, and Josh’s when he later joined the team, feet on the ground. Never, not in my worst nightmares of changing rooms, would language of the type used by Donald Trump and his friends be considered acceptable. Never would those sentiments go unchallenged: the blatant statement of a crime being committed, an assault on a person’s body being advocated.

The American College locker room is a place of ill-repute. From it come the kind of scholarship-endowed sports jocks who believe that they, like Trump, can do what they want to women and get away with it, because of who they are. American university campuses are homes to dreadful statistics with regard to crimes against women. In a 2015 survey of 150,000 women in their final year of studies, 27.2% said they had experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact, anything from touching to rape. Even in the most severe assaults, three-quarters did not report the event. Lest you wonder, Yale and Harvard exceeded that average. Some of you probably know of the now-infamous case in which a star college swimmer at Stanford University was witnessed and then stopped from having sex with an unconscious female student. Brock Turner was convicted on three counts, was liable for a sentence of up to 14 years, but was only sentenced to six months with eligibility for parole, so he was released after three. His father condemned any sentence for what he termed ‘twenty minutes of action.” The judge, Aaron Persky, felt he ought to be lenient because prison would have a “severe impact on him.” His victim’s impact statement is an extremely powerful account of the whole degrading set of experiences started by his assault, but extending to the examinations she experienced in hospital, the effect on relationships with her boy-friend, family and friends, and the experience of preparing for and going through the trial. Yet, the impact on her counted less to the judge than the impact on him.

The locker room and the fraternity houses of American universities are the incubators for these attitudes and these crimes. Donald Trump cannot excuse his words and, certainly not by suggesting that they would be okay in the locker room. The culture of his and all too many other locker rooms is sick and needs to change.

For, and here’s the biggest news, this is a men’s problem, not a women’s problem. And it’s not just an American problem. The most recent celebrity man in the UK to be sentenced for crimes perpetrated against women, in his case in addition to previous convictions, was Chris Denning just a few days ago. The inquiry into historical child abuse rumbles on, and government figures collated and released in January 2013 make frightening reading. 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16, and only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police (1). British university campus assaults are also the subject of investigation and action. National Union of Students research last year found that 17% of female students experienced some sort of sexual harassment in the first week of term.

Sadly, some people will see Donald Trump’s words as permissive and instructive. They will feel emboldened by the manner in which Trump did not apologise for the wrongness of his sentiments. His defence actually served to legitimate such behaviour as, in some way, normal. No way, Mr. Trump, no way. In no way can you claim that “no-one respects women more than me” when you have said what you’ve said. For that matter, I find it unacceptable that Nigel Farage can get away with saying that it was just “alpha male boasting…the kind of thing, if we are being honest, that men do.” (2) No, Mr Farage, real men do NOT do that. Words do lead to actions, words have consequences, they create a culture and this culture is repulsive.

If we allow ‘boys to be boys’ in the manner of Donald Trump’s locker room, we paint every man as a natural sexual predator. If we exempt ourselves from his group, we still grant that group some legitimacy, we suggest that they’re on a different, but somehow acceptable, point in a spectrum of male behaviours. Perhaps, theirs is the position of ‘real men’, the sort who tamed the Wild West, the sort who joined the Peaky Blinders or were at home in Gene Hunt’s 1970s fictional police. They are NOT! Any and every locker room, club, men’s gathering in which these sorts of behaviours are discussed is home to crimes being discussed and, almost, verbally rehearsed.

Hillel the Elder used to say: “An empty-headed man cannot be a sin-fearing man, nor can an ignorant man be truly pious, nor can the diffident learn, nor the passionate teach, nor is everyone who excels in business wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” While we might be inclined to offer a gender-inclusive modern day translation, today I wish to leave this as it was. My aim in so doing is not to exclude women, but to co-opt women as the equal partners in establishing an appropriate definition of manhood for the twenty-first century. In the Midrash on the book of Samuel, a helpful expansion is given on the final statement: “In a place where no-one else can see, or where no-one knows who you are, do not say, I will sin and no-one will find out. Even when alone, strive to be a man, true and God-fearing.”

I’ve led a more sheltered life than many, and there may be people here who have heard this sort of casual conversation in a men’s or women’s locker room. If this day, if Liberal Judaism, if the long-held liberal values of this country mean anything, then we have to create a new narrative. The role models we offer our sons and grandsons cannot be the Donald Trumps and Nigel Farages of this world. There are dozens of role models for respectful relationships, honesty in business, respect for other people’s beliefs, traditions, and situations. Let’s make sure we teach our children about them.

Words do matter. They matter even more when men in the limelight use them. While we hope and pray that the American voters shun Donald Trump, we have work to do here to show a more positive model of how men talk and act. Here in this community, it is not enough for us to distance ourselves from the words and the speakers. All that does is reduce us to the status of bystanders. We have to challenge the speakers. We have to ensure that the impact on the next Brock Turner is not given higher priority than the impact on an innocent, assaulted woman. We have to change the culture of any locker room, changing room where such language as that I’ve discussed today is acceptable. That means all of us here have a duty. It is a duty towards any young boys and young men – sons, grandsons, nephews – we know to enable them to be champions of better attitudes, better beliefs, better words, better behaviour. Yes, we need to continue ensuring our daughter, grand-daughters and nieces know their rights and can look after themselves, but this is a problem that the men must lead on. “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” On this Day of Atonement, we need to absorb this message and give it new meaning in our minds and our hearts, in our words and our deeds.

Amen

(1) From http://rapecrisis.org.uk/statistics.php accessed 11th October 2016
(2) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/09/nigel-farage-donald-trumps-lewd-remarks-are-alpha-male-boasting/ accessed 11th October 2016
 
 

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