The fundamental values for how I navigate the world, both personally and professionally, stem from the social justice tenets of Reform Judaism. So it is should come as no surprise that this past Monday morning, I opened my email inbox to find a weekly commentary, known as D’Var Torah, on this week’s Torah portion. The piece was titled Encounters that Can Make Us Become Better Jews. As a person who values diversity and inclusivity, my take on this commentary goes far beyond my fellow Jews. In fact, it is my firm belief that the lesson here is meaningful & useful for people of all faith traditions & no faith tradition, alike.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin writes, “We should stop seeing...encounters with “the Other” as problems and start seeing them as opportunities. What if the story we told ourselves about the Other was one in which our encounters made us stronger?”
Not only does this question apply to all people, it speaks directly to my commitment to restorative justice.
The current conversations about ending sexual victimization are polarized. We tend to get stuck pointing fingers at one another without taking a moment to listen or reflect on the nuances of the debate. We seek revenge on individuals who have perpetrated sexual abuse, arguing that they deserve to die in prison or, at the very least deserve to suffer the consequences of lifetime registration. We even seek to deny individuals who have sexually victimized someone from any and all good they’ve done in their lives.
We do the same to people who have experienced sexual abuse. We don’t believe them when they come forward. We question their behaviors in the aftermath of trauma. We doubt their disclosures, claiming they are “making it up” when there is no physical evidence of a struggle. Our criminal justice system fails individuals who have experienced rape every day. Currently, for every 1000 rapes that occur in the United States only 6 people will go to prison. Often, we forget that the “victim” is a human being who is so much more than what happened to them.
We pretend that these two issues are not related, or maybe we just don’t want to see that they are?
There is a better way.
“What if the story we told ourselves about the Other was one in which our encounters made us stronger”
What could we learn if we leaned into the discomfort? What would change in us if we reached across the aisle and engaged in open dialogue with people “on the other side”? Would we realize that there is no aisle to begin with? Would it be too difficult for us when we recognized our own reflections in the eyes of “the Other”?
The traditional adversarial criminal justice system is set up in a way that encourages people with allegations of abuse against them to remain silent & to deny accountability. This causes additional pain & suffering to people who experienced the abuse, when in reality most want nothing more than an acknowledgement & an apology. The very system designed to honor & support individuals who have experienced sexual victimization does exactly the opposite. In fact, it often revictimizes people.
Restorative justice offers us a bridge. It offers the possibility of open, authentic, & vulnerable dialogue. It requires an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It offers the opportunity for the individual who has been harmed to share how the experience impacted them. It has the capacity to make us stronger, but it requires that we see beyond “offender” and “victim”. It demands that we first see each other as human beings. In many ways it helps us to rewrite the stories we’ve told ourselves about “the Other”.
There will be many times where I write about restorative justice. For now I hope I’ve planted a seed that maybe, just maybe, we can all agree that encounters with “the other” can make us so much stronger in the end.