Questions, I’ve found, can bring us together, while answers can tear us apart. This is especially true when it comes to the contentious issue of sexual harassment in the Jewish community. In the year since the Harvey Weinstein case hit the headlines and the #MeToo movement exploded in every direction, I’ve felt increasingly distressed by the number of prominent Jewish men among the accused. Aside from the obvious names—from Senator Al Franken to conductor James Levine, from actors and journalists to Judge Alex Kozinski—one that particularly troubles me is scholar-macher Steven M. Cohen, the sociologist whose in-depth surveys have helped American Jews understand ourselves better, and who happens to be my long-term acquaintance.
I’ve heard friends and colleagues make flat declarations about these men and their deeds. “Al Franken should never have been hounded out of the Senate; there’s a big difference between what he did and what Weinstein did.” “We had to sacrifice Franken if we’re ever going to nail Trump for sex harassment.” “Men aren’t getting due process.” “Women have to be believed.”
Rather than throw my pronouncements into the pot, I want to drill down on some of the questions our community should grapple with before reaching definitive conclusions or demanding a policy response. For instance: Because of what Cohen is alleged to have done over many years—his lewd grabbing, forced kissing, propositioning, aggressive questions about women’s sexual history—should I, as a writer and feminist, stop citing his study results? Should I never again interview him about Jewish demography? And should I reevaluate his work on Jewish continuity and fertility patterns in the light of his twisted relationship to women?
While it’s true that his actions don’t compare to Weinstein’s, I’ve heard enough corroboration from other women to lead me to believe Cohen’s accusers. But is it my place to judge him, and if so on what basis? What misconduct is unforgivable? Trash talk? Unwanted touching? Professional quid pro quos? Assault? Rape?
Then there are penalties. Should he lose his teaching job? His tenure? His ability to publish? Be rebuked? Ostracized? If so, by whom, for how long and with what motivation—vengeance or deterrence? Will the Jewish community be intellectually poorer if his research is excised from public discourse, or will we be morally richer if we exact a steep cost for his behavior?
Some cases are easier than others. I haven’t sworn off Harvey Weinstein’s movies or James Levine’s recordings. However, knowing a wrongdoer and his wife personally further complicates matters. Cohen’s wife, Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen, is a lovely woman who’s done admirable community-building work. Should that mitigate my response to her husband’s alleged behavior? Obviously, he committed his offenses without considering his family. Is it my responsibility to do what he didn’t do?
Days after the story broke, I saw Cohen a few pews away at Shabbat services. Our eyes met, he smiled, I gave him a tiny wave, and thought to myself, I don’t want him put in herem (banished, excommunicated), and I don’t want him or his family to starve. Still, I was glad I didn’t have to sit next to him. I would not have known what to say.
Cohen has resigned as director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive he founded, and he has said he is doing teshuvah (repentance). But who decides which of his reparative actions qualify? Besides admitting his misconduct and asking forgiveness of those he offended, what other amends should he be making? Should he volunteer in a women’s shelter? Take concrete steps to advance the careers of the women he mistreated or offended? Give tzedakah to women’s groups fighting sexual abuse? Issue a public apology in some academic forum? How much teshuvah is enough to wipe the slate clean?
That last question has been haunting me since I learned about a very different case involving a Connecticut man named Jason Wasserman who, ten years ago, was arrested in a police sting operation when he went to the home of someone he thought was a 13-year-old girl, expecting to take nude photos of her. After receiving five years probation and being registered as a sex offender, Wasserman, with the help of his rabbi, Jeffrey Glickman, undertook a full-scale agenda of atonement that included volunteering in soup kitchens, mentoring job applicants and small-business owners, blowing the shofar and regularly attending Shabbat services. All this activity made Wasserman a valued community member, and last year he was elected president of his shul. But a few weeks ago, his congregation learned of his past, and he resigned his position.
According to Rabbi Glickman, his congregant’s decade of unselfish service constituted adequate teshuvah. The problem? For a decade neither he nor Wasserman informed the congregation of the facts, thereby denying parents the right to judge the risk of exposing their children to a former sex offender. Does Wasserman’s teshuvah excuse him and his rabbi for withholding crucial information? I don’t think so. Would he have been welcomed as a friend, colleague and mentor if everyone had known about his grievous misconduct? Probably not.
So what’s the right route to fairness and redemption? In America, all theft is wrong, although the law differentiates between shoplifting, carjacking, burglary and armed robbery. Likewise, all sexual misconduct is wrong, and there should be zero tolerance for any and all violations of a person’s dignity and bodily integrity. You and I, as individuals, should not have to calibrate where each offender’s behavior falls on the spectrum of violations, or what penalty is appropriate. For that we should be able to rely on the legal system and our community’s consensus about how to balance Jewish values and moral clarity against the nuances of each situation.
I’m purposely not offering answers here. My intention is to elicit your questions and encourage Jewish leaders, synagogues and organizations to wrestle, publicly and in granular detail, with all of these difficult issues. It’s time to convene transparent, robust, community-wide dialogues that can help us chart a clear path to justice.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is working on her 12th book, a personal exploration of shame and secrecy.