“Oh my God, it’s really happening.” That is the sound I made as Rosie O’Donnell opened up the 1997 Tony awards with a performance from the musical, “Rent.” Here is what I knew at the time about Rent: 1) It had killer music that spoke to my teenage angst; 2) my other musical-inclined friends were raving about it; 3) the show was getting a lot of press. Remember, this was 1997, so I had to wait until Chanukkah when I would get the CD as a gift before I could really hear the whole score and understand why the show was making such an impact. And when I did, I realized three fundamental truths at the exact same time: 1) the characters in the show represented real people who were deserving of honor; 2) I heard the story Jonathan Larson presented in Rent, but I knew there were other stories that needed to be heard; 3) I needed to do something to alter our society and support those in the LGBTQ community, those with AIDS, and every other group who has been disenfranchised.
Today, I am a 30 year old, Jewish, white, cisgender, heterosexual male who cares deeply about promoting equality, and especially equal opportunity, in our world. There are elements of my identities — namely being a white, straight, cisgender male — that I did not choose, yet have given me a leg up in the world. While I may face anti-Semitism for one aspect of my identity, I am not under the same societal pressures and do not face the same challenges as those who are of color, women, or LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer). That also does not scratch the surface of the privileges I have, just for having been brought up in an upper-middle class American environment. Yet, it is my Jewish values that implore me to use my unearned status, privilege, and power to support others who may be disenfranchised in the same way for reasons they did not choose nor control. I am an Ally - someone who believes that by working with those in a disadvantaged group, together, we can create a better world.
And I strive to, specifically, be a gender Ally. To me, this means that I am aware of the gender inequality in the world — that men have greater economic, societal, and cultural advantages than women — and the discrimination the LGBTQ community faces. Yet, there is no articulated ethics for the gender Ally. What I have done is acted, been corrected and told to reevaluate, listened, reflected, and reengaged with new action. Admittedly, as a believer in Deweyan style education, this process has worked so far for me. But for those who yearn for a framework, a set of principles, upon which Allies can operate effectively, the resources are bleak. When I Googled “Ally gender ethics” in April, the first four hits were: 1) a Facebook post about “Ally Week” at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; 2) a page about gender diversity at Curtin University in Australia; 3) a tweet from the UK organization, “Research in Gender and Ethics;” and curiously, 4) the Code of Conduct and Ethics for Ally Bank. If you want a formal guide for how to be an effective gender Ally, you apparently also will need to know how to be an effective researcher.
Finding no guide, I created and offer my own preliminary Three Principles for the Ally. My hope is that these principles will provide a framework in which Allies will be able to support and advocate for the communities with whom they ally. The three principles are simple on their face, yet complex in their understanding: 1) Honor the Human; 2) Hear Their Story; 3) Act.
Principle 1) Honor The Human
As God’s creations, all people deserve honor. Pirkei Avot constructs this concept with the term, k’vod habriot, with Ben Zoma’s statement, “Who is honored? Those who honor all people.” Rabbi Reuven Hammer notes that this does not apply to only those who have special privilege in the world but to all human beings.
K’vod habriot is exceedingly important and a necessary starting point when examining the role of the gender Ally. Rabbi Moshe Zemer gives an appropriate frame for the Ally, insisting on maintaining this value: “We are considering very sensitive matters. [These matters] relate to persons who have suffered from discrimination and persecution. They are human beings created in the image of God… We must, therefore, deal with these subjects in a sensitive way.” The Ally is likely motivated by this value, and should, accordingly, proceed with the same compassion, care, and honor that brought the Ally to the table.
Honoring the human also means to not “put a stumbling block before the blind.” The principle of “lifnei iver, before the blind” is meant to prohibit someone from taking advantage of an Other who has some sort of disadvantage. The Jewish tradition raises our responsibilities toward others to quite a high level: we are not allowed to do things that would cause someone else to sin, that would cause someone else to do something wrong.” For the gender Ally, this may mean an exploration of his or her own blindspots when it comes to gender equality, or even the mere realization that the culture or structure of a place encourages the perpetual marginalization of a particular gender identity. It is incumbent upon the gender Ally to understand that we, as humans created in God’s image, should also love and accept the Other as they are. To Honor the Human is to give k’vod habriot, not oppress the Other, and prevent ourselves and others from harming the Other.
Principle 2) Hear Their Story
Everyone has a story. It is their story. The job of the Ally is to hear the Other’s story and understand it.
One way of approaching this openness to the Other’s story is through understanding the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the Other is any other person, and their Face is that which shows you the Other’s vulnerability. When one is able to see the Other’s story from their Face, one is brutally confronted with the Other’s truth. The story being presented by the Other is deeper than their words can say because it is a crucial element of their identity, of who they are. When Allies become Allies, it is largely because they recognize their ethical responsibility to the Other, especially when they encounter the story and Face of the Other.
It should be noted, too, that the story of the Other must be heard and retold properly. One example of the modification of the story is from my experience with Women of the Wall. My understanding was that this was a group promoting egalitarianism at the Kotel, a value I believe in deeply. The first time I went, I was excited to be there, be supportive, and show my support to this community. Yet, I was taken aback when, as we were about to read Torah at Robinson’s Arch, the service leader addressed the men saying, “You are welcome to be present, but you may not participate.” This, to me, went against the very narrative that I had been presented. As I did more research, I learned what had happened: members of the organization and some Allies changed the narrative to emphasize the creation of an egalitarian prayer space, rather than supporting those who wanted to pray aloud on the women’s side. A nuanced difference, to be sure, but one that came along with substantial consequences and emotional attachments.
Ultimately, the role of the Ally is to hear the Other’s story, not hear the story the Ally wishes they heard or even hear the story that could garner the most support. The story of the Other must be kept sacred and intact. Even slight, nuanced changes can delegitimize the work attempting to be done. This is not to say that an Ally cannot disagree with the Other’s narrative. Indeed, many Jewish Allies for racial justice were recently caught in a bind when the Black Lives Matter platform included offensive, anti-Semetic language from Boycott, Divest, Sanctions propaganda. Yet, however painful, the Other’s story must be heard and understood. An Ally who does not retain their integrity by sincerely hearing the story of the Other is not truly an Ally.
Principle 3) Act
Nearly every cultural tradition has some form of the Golden Rule. In Judaism, we know it from the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.” The issue with the Golden Rule, though, is that it assumes that the way you wish to be treated is the same way that every person wants to be treated. Indeed, if a Catholic chaplain visits me in the hospital, I do not wish to be granted sacrament. Alternatively, the Platinum Rule teaches that one should “treat others in the way that they would like to be treated.” The Platinum Rule implores curiosity, respect, and empathy. Applied to the work of Allies, the Platinum Rule might read, “Advocate with and for others in a way that they would like to be supported.”
An Ally is someone who sees an injustice in the world and uses their power to correct it, even if that injustice does not disadvantage them directly. Often, but not always, an Ally may be a member of a majority group that holds power over another group. While history has shown time and again that those with power will do whatever they can to retain that power, the Ally operates with a different set of motivations. With an awareness of the power imbalance, an Ally’s actions are motivated by honoring the affected Other, hearing the Other’s story, and working to elevate the Other’s status, despite the fact that it may diminish their own power. Allies recognize the power of their position and then do what they can to use it, to in a sense, give it over to the Other.
For the Allies among us, there is even greater motivation to support those within the community because of the value of K’lal Yisrael - a responsibility to the Covenant Community. Power and access imbalance and discrimination, whether focused on Male-Female or LGBTQ or other issues, affects everyone in the community. The rabbis teach, “kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh - all of Israel is responsible for one another.” Issues of gender discrimination and power imbalance directly affect the Jewish community, and Jewish gender Allies use their power to uphold K’lal Yisrael.
While the principles of being an Ally remain constant, each specific Ally has different tasks. For the Male-Female Ally, their primary focus is bridging the gap of access and opportunity between men and women. This does not mean that there cannot be gendered experiences for men and women, but it does mean that everyone should have equal access and opportunity to, for example, work as Jewish communal leaders and receive equal pay. For the LGBTQ Ally, the task of the Ally is to create a culture that acts towards championing LGBTQ individuals with an embracing environment.
When we leave these halls, each of us will encounter situations which call on us to be Allies. Each of us, no matter our identity, can be a champion, an Ally, for a group that may be considered “Other.” Perhaps a part of your educational leadership will be to create a school which is open and welcoming to those with differentiated abilities. Perhaps your organization will be a safe space for LGBTQ Jews. Perhaps your synagogue will partner with Black Lives Matter. Each community is different, to be sure, but while the actions taken within each community will differ, we all seek to achieve the same ends.
It would be easy to end with a pithy statement like, “an Ally’s work is never done,” but as has been discussed, that would mean co-opting the story and idiom, “a woman’s work is never done.” Instead, I leave the decision for the end of the Ally’s work to the Other. Indeed, an Ally’s work is only done when they are no longer needed, and only an Other can make that determination. My hope is that these principles — 1) Honor the Human; 2) Hear Their Story; 3) Act — provide a starting point for the creation of a formal ethics for the Ally. Indeed, even in the creation of these principles, I have needed response, reflection, and correction. And I look forward to more during sermon discussion.
But when I think back to the words sung on that Tony stage, I hear them speaking to each of us: “What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?” It’s all of us, the marginalized and Allies, working together. As we enter the High Holidays, this season of reflection, this season of love, may this be a year of being Allies. May you be honored. May you be heard. And may we all act to create a more just world.