People are Strange

The way of people may be tortuous and strange...
— Proverbs 21:8

I'm not sure if you saw the news. The United States has a new president. Let the healing begin. The fragmentation, the divisiveness, the real hatred that this election surfaced is not going gently into the night. And the shame of it all is that a glass ceiling is still intact, and perhaps dashed the hopes of many other young women looking up from trying to break it. Of course, if you're going where no woman has gone before, you don't want it to be because you're a woman but because you're competent and qualified. An American female politician was recently asked if she was running for office as a woman. Her response: "Do I have a choice?"
The issue of female leadership has dogged the Jewish community. The stained glass ceiling impacts every denomination in different ways. Set against global politics, however, we're not looking so backwards. Even countries like Israel and the UK that have had females in their most senior leadership positions have rarely repeated the feat. It reminds me of the above quote from Proverbs: "The way of people may be tortuous and strange." Assumptions that gender, color or sexual orientation imply an inability to lead highlights woeful and often willful ignorance.
Our verse in this chapter of Proverbs is part of a textual weave of wise sayings that set good behaviors beside bad, strange behaviors beside just ones and intelligent motives beside foolish ones. It explores the way humans think to show us a mirror of our best and worst selves. "All the ways of a person seem right to him," says verse two, "But the Lord probes the mind." We justify our actions, not always sure of why we are drawn to temptation and wrongdoing. God knows. "No wisdom," concludes the second to last verse, "no prudence, and no counsel can prevail against the Lord." You can't be smarter than God.
But you can be smarter than other human beings by paying attention to right and wrong, intentions and motives and by leveraging self-awareness to do better and be better. "One who guards his mouth and tongue guards himself from trouble. The proud, insolent person, scoffer is his name, acts in a frenzy of insolence" (21:23-24). Much of the rhetoric of this ugly election was an illustration of the latter clause of this verse. It was a daily "frenzy of insolence," where words flew fast and furious and wounded quickly. If anything characterized this election, it was the sense of scarcity that underlined it all. There is one way only. That way is fear.
Now, looking forward, it will be interesting if - over time - our traditional notions of who can lead will incrementally crumble and be replaced by greater openness and a spirit of generosity rather than scarcity. Another more subtle aspect of scarcity is what some call the phenomenon of limited success: moral permission. Here's an illustration: if someone hires a female, a person of color or any other hire that is not "conventional" or expected for a certain position, rather than regard it as a breakthrough, it may ironically give license or permission to not hire more. We do a little so we can avoid doing a lot to advance a particular cause.
We see examples of moral permission as it applies to women all over the work world, and all over the Jewish world. If we create a study program, give a new title to a woman's position, have one speaker or hire one professional who is female, we have done what we need to do to show the world how open we are. Instead of this beginning a trend, it caps it. Been there, done that.
Moral permission never excuses creating a culture of genuine openness. In fact, in certain ways it would be better not to have bothered at all because it gives others the impression that we are more morally developed than we really are. "All rash haste makes only for loss," Proverbs reminds us (21:5). We all lose when those who traditionally hold the reins of power cannot share, cannot celebrate the success of the other, cannot learn from it and cannot challenge their own prejudice or bias.
The way of people may be torturous and strange, but it doesn't have to be. We can't allow vicious banter to become the new normal. Let's stop this right now. If you really want to make America great, open up the book of Proverbs and read chapter 21. "Justice done is a joy to the righteous." Amen.
Shabbat Shalom