D’var Torah for September 28, 2018

Today’s D’var Torah will not be reflective of the weekly parasha or the festival of Sukkot. Given recent events and discussions and conversations many of us are having with each other and through Social Media, I thought it important to take a look at what Judaism has to say about sexual assault. This is a very difficult topic and conversation. For some your wounds are fresh, while for others the pain is seared into your memories. If you do not wish to continue reading, please feel free to place this aside.
First, a few staggering statistics from the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).[1]
  • About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.[2]
  • From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate, that 63,000 children each year were victims of sexual abuse.[3]
  • A majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.[4]
Clearly sexual assault is happening. Of that, there can be no doubt. If there is one ray of light in today’s troubled times, even as wounds are being reopened, it is also reminding us to engage in these vital conversations and to listen to the heartbreaking stories of our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, friends, and so many others.
The Hebrew Bible is ambiguous at best when it comes to sexual assault. For example, there are the stories of Lot’s daughters,[5] the rape of Tamar,[6] the story of the Levite’s concubine,[7] and the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah by Shechem.[8] In the story of Dinah, her father says nothing when the heinous act is revealed, and Dinah is never consulted by her brothers who ultimately slaughter Shechem and his whole tribe in retaliation. As is noted in the Plaut Torah Commentary, “The story also sheds light on the status of women in the ancient Near East. The rape was seen as damage inflicted upon the family rather than on the woman.”[9] If there is one saving grace to this passage it is, “Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations. We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter’s rape as their dishonor, their punishment. Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her.”[10]
It is the Rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent generations who begin to take on rape in a slightly more substantive and compassionate manner. For example, the Talmud prohibits marital rape.[11] “Another section of Talmud teaching that bad sex produces bad children condemns several sexual circumstances that the Rabbis believed resulted in offspring who rebel and transgress. These circumstances include: (1) the woman feared the man, (2) he forced her, (3) one of them hated the other, (4) they were fighting, (5) they were drunk, and (6) one of them was asleep.”[12] Meaning, there are consequences. Not the ones we would like to see as contemporary readers, but at least it is a step in the right direction.
Our contemporary understanding of tradition today universally condemns sexual assault, but it has taken a long time to get to this point. One of the most important lessons we can learn from our tradition is to hear the voice of Dinah. Sadly, what she felt and what she had to say were never written down. But it no longer has to be that way. Instead of sitting in judgment or ignoring the cries of victims, it is time we combine the story of Dinah with the most important mitzvah in our tradition: Shema, listen! Listen to the cries of victims. Genuinely hear their stories. Until the scourge of sexual violence is ended once and for all, we have to unite and stand up and hold all who commit such crimes accountable and not dismiss the testimony of those who suffer at their hands simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Shema, Listen!
A Prayer for the Victims of Sexual Violence
Bless all who have suffered the trauma of sexual assault and rape
Bless those who are reliving their experiences through the words of the pain of and suffering of others
Support all them with your abounding love at all times
Grant them comfort as they wrestle with the challenges of each day.
Sustain them in hope as they prepare for the days ahead.
And God, through your guidance help us to genuinely hear and believe the words of the victims
And to also be understanding and supportive to those who make the choice not to share their stories
Remind us not to discount their voices, their memories
Remind us to listen and not judge
Grant us the strength to raise up our voices and actions in solidarity,
And the courage to hold all who commit such heinous deeds accountable now and forevermore.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
[1] National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).
[2] National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).
[3]United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. Child Maltreatment Survey, 2012 (2013).
[4] Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sex Offenses and Offenders (1997).
[5] Genesis 19
[6] Genesis 38:1-30
[7] Judges 19–20
[8] Genesis 34
[9] Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 218
[10] Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss, ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pg. 204
[11] Babylonian Talmud Eruvim 100b