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What the Torah says about sexual assault

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By Sofia Heller

Content Note: Sexual assault, sexual violence, rape

“Dustin Hoffman accused of sexual assault.” “Mario Batali Tells Fans: Sorry for the Sexual Assault, Here’s a Cinnamon Roll Recipe.” “More Women Accuse Russell Simmons Of Rape, Sexual Assault.” “California Democratic Party official resigns after rape, misconduct allegations.” “Former Intern Accuses Wyoming’s Secretary of State of Sexual Assault.” “Houston firefighter arrested for sexual assault of teen.” “No charges for alleged sexual assault at Kansas basketball dorm.”

These headlines are only a few in the recent surge of coverage about sexual violence. The avalanche of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape allegations over the past few months – catalysed by the sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein – make it clear that sexual violence is a problem deeply embedded in our society; it even finds credence in Judaism’s foundational text, the Torah.

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 says, “If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty [shekels of] silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her.”

In other words, the Torah determines that a rapist must marry his victim, thus framing it as punishment for the rapist. The wording in the last sentence – “he can never have the right to divorce her” – makes it seem like we’re supposed to feel bad that the rapist is trapped in this marriage. No part of this passage recognises that the person truly being punished in this type of arrangement is the victim – a disturbing example of the Torah’s patriarchal views and authorship.

If the Torah had been written by women, I’m pretty certain that marriage between a rapist and victim wouldn’t be conveyed as punishment for the rapist, and this type of “punishment” probably wouldn’t have appeared at all. The text, as it is written, completely erases the woman’s victimhood and trauma, and, while framing it as a punishment, actually gives all of the power and privilege to the rapist. To add insult to injury, the text makes it seem like the woman benefits from this type of arrangement, when in reality, we know that couldn’t be further from the truth.

This text illustrates the great importance of being aware of who has a voice and who doesn’t; who gets to tell stories, and who isn’t given a voice. The recent flood of sexual violence allegations as well as the #MeToo movement represent women seizing control of the narrative, and that’s extremely significant. However, there remain those voices that sympathise with the predators because of how they’re being punished, just as the Torah does, when it’s the survivors who should finally be receiving the sympathy and support they deserve.

In the aforementioned headlines, there’s an emphasis on men in positions of power who have taken advantage of women beneath them in rank. These men seem to feel that they are invincible, and they have a basis for feeling so entitled. Companies and even whole industries often work to protect men who have been accused of sexual violence. Women are intimidated or threatened into staying quiet. We see this in the Torah as well. After all, since women are forced to marry their rapists, staying silent is theoretically a way to avoid that fate.

While these past few months are not, by any means, the first time women have come forward to speak out against their attackers, hopefully the mass media attention and the actual punishments we’re starting to see represent a positive shift in our society – a shift away from the type of male privilege we see in the Torah, privilege born of a patriarchal system that’s intentionally designed to benefit men and oppress women. These allegations, and subsequent repercussions, serve as a new message that sexual violence will no longer be tolerated and that sexual predators will no longer be protected.

This content has been provided by the Jewish Women’s Archive

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