Last week’s paper reported a wrenching story from Afghanistan. A 21 year old woman named Gulnaz, jailed for two years because she was raped, was freed by President Karzai’s government. She was freed on the condition that she marry the man who raped her.
My first response to this outrageous story was: send in US Special
Forces to rescue her. Let’s use US forces to bring a clear and decisive
good to the Middle East. Let’s use our military might to rescue those
in need. If ever there was a righteous moral cause this was it. Save
Gulnaz and the far too many women like her from the oppressiveness of
their own societies. I of course understand the realpolitik arguments.
We sometimes forget that these are about what we can accomplish not
what we should strive to achieve.
And then I remembered my own book of Deuteronomy. “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.”
My own Torah stands alongside the Afghan government? Jewish law has
of course long since abandoned this ruling. Over the centuries rabbinic
authorities became unanimous in condemning violence against women. Yet
there remain those who wish return to the ways and norms of the ancient
Middle East—even in our own midst.
We teach our children to accept different cultures. We declare that
we should refrain from imposing our values on other societies. But
there must be limits to my pluralism and multi-culturalism. I am losing
patience, especially as I watch societies that our country supports
commit such wrongs. Dare we remain silent in the face of such
brutalities? How can we not declare what is wrong, wrong.
In Saudi Arabia, where a woman can be arrested for driving, a
leading cleric recently declared that allowing women to drive would
increase prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce. Even in
Israel several leading burial societies are enforcing gender separation
and preventing women from speaking at an increasing number of funerals.
Neither example is of course as outrageous as that from Afghanistan.
Make no mistake. There is a direct line between the dismissal of a
woman’s voice and treating a rape victim as chattel.
And then I read this week’s portion. In Parashat Vayishlach we read
the story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter (Genesis 34).
Dinah goes out to the field to see her neighbors. The local prince,
Shechem, rapes Dinah and then decides he loves her and wants to marry
her. Despite Anita Diamant’s romantic interpretation in her book, The
Red Tent, the Torah’s language is clear. The sexual act is violent.
Shechem’s father, Hamor, then approaches Jacob and his sons to discuss a
marriage proposal. The sons suggest that Shechem and all his male
subjects circumcise themselves. Then Shechem will be an acceptable
groom for their sister. When the men are still recovering from this
painful procedure, Simeon and Levi attack the town and slaughter all the
men, most especially Shechem and his father Hamor, and rescue their
sister Dinah from the king’s palace.
But Dinah is silent. Her voice is never heard. There is no cry of
pain reported. There are no tears. We do not read of her father
holding her, or of her mother Leah comforting her. We do not see her
brothers reaching out to her. The events happen to her. The Torah I so
love silences her. And so I declare, let her voice be heard!
The Jewish people march into the future. Only yesterday the former
president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, began serving seven years for raping a
subordinate at the Tourism Ministry and for the sexual harassment of
two other women when he was president. The prophet’s voice is heard
today. In modern day Israel no one stands above the law. A woman’s
voice is heard.
Still there are those who blame Katsav’s victims and who use the
Jewish tradition I hold so dear to demean women. And therein lies the
tension. How do we mediate ancient laws with modern sensibilities? All
religious traditions seek to gain wisdom from ancient days. We revere
the old and the teachings of long ago. The person of faith favors the
past over the future. The theory is simple. The nearer we are to Sinai
(or Jesus or Mohammed for that matter) the closer we are to the
revealed truth. And so some are unable to declare that Deuteronomy’s
words are wrong, that the norms of the ancient Middle East belong to
then and not now.
The great danger of faith is that in our reverence for the past we
ignore the present. There are those who therefore see that the only way
to gain more wisdom from long ago is to turn back the clock to those
days. To look back to ancient days should not have to mean to be bound
by those very same days. The Torah reflects an age that is not mine.
Some of its laws belong only to the past. I can gain wisdom from the
Torah while not living in its age.
Thus, while I disagree with Simeon and Levi’s actions, I share their
sentiment. I am in tune with their righteous indignation. We can
declare with them, “Should our sister be treated as a whore?” (Genesis
34:31) Let us rise up and declare that every woman is our sister and
none shall ever again live in fear!