Thursday, December 8, 2011

Vayishlach

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.”  (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

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!

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