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The Sacred and the Lurid

The Talmud records the following story:
Rav Kahana was a student of Rav. One evening Rav Kahana entered and lay beneath Rav’s bed. He heard Rav talking and laughing with his wife, and seeing to his needs, i.e., having sexual relations with her. Rav Kahana said to Rav: “The mouth of Rav is like one who has never eaten a cooked dish before.” Rav said to him: “Kahana, what are you doing here? Leave at once. This is not an appropriate thing to do.” Rav Kahana said to him: “It is Torah, and I must learn it.” (Brachot 62a)
I used to teach this story in order to illustrate how enlightened the Jewish tradition is. The ancient rabbis speak about sex. They discuss how sexual relations are commanded between a husband and wife. It is not a sin, but an enjoyment. It is likewise Torah. Nothing is outside of the religious purview, I would comment.

These days, however, I am beginning to look at such stories in a different light. The Talmud no longer appears enlightened. My tradition no longer seems so open. Rav’s wife is not named. She is instead a dish. And his student must learn how to taste it. My beloved tradition is sexist. And today it appears lurid.

I am exhausted after reading about the decades of sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein. The accusations of rape and abuse are all too familiar. The lengthy list of powerful men accused, and too often forgiven, of committing similar crimes grows with each passing day: Bill O’Reilly, President Clinton, Ben Roethlisberger, Bill Cosby, President Trump.

And Abraham. This week we read an incredulous story about our patriarch. Afraid that Pharaoh will kill him when he sees how beautiful his wife Sarah is, he instructs her to say that she is his sister. She is then taken as a wife by Pharaoh. And who then acts heroically? Pharaoh! He says to Abraham, “What is this that you have done? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” (Genesis 12) Still both men treat Sarah as property to be traded between them.

And then there is King David. Yes, the greatest king who ever ruled the Jewish people was, I am afraid to say, a man of similar ilk. One day he spied Batsheva bathing. (Try reading this verse through today’s eyes.) She was exceedingly beautiful. He ordered his servants to have her brought to him. How could she say “no” to the king? I used to ask, “Did she want the king to see her bathing?” I now recant. That sounds like blaming the victim. I repent.

Batsheva becomes pregnant. And so David had her husband, Uriah, who was an extraordinarily loyal soldier in the king’s army, killed by instructing the other soldiers to leave Uriah alone when next attacking the enemy.

The Bible then takes an interesting turn. The prophet Nathan confronts David about his sin. He marches into the palace and shouts, “You are that man.” And what does David do? He could have had the prophet killed. Instead King David says, “I stand guilty.” (II Samuel 12)

How I long for such a response today.

Real leadership is about admitting error. We want perfect leaders. They are not. And they never have been. But these days powerful, and famous, people become products. We construct images. We explain away sins and flaws, using terms such as sexual addiction. We cover up instances of harassment, and even rape. Our leaders begin to believe the images others have fashioned about them. They begin to think that their power allows them to do anything, and everything, they want and desire.

I would have preferred if King David were forced to relinquish his crown.

People will say, “That was then. Times were different. The rules were not the same. You cannot apply today’s values to ancient events.”

The problem is, however, that times have remained the same. We have not marched forward. We have not learned from past mistakes. Too many powerful, wealthy and famous men act in similar ways.

Whether a man is the king, president, CEO, or even an eloquent philosopher (Leon Wieseltier) the women he works with are not there for his enjoyment and pleasure. He cannot grab them. He cannot grope them. With power comes greater responsibility not as far too many demonstrate, greater privilege. The harassment, and the objectification, of women must end now.

Perhaps it is time we read our sacred stories with different eyes. We now better understand the pain of those unnamed and silenced millennia ago and today.

That may be the only way to begin writing a new story—for women, and men.