Since Autumn 2017, dozens of powerful men have been removed from their posts after being accused of sexual harassment and assault by women who identify with the #MeToo Movement. Most recently, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, approved to the Supreme Court, faced similar charges, leaving America split over whether to believe his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, or side with the Senate’s majority.
Given this climate, it is incumbent upon Jews to investigate the Torah’s views on sexual assault and other misconduct. While the Torah contains mixed messages about the severity of sexual assault, Halakha goes to great lengths to prevent sexual abuse. However, Talmudic jurisprudence differs substantially from that advocated by feminist activists. Overall, Orthodox Judaism jives somewhat with modern feminism in these regards.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 sanctions capturing and marrying women in war simply because they are “beautiful” and “desire[d],” thereby condoning certain instances of rape. The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) says that the Torah only permitted this in response to his evil desires, to prevent him from sinning by marrying her illegally. But there are many comparable sins whose perpetrators have even stronger urges but are expected to restrain themselves under harsh penalties including death by stoning. Furthermore, G-d is the omnipotent Author of temptation, so He could simply not tempt men in battle to capture and assault women. Regardless, this whole approach doesn’t ethically justify the victimization of these women; it’s not designed to. Instead, it’s focused on the desecration of Israel and G-d brought about by miscegenation with non-Jews. On the bright side, Scripture recognizes she has been afflicted and for this reason prohibits enslaving her.
Duet. 22:23-29 teaches three cases of rape, each with a different verdict. The first two involve a betrothed (yet unmarried) woman. When she is raped in a city—where there presumably are men within earshot who can save her—she is expected to cry out for help. If she did not call for protection, she is stoned for committing adultery. Here, the Torah takes a “No Means No” approach to sexual consent. As Nahmanides puts it, “It is the way of all women who are being raped to cry out in the city to save and rescue her.” He notes that she need not yell, but that any signs of resistance, including crying or having ripped her rapist’s clothing or hair, exempt her of punishment. Verse 24 goes so far as to blame her morally for what transpired: “on the matter that she didn’t cry out in the city.” This is radical even for “No Means No” doctrine.
Researchers are quick to point out, however, that many victims of unwanted sexual touching, including rape, do not fight back. Furthermore, feminists and many experts argue, consent ought to be affirmative—”Yes Means Yes,” the law in some progressive states—such that this woman, simply by virtue of not objecting to the intercourse, cannot be considered to have condoned or participated in this act.
In short, Deut. 22 indicates that a woman’s union with a man, not her intrinsic worth and autonomy, makes raping her “evil” and a capital crime. However, it is still illegal and considered a violation of the victim if she is not married, and it carries a heavy monetary and matrimonial remuneration. This punishment restitutes the victim handsomely, deters abuse, and, unlike America’s penitentiaries, it doesn’t turn the rapist into a career criminal. A woman being raped is expected to fight back or yell for help, but she may be given the benefit of the doubt in limited cases. Whether she objected or not, she is considered to have been violated.
On the flip side, Genesis 34, Judges 19-21, and 2 Samuel 13 each reflect intolerance for rape. In each case, outraged men react with compassion for the victim, killing the rapist. These narratives fit well into modern views of sexual assault.
In response to the assault in 2 Sam. 13, legal restrictions are also enacted to prevent rape. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 21a-b), King David and his court established that a man is forbidden to seclude himself with an unmarried woman. Under these rules, rape is exceedingly unlikely. When combined with the prohibition of touching members of the opposite sex (excluding spouses and parents) affectionately, it becomes impossible.
The high regard in which Jews hold themselves, refraining from discussing or viewing obscene matters, restricts their “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture.” Indeed, Orthodox Judaism has a very traditional view of even minor sexual activity. Orthodox Judaism is extremely concerned with protecting women not only from an outright violation, but even inappropriate conversation, whether to or about them, as well as from being stalked, judged on their appearance or otherwise looked at improperly. And, for their protection, mentally challenged people are considered incapable of consent, making it impossible for them to marry, demonstrating that Halakha is sensitive to everyone’s needs and is careful to ensure consent.
After Jacob’s daughter Dina was abducted and raped by Prince Hamor in Gen. 34, her brothers Levi and Simeon responded by genociding his town, Shekhem. In effect, they were holding the residents responsible for their “rape culture”; they demanded they stand up against victimization of women. Surely feminists would applaud them. Simeon and Levi responded to Jacob’s concerns that they made him look bad, endangering him in that warrior society, with righteous indignation: “Should he treat our sister like a harlot?” While some feminists might not like the juxtaposition of inexcusable sexual behavior and prostitution, they share their sentiment: Can a man treat women as sexual objects? This is toxic masculinity.
The most extreme reaction to rape mentioned in Scripture was the genocide of the tribe of Benjamin in Jud.19-21. When a Levite in Gibeah, a Benjaminite city, marauders came and raped his concubine. After being abused all night, she collapsed at her host’s doorstep. Her husband then cut her into bits and sent one to every tribe. All of Israel was horrified, and everyone discussed how to respond. That an entire nation in Mesopotamia was so disgusted and concerned attested to Israel’s high moral standards: Even when surrounded by depravity, Jews have historically kept their values.
“So all the men of Israel, united as one man, massed against the town,” and when the Benjaminites refused to hand over the rapists, they held the entire tribe, tens of thousands of men, responsible for their “rape culture.” G-d supported them repeatedly because He too did not and does not tolerate “rape culture.” Israel slaughtered tens of thousands of Benjaminites and burned down their town. Imagine if every gangrape or mass shooting in America were responded to with genocide like this.
These three narratives show that, though the Law might not vehemently side with victims of sexual abuse, Jewish values, before and after the covenant at Sinai, detest such misconduct. Jews were willing to get their hands dirty to enact justice, and the Lord supported them. Even today, many safeguards are in place to protect women.
In contrast to #MeToo’s goal that women be heard, Jewish jurisprudence gives women little voice. Women are not allowed to testify in Beth Din (Jewish courts). Neither can the victims of the crime being prosecuted. Additionally, allegations aren’t enough; it is incumbent on the one making a claim against his fellow to provide evidence; in general, a high standard of proof is upheld. Last, Jews are forbidden from turning one another in to non-Jewish law enforcement, but some major poskim (deciders of Halakha) permit handing over sex offenders.
Though these are legal rules, and #MeToo exacts judgment extrajudicially—in the court of public opinion—Jews are expected to judge each other favorably, unlike feminists’ battle cry, “Believe women,” and avoid embarrassing Jews. Not only that, but Halakha forbids most gossip about Jews, and Jewish values discourage gossip even about gentiles. So while lists of pervy employers may be okay because they protect women from harassment, publicizing decades-old misconduct might not be.
Though the Law does not prescribe punishments as severe as #MeToo advocates deem appropriate, it does consider sexual misconduct a serious issue that needs to be attended to. Several stories from Scripture demonstrate the disgust Jews have always felt toward such acts. Halakha protects women and vulnerable men from abuse—as well as eliminates “rape culture”—better than any contemporary guidelines, legal, social or corporate. Some Halakhot surrounding sexuality can be seen as archaic suppression of women. This reflects a tradition toward sexual behavior, against which today’s feminists fight tooth and nail. Finally, Jewish standards of proof, in both legal and social settings, are very different from those advocated by the #MeToo Movement.
Levi Langer is a sophomore at Torah Academy of Bergen County. He is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.