What My Jewish Teachers Never Told Me About Sexual Assault

What My Jewish Teachers Never Told Me About Sexual Assault

Judah and Tamar by Ferdinand Bol (1653) / Wikicommons
Judah and Tamar by Ferdinand Bol (1653) / Wikicommons

My seventh grade Nach Rebbe walked into the classroom and wrote the Hebrew word “oh’-nes” on the board. “Does everyone know what this means?” he asked. The faces of twenty twelve-year-old girls stared blankly back at him. “Girls, listen because I’m only going to say it in English once: oh’-nes means rape.” But my face remained blank, because I didn’t know what the word meant in English either.

We learned that day about the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon:

11 …And he held onto her, and said to her: ‘Come lie with me, my sister.’ 12 And she said to him: ‘Do not, my brother, do not force me…’ 14 And he did not hearken, to listen to her voice; and he was stronger than her and forced her and lay with her.

Growing up in the insular environment of the Yeshiva Day School world, this is what I was taught about rape. What I knew, I learned from my Rabbeim (Rabbis) and Morot (teachers) in Tanakh (the Bible)—the stories of Tamar and Amnon, Dinah and Shechem, Pilegesh B’Givah. I spent years not knowing that rape could be anything other than a physically violent act.

My understanding of what constitutes rape changed a little in high school, when ‘stranger danger’ shifted from ‘don’t talk to strangers’ to ‘don’t accept drinks that you didn’t pour yourself.’ Though my understanding was now slightly more broad, it wasn’t really a shift to understand a rapist using drugs as a way to incapacitate victims, in the same way one would use physical violence or the threat of such.

But then I questioned: hadn’t I been taught of a story in Tanakh of two people having sex with an intoxicated person?

33 And they made their father drink wine, that night. And the first-born came, and lay with her father; and he did not know when she lay down, or got up. 35 And they made their father drink wine this night also. And the younger got up, and lay with him;  and he did not know when she lay down, or got up.

Why is it that the first time I thought about the rape of Lot by his daughters as what it was—rape—it was by my own conclusion? Why was I not taught about his rape as the ‘Rape of Lot’ in the same way as I was taught about the ‘Rape of Dinah?’

At sixteen or seventeen, frustrated by my own naïveté regarding the world around me, and curious as to how my own branch of Modern Orthodox feminism compared to the feminism of the secular world, I began to read more. It was on my own that I learned rape is not always physically violent: it can be brought about through blackmail or coercion. The kind of rape that involves a power imbalance, such as a teacher having sex with a student or a supervisor having sex with an employee (or potential employee) went unheeded in my education.

But again, I questioned: hadn’t I been taught of a story in Tanakh of a person in a position of power tearing off the clothes of a subordinate?

7 And it was, after after these things, that his master’s wife cast her eyes towards Joseph; and she said: ‘Lie with me.’ 8 But he refused… 11 And it it was on a day like this, he went into the house to do his work, and there were no men from the house there–in the house. 12 And she caught him by his clothing, saying: ‘Lie with me.’ And he left his clothing in her hand, and fled, and went out… 14 She called unto the men of her house, and said to them, saying: ‘…he came to me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice.’

Why is it that the first time I thought about Potiphar’s wife’s sexual assault of Joseph as what it was—sexual assault—it was again by my own conclusion? All I can remember being taught was how handsome the Torah says Joseph is. Along with the false rape claim Potiphar’s wife then makes against Joseph, we always seemed to have glossed over that part of the narrative.

Why weren’t these discussions I had in day school? It’s not that we didn’t discuss rape and sexual immorality; in the context of the Talmud and Tanakh we often had class discussions analyzing these topics.

We just seem to have avoided the ones involving men as victims.

This semester, I’m studying abroad at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Roaming around campus, I’ve seen posters about reporting rape and sexual assault. At first, I was happy to see that this information is so readily available to students; then, I started to think about the content of the posters. Hebrew is a gendered language, and the resources listed on the flier, are done so using exclusively feminine language.

I tried to put myself into the shoes of a man who has just been sexually assaulted. By a female professor, by his boyfriend, by a stranger—it didn’t really matter by whom. If the resources presented to him are all done so in feminine language, he will second guess himself. Had he really been sexually assaulted? Can men even be raped?

That last question may seem odd to some, but I have sat in a lecture on victimology in university where students have asked that very question. So, let’s get one thing straight: saying a man cannot be raped is as ridiculous as Todd Akin saying that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut [pregnancy] down.” Globally, one in six men experience some form of sexual abuse.

In a slightly less extreme, but much more common, example, I know women—peers who are graduates of the some same Jewish institutions as I—who feel that it is appropriate, in fact funny, to slap or grab their male friends’ buttocks. If the situation were reversed and my male friends slapped and grabbed my buttock, do you think we’d find it as appropriate and funny?

Inherent in society’s interpretation of masculinity is that men are strong and men can take anything that’s thrown at them. For a man to disclose that he is a victim seems to negate these notions of masculinity. Rape and sexual assault are already not reported as often as other crimes—and men are even less likely to come forward.

In a 2014 national survey, 64% of Americans said that it would be easier to help a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence if we talked more about these issues. Judaism should lead by example, and Torah education is a great place to start. Day schools take note—sexual assault is not just about physical violence, nor is it just a women’s issue, so don’t teach as such.

As we look back on 5778 and celebrate the holidays that come with the start of 5779, we begin the cycle of reading the Torah anew. My hope for this year is for the discussions that occur around my Shabbat table surrounding the parsha (weekly portion) to be inclusive of all people.

Liat Greenwood is dually enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, completing the final year of her BSN and pursuing her MSN in the Nurse-Midwifery program, with a minor in Forensic Science. One of Liat’s main areas of interest is the intersection between health, Jewish lifestyle, and halakha (Jewish law). She is spending the semester abroad at The Henrietta-Szold Hadassah Hebrew University School of Nursing in Jerusalem.

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