#MeToo in a Tarbut Ra’ah: Perverse Culture and the Exposure of Predatory Men 

I don’t typically post sermons on this blog, but after seeing this article in The Jewish Week, I feel compelled to share these words in the context of the urban and social justice that animates my rabbinate.

December 2, 2017 ~ 14 Kislev 5778

Parashat Vayishlach

Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Roger Ailes. Bill O’Reilly, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Russell Simmons, Leon Wieseltier Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer.

These are some of the names of men who have been credibly accused of harassment, assault and, in some cases, rape.  All, it appears, have abused positions of power and influence, with multiple people, most of them women.  The journalists and entertainers have been disgraced and dismissed by media and entertainment agencies who recognize the compromised position further association with harassers and predators would mean.  Or, if we’re being generous, they’ve decided to do the right thing.  The politicians, so far, seem to be hanging on.

Then there are other names: James, Ji-ho, Andrew, Peter, Ahmed, Christopher: countless names of those who have not been publicly accused, who retain their jobs, their influence and their capacity to abuse.  They are doctors who molest patients, who grope nurses or colleagues.  They’re factory foremen, police officers, teachers, students, therapists, lawyers, CEO’s and middle managers.  They are postmen and presidents. They are pastors, priests, imams and rabbis.  They are husbands and fathers. These are the men whose secrets have remained safe because their victims’ risk of sharing their stories is greater than their risk of keeping them secret.

The Talmud has a term for a community or society where abuse is pervasive and moral leadership absent: a tarbut ra’ah, a perverse culture.

I used to watch the Today show from time to time.  I liked Katie Couric. I really liked Ann Curry.  I thought she was smart, at once incisive and emotive.  And then Matt, it seems, Lauer didn’t want to work with her.  And I stopped watching Today.  And, irony of ironies, turned to CBS because there I could see a real journalist and interviewer in Charlie Rose.  When you change the channel from one network with an abuser as its anchor to another network with an abuser as its anchor, that’s a tarbut ra’ah, a wicked culture.

This Shabbat after lunch we’ll hear from Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, and his take on 1st Amendment protections and freedom of the press.  But this morning I want to talk about a different kind of reporting, the reporting of harassment, assault and rape of mostly women by mostly men.  And I want to suggest that a big problem right now in our society isn’t just that these abuses are happening, it’s that when we’re paying attention at all, we focus too much on the plight of women, and not enough on the culture of machismo that leads so many men to think they can treat women like this in the first place.

And the thing is, we don’t have to go far to find a story that illuminates this dynamic.  In fact we just read it.  Our triennial reading of Parashat Vayishlach today began as follows (Gen. 34:1-4):

וַתֵּצֵ֤א דִינָה֙ בַּת־לֵאָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלְדָ֖ה לְיַעֲקֹ֑ב לִרְא֖וֹת בִּבְנ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land.

וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ׃

Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

וַתִּדְבַּ֣ק נַפְשׁ֔וֹ בְּדִינָ֖ה בַּֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֶּֽאֱהַב֙ אֶת־הַֽנַּעֲרָ֔ וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַֽנַּעֲרָֽ׃

Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁכֶ֔ם אֶל־חֲמ֥וֹר אָבִ֖יו לֵאמֹ֑ר קַֽח־לִ֛י אֶת־הַיַּלְדָּ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife.” We’ll get to the brother’s reaction a bit later, but for now I’m interested in Jacob’s response.  The text tells us Jacob, Dinah’s father, is the first to find out.  And what does Jacob do?  Nothing.  The pasuk reads, “At the time Jacob heard his daughter Dinah had been defiled, his sons were in the field with his livestock, v’hecherish Ya’akov ad boam, so he kept quiet until they came back(34:5).  Why doesn’t Jacob say anything?  Possibly he is afraid tensions could escalate.  Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, says “he refrained from starting a quarrel until his sons would have been informed of what happened so that they could be on their guard against adversaries.”

Maybe Jacob is afraid for Dinah’s safety, or for his own safety.  Or maybe Jacob isn’t yet clear exactly what’s happened. The Torah is precise when it describes the news that’s been relayed: “v’Ya’akov shama ki timei et dina bito…, And Jacob heard that his daughter Dina had been defiled.”  We’re not told whether he knew she was raped, per se.  If the sex had been consensual, we could speculate, perhaps, Jacob would have felt differently.  Maybe he is angry with her as much as with Shechem or Hamor, Shechem’s father.  In fact, there are commentators that imagine Dinah was not raped, including a modern midrash in the form of a novel called The Red Tent.  Perhaps some of you have read it.

The problem though, is the torah seems pretty clear about what happened: “vayishkav otah vay’aneha. If he had simply “lay” with her, we wouldn’t need the final verb after “he lay with her.”  Vay’aneha means “he forced her.” So, what then?  What’s the next thing we often hear when a sexual assault has occurred?  On whom do we focus?  Not the rapist; the victim.  Maybe she dressed the wrong way?  Maybe she sent mixed messages?  Maybe she said “no” but her body language said “yes?”  Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time? – something single women ought to be careful of.

Rashi, the great 11th century Talmudist and Torah commentator, the one sometimes made out to be a feminist because he taught his daughters to lay tefilin, isn’t all that sensitive to the spurious allegation leveled against rape victims from time immemorial.  Why does the verse before the encounter say “Vateitze Dinah bat Leah, indicating both that Dinah is the daughter of Leah and using the specific verb “to go out?”  Rashi responds: “she is called Leah’s daughter, since she, too, was fond “of going out,” as it is said (30:16) “and Leah went out to meet him.”  Rashi bases his comment on a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 80:1) which notices the verb vateitze, “and she went out” is used to describe the scene in Chapter 30 (v.16) when Leah appears to seduce Jacob (after buying Rachel off with some mandrakes).  The next few verses there describe how Leah gives birth to sons 4, 5 and 6… and then to a daughter: Dinah.  Do we get the midrashic move?  Leah “went out” to seduce Jacob – which produced Dina.  Dina “went out” in a similar manner and got raped by Shechem.  If Rashi isn’t entirely transparent about what he means, the midrash is crystal clear: “Leah יָצָאת מְקֻשֶּׁטֶת כְּזוֹנָה [she] went out dressed like a whore.”  Which is why we’re also told Dinah “went out.”  “Like mother like daughter.”

So, what about Jacob’s silence?  Maybe it’s reflective of something bigger, more systemic, a tarbut ra’ah, a perverse culture of around sexual violence.  You see, the truth is, it didn’t really matter whether Dinah was raped.  Her consent isn’t the ancient world’s central concern.  Dr. Tamara Ashkenazi offers the following if her A Women’s Torah Commentary (p. 191): “The assumption made by most interpreters is that Dinah did not consent to the sexual act.  However, the questions of consent, so central to the modern notion of rape and of women’s rights in general, is entirely ignored in this text. Dinah’s consent is not the issue.”  She continues, “In our society, forcing a woman to have sex against her will is seen as terrible both for its emotional and psychological consequences, and for the humiliation and debasement suffered by the woman as an individual.  The Bible, even in its rape laws, was primarily concerned with the juridical and social-status consequences of the tort involved in sleeping with a virgin without either marrying her or compensating her father.”

Dina, like all women in biblical times, is at least in part a commodity.  She, more or less, belongs to her father.  When she is deflowered, as it were, she belongs to her husband.  But if the person doing the deflowering isn’t her husband, that’s a problem.  However Jacob felt about the rape itself (and we can’t really know), at the end of the story, Jacob seems to have been ok with the solution: Shechem is to marry her. Which is why he gets so upset with Shimon and Levi when they trick the Hivites into circumcising themselves.  What do they do?  When the men recovering from their circumcisions are most vulnerable, they slaughter them, Shechem and Hamor and every other male in the city – and rescue their sister.  Is this collective punishment fair?  Maimonides says yes because “they saw and knew [about Shechem’s abduction of Dinah], yet they did not bring him to justice” (Hilchot Melachim, 9:14).  Silence is consent. By that token, Jacob, too, may be complicit in his daughter’s trauma, and maybe Shimon and Levi are the heroes of the story?  They at least know, unlike many (ancient and modern), that the victim is not to blame for the crime.  They retort to Jacob, “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”

But before we go too far in defending Shimon and Levi for their vigilante justice, remember, their collective punishment of Shechem’s and Hamor’s fellow citizens includes not just theft of property, riches and livestock but also their women and children.  They certainly don’t have a sophisticated appreciation for the importance of treating women and girls with respect. No, as is often the case, we have to look closer at the text to discover how the ancient words of Torah, written for another culture, in another time, might guide us in our time.

Which brings me back to the issue of sexual assault and consent. One of the things we’re hearing a lot in the wake of all these scandals is that women and men are beginning to think differently about sexual violence. How telling that in the 90’s, many prominent feminists sided with President Bill Clinton because, while his behavior was repugnant, it was still consensual.  Betty Friedan said in those days, “[Clinton’s] enemies are attempting to bring him down through allegations about some dalliance with an intern…. Whether it’s a fantasy, a set-up or true, I simply don’t care.”  And the National Organization for Women equivocated about whether the president was a “sexual predator” or merely a “womanizer.”

What was not said enough at the time (including by me), what still isn’t said enough today, is that consent is only part of the story. The full story is about power and the abuse of power.  Lewinsky worked for Clinton.  The women Matt Lauer allegedly abused were subordinates – by rank or by circumstance.  And that’s the story we see playing out again and again – in the media, in entertainment, in politics – and NOT in the many spheres where calling out harassers, abusers and even rapists is riskier for the victims than it is for the perpetrators, because they can lose their jobs, their reputations, sometimes even their lives.

The story of Dinah is instructive because we never hear Dinah’s voice.  She is utterly silent.  She is acted upon.  The disempowerment of women by men is an ancient and modern story indeed.  Rabbi Laura Geller, a Reform colleague from Los Angeles writes about Dinah: “Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations.  We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter’s rape as their dishonor, their punishment.  Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her.  Other women are not as lucky.” Rav Geller considers, “What happens to Dinah in the aftermath of her ordeal?  We do not know.  We never hear from her, just as we may never hear from the women and girls in our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard.  But the legacy of Jacob as Israel, the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world…. The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to hear each other ‘into speech.’ Dinah’s story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.”

Well said.  And I would add to the men in the room, after listening to women’s voices, we also must speak, but less about victims and more about perpetrators, harassers, abusers and rapists.  In other words, we must speak more about ourselves.  What is it in us, in our masculine culture that has convinced so many men and boys they can objectify or harm women?  The Tarbut Ra’ah that continues to shape our society is corrosive for all of us, of every gender.

What, ultimately, do we learn from our parasha?  That consent matters and it doesn’t.  It matters because every person, having been created in the image of God, has sovereign responsibility for our bodies.  We get to choose with whom we share our physical selves.  All of us. All the time. And… sometimes the choice, is complicated because we make it complicated. We create situations, power-dynamics that rob women of their full agency.  Women and men, together, must begin to unmake the structural and institutional sexism that allows men to earn more money, more upward mobility and more respect.Vateitzeh Dinah, Dinah “went out” but not to a level playing field.  We must do more to level the field. And we must do it soon.Because our children are watching us.