The very public and lengthy morass surrounding the accusations against President Katsav presents us with an opportunity to explore the subject of rape as it is treated in Jewish sources. The occurrence of rape in society and its handling is attributed among other variables to a culture’s deep beliefs and values regarding women. Some suggest that societies which are prone to rape are ones where women’s public voice is not heard and where women are not part of public decision making. Germane to our discussion it is critical to note that Israel ranks 74th in the world for female representation in parliament with 17 out of 120 possible Knesset seats held by women; that is a low 14.2% of leadership.
Back to the sources, in the Tanach, the twenty four books of the Hebrew Scripture, there are three major incidents that inform our collective Jewish consciousness and sculpt our understandings of rape. It is important to not take for granted that our canon contains these powerful stories. That they are a part of our tradition speaks volumes. The texts invite us to delve into the phenomenon of rape, to draw lessons from the particulars and to be reflective on the horrors described - they challenge us to scrutinize the past and consider our own experiences. The three stories are found in three different books; Genesis, Judges and Samuel II; each are representative of dramatically different rape scenarios still prevalent today.
The first and perhaps most well known is story of Dinah the daughter of Leah and of Jacob who in Genesis 30 sets out to meet the daughters of the land of Shechem, is kidnapped, raped and tortured by a stranger. Afterwards, in a not an untypical ancient kind of way the perpetrator meets with Jacob and offers to marry his victim and establish familial ties. Repulsed with the notion, brothers Simeon and Levi, dupe the offender and his entire town into an agreement to be circumcised before any nuptials can take place. The brothers then fall upon the newly circumcised as they are recovering, a bloody massacre ensues which is later condemned severely by Jacob.
The episode in Samuel II also involves brothers, murder and mayhem with the additional element of incest to compound the dreadfulness. Here it is Amnon son of David who sickeningly plots to take his half sister, Tamar, sister of Absalom, against her will during a modern-like date rape situation. He even purports to be in love with her. She movingly pleads with him to back off, but to no avail. She is heartlessly raped and then discarded by Amnon who after the deed despises her. Absalom, Tamar’s brother conspires shrewdly to execute a murderous vengeance upon his half-brother Amnon. David, though angry about the rape now faces the death of one son and the alienation from the other.
A number of parallels between the two stories emerge. Both narratives involve violent, passionate, action-taking vengeful bothers, reticent fathers and victimized daughters. In one, Dinah is voiceless, in the other Tamar in cunning desperation attempts to extract herself from the attack. Both stories illustrate the brutal reality of men who force, the resulting primal, visceral reaction to the act of rape and the dreadful consequences for women; what happens next to Dinah and to Tamar we are never told.
The third story from the Book of Judges chapter 19 is one of a gang rape perpetrated upon the concubine of a traveling Levite who finds himself in the territory of the Benjaminites with no where to stay the night. The lone hospitable person is an elderly man who provides them with shelter. In the course of the evening as the news spreads that a stranger is in town the natives fall upon the house, demand that the stranger appear and give himself over to them. In a not unlike Sodom scenario the concubine is offered instead, raped through the night and left for dead on the doorstep at daybreak. The Levite lets all of Israel know about the violent, ghastly brutality through an especially horrific gory medium; a punishing war ensues between the other tribes and the Benjaminites; leaving 18,000 Benjamintes dead. This gang rape scene has haunting modern echoes.
Again, rape leads to passions flaring and violence. Should these extreme reactions be attributed to an admirable intolerance towards the rape of women or are we looking at the reactions of males threatened by their loss of power and possession? Which ever the case the reality is we need some tempering of the tempers.
To counterbalance these tales, the Torah provides the balance, restraint and control of law, halacha. Deuteronomy 22 outlines some of legalities of rape. Here we learn that when a woman is raped the rapist is expected to pay damages and to marry his victim. He is never permitted to divorce her. Though this seems like a ridiculous cruel porspect, the economic reality of the Ancient Near East rendered a non-marriageable woman destitute and futureless. Here at least he must take responsibility for his actions. Though, if the victim chooses she may elect to not marry her attacker. The Mishnah later elaborates on the subject of damages and makes clear that "damages" could include compensation for indignity, blemish, injury and pain; a considerable reparation package.
The situations that present in the three tales of rape in the Bible are each situations where there does not seem to be an appropriate legal framework that can kick-in with reason and resolve. The Genesis story, albeit pre-Torah law involves a non-marriageable Canaanite man raping the daughter of Jacob, the rape of Tamar was an act of incest precluding possibilities of marriage and the gang rape of the concubine is an unwieldy unsolvable situation given the legal parameters of Deuteronomy 22. These are not simple circumstances; these rapes do not fit into easy categories, hence violence becomes the problem solving medium. But these stories also serve as dramatic ancient object lessons.
One would hope that a people raised on the mothers milk of Dinah, Tamar and the Concubine of Giveah would be a people who abhor violence and abuse towards women. One would wish that those who are schooled in the Torah of kindness would have ensconced in their very being the unpardonable, reprehensible nature of rape. Unfortunately, our ongoing chronic power abuses indicate immunity to ancient lessons. In lieu of hopes and wishes regarding the past let us watch as justice resolves with reason the situation of President Katsav and let it too join our national stories as an object lesson for the next generation.