3 Lessons from the Torah about Sexual Violence
As we commemorate Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), it is important to think about and discuss these issues in context of Jewish text and our Jewish values. In Jewish text, there are many examples of sexual assault, including rape, as well as domestic abuse. These narratives highlight the reality that sexual violence has existed throughout history, sometimes paralleling cases we see in society today.
While there are multiple instances in Jewish text (the Levite’s concubine, Lot’s daughters, the rape of Tamar) perhaps the most infamous story is the rape of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob (Genesis 34). The text reads that Shechem, “the prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, lay with her, and violated her” (Genesis 34:2). After Shechem rapes Dinah, he decides he is in love with her and asks his father, Hamor, to negotiate with Jacob so that he may marry her. The rest of the chapter is just as unpleasant; three days after Shechem and Hamor have every man in their city circumcised as a part of the marital agreement, Jacob’s sons enter the city and kill all of the men.
Three major takeaways from the story raise many questions about healthy sexual relationships, consent, and common themes across instances of sexual assault.
1. What's love got to do with it?
Shechem assaulted Dinah. What does it matter if he loved her? Maybe a follow-up question is, “Did Shechem claim he loved her to make the situation look slightly better?” but for now, we'll go with the idea that he actually did feel a tie to Dinah.
Just because a relationship is abusive doesn't mean the perpetrator doesn't feel an emotional connection to the victim. - and it doesn't mean the victim does not still love the abuser (see this FAQ from loveisrespect.org to go deeper on this topic). As the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence explains, that love comes with the hope that the abuser will change (especially amid promises that they will), along with any manipulation and fear. The abuser's expressed love for the victim only further complicates the relationship, and it is all of these factors that help us understand just one reason why people in abusive relationships stay. Love doesn't explain away the fact that the perpetrator committed abuse, nor does it somehow justify the crime; similarly, Shechem’s supposed love for Dinah does not disqualify him from being considered a rapist.
2. Fraternal bond and reputation matter.
Shechem immediately went running to his father, who was aware of what had happened but agreed to help his son anyway. It’s very easy to see a parallel between this situation and that which occurred during the Brock Turner sexual assault trial in 2016. Though there was clear evidence pointing to the fact that Turner committed the assault for which he was ultimately convicted, his father still submitted a statement downplaying the events and asking for leniency.
In Genesis, all of the men in the city become complicit in Shechem’s actions by agreeing to the circumcision. In a similar vein, two different studies have found that fraternity men are three times more likely to commit sexual assault than other college men. And just as Shechem’s power and reputation as a prince encouraged more people to follow and believe his intentions, we saw this, too, in the Turner case: His privilege as a star athlete detracted from the fact that he was a sex offender. RAINN outlines the importance of increasing bystander intervention education and confronting toxic masculinity to encourage more people to stand up against sexual assault and to step in and prevent it.
3. Victims' voices have value.
The most striking aspect of Dinah's story is that we never actually hear from Dinah, and therefore, we don’t know her experience firsthand - just as told by the men surrounding her. Over the past few years, survivors of sexual violence - men, women, and gender non-conforming individuals - have spoken out about their experiences as a vehicle for empowerment and advocacy. While this is not the right personal choice for every survivor of sexual violence, those who have come forward (like at this year's Oscars) have given a voice to those who choose not to or who are not able to, thereby giving a voice to the greater movement. Sharing personal narratives is one of the most powerful way to reach people, and we must honor those experiences and support those who share them.
Download the Religious Action Center's Sexual Assault Aawareness Month (SAAM) Action Toolkit for resources, education, and program ideas, and follow the RAC’s gender-based violence issue page for more information and blog about sexual assault.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.HOPE and online.rainn.org. For support in dating and domestic violence situations, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available.