Growing up, I learned how to be silent in the face of sexual violence. As a professor, I must do better.
One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn eighteen.i
• Fourteen years old: I am reading a chapter of the Bible with my two younger sisters, my mother, and my grandfather. The Torah portion is Genesis 19, the angels’ visitation to Sodom. The townsmen at the door. Lot offering his virgin daughters instead of his guests. I object: Lot is a terrible father. My grandfather responds: That is not the point of the story. The story is about proper hospitality.
• Sixteen years old: My father has a guest. The guest comments on what he’d like to do to my teenage body. My father overhears and laughs. Is this a story about proper hospitality? I remember that this is not my story and I am silent. I start avoiding home.
• In college, I choose Classical Studies because it takes me as far away from myself and the present as possible, and lets me linger with the minds of great men who never worry about being sexually assaulted, who ruminate on the pursuit of the good life and self-actualization. I read Aristophanes and Plato and am inspired by their occasionally sympathetic statements about womankind.
• Over the next eight years, I pursue Judaic Studies in five academic institutions between the United States and Israel. Moving repeatedly is isolating.
• I am on a date with an observant Jewish law student. He tells me that it is the open sexualization of women in our culture that leads men to desire what is forbidden: children. I cannot respond because I am choking back tears and I cannot even name why.
• I audit a “Bible as Literature” class with a popular professor. Genesis 19 comes around again. This professor teaches with compassion and kindness, but he does not call out Lot. I follow him out after class, wait in a line of students, and ask him what this story means, why it seems so cruel. He says, and I write this down a few moments later, that the Bible includes hard stories; it does not smooth out its rough edges for us. It would be doing us a disservice if it did. He does not indict Lot, but I am gratified he admits the terrain is rocky.
• I read the texts of the rabbis. I am drawn to their imaginative realms: under Roman occupation, the rabbis are victims of oppression, focused on self-definition and living according to their own values. I’ve identified with men’s perspectives for so long, I do not even mind their casual misogyny. I do not take the patriarchy personally. I am a star student.
• One of my favorite professors invites me to join him at a bar for a drink. I’ve heard whispers about him, so I ask a male colleague to join me. When my friend leaves the table to go the bathroom, my teacher begins to tell me about his troubled sex life. I nod sympathetically and am grateful that my friend will return eventually. I can handle this like a guy, I tell myself. It is only years later, when I am about to marry, that I can see what was wrong with that exchange. Oversharing like that is a way of establishing intimacy where none should exist; it is a way of breaking down a door that ought to remain closed. Within a year two friends and two mentors will tell me their own experiences with him: propositions, physical intimidation, and sexual harassment. Each swears me to secrecy while at the same time minimizing what happened to her. I am heartbroken to lose my trust in him, but after I graduate, I never speak to him again. He remained a professor and I remained silent. Only now do I wonder how many others are still carrying his secrets for him. And I wonder if I did enough to protect the next isolated student or vulnerable assistant professor or random stranger from him.
• At one of my university programs, I’m the only woman in my cohort in my department. I hang out with my male colleagues and I am proud of myself because I can be one of the guys. I don’t mind their jokes about women, sex, and rape because I’ve been disconnected from my body for so long, I barely feel it.
• I’m preparing for an exam on Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism. I decide to read the entire Bible with commentaries of my choosing. Over the course of my studies of Judaism and ancient religion, I have never been assigned scholarship with a feminist perspective. Men in my field tend to discuss feminist scholarship only in tones of derision. I stumble across Comparative Literature scholar Mieke Bal discussing the most violent book of the Bible, the book of Judges, in her book Death & Dissymmetry. She notes that one of the most ancient biblical interpreters, Ben Sira, called the judges pious heroes: “May their bones flower again from the tomb, and may the names of those illustrious men live again in their sons.” Following Ben Sira, the book of Judges has been understood to be about the establishment of Israelites in the Promised Land. The judges are deserving of blessed memory: memorial tombs, names, and sons.
• But, Bal points out, there are almost no sons in the book of Judges, and there are many slaughtered daughters without names and memorial. Ben Sira denied the facts of the book of Judges. He ignored the descriptions of violence against women. And most modern scholars, following him, do too.
• I exhaled a breath I did not realize I’d been holding for half my life. I acknowledged a truth that I’d been repressing for years: texts that contain sexual violence are about sexual violence. And scholars collude in that violence against women and the silencing of women when they ignore that dimension of the text and the reality of sexual violence in the world around them.
• I write an encyclopedia entry about sexual violence in early Jewish sources and share it with a workshop of my peers. A prospective student shows up late, has not read my essay fully, but offers a lot of feedback. The fact that in a long list of forbidden incestual relations, Leviticus 18 seems to omit a prohibition of father and daughter incest? Irrelevant, he tells me, it is obvious fathers would be prohibited from abusing their daughters.
According to a global metaanalysis of self-reported child sexual abuse, an average of 12.7 percent of children experienced sexual abuse by a parent or caregiver.ii For women alone, that figure rises to 18 percent. American society has an incest problem that it assiduously avoids.iii
• My main point was that in rabbinic texts, sexual violence was discussed primarily in terms of the resultant economic damage to the father or in terms of contractual marriage negotiations, not as a prohibited violation in and of itself.
• But this overconfident student tells me that the rabbis might not articulate rape as a crime per se, but disciples listen to their rabbis and rape is unheard of in rabbinic communities. The men in the classroom all nod to each other. The professor is silent. I declare the workshop over forty-five minutes early and leave.
No community is immune from rape and sexual assault. Perpetrators rape victims in Jewish communities at the same rates as perpetrators rape victims in the general population.iv
• Let me state clearly what no male teacher of mine has ever stated out loud: when a text describes sexual violence, it is about sexual violence. And sexual violence happens in families, with friends and acquaintances, and in all communities. It has happened to at least a quarter of your students and to your colleagues and mentors. It is traumatic and it is wrong. Now, then, and always. And if we do not possess the moral clarity to call that out, we are teaching men and women to be numb to sexual violence and to not call it out when it affects them, their peers, and others. We must do better.
• If you choose to say nothing about violence in an ancient text or the world around you, you are choosing to collude in the silencing of victims.
• In my classes, students practice talking about the construction of power in ancient texts. We talk about how their generation has popularized the concept of consent. It is not that women and boys in the past did not suffer sexual violence. It was just that their experience was irrelevant to the authors whose texts do survive. I include statistics about sexual violence on campus and I encourage students to look out for each other. I am not only teaching students to think, I am also always giving them permission to feel, and to imagine a different reality.
ii Marije Stoltenborgh, et al., “A Global Perspective on Child Sexual Abuse: Meta-Analysis of Prevalence around the World,” Child Maltreatment 16, no. 2 (2011): 79–101, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1077559511403920.
iii Mia Fontaine, “America Has an Incest Problem,” The Atlantic, January 24, 2013.
iv David H. Rosmarin, et al., “Childhood Sexual Abuse, Mental Health, and Religion across the Jewish Community,” Child Abuse & Neglect 81 (2018): 21–28.