Over 50 synagogues around the world have already committed to speaking out against rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking this coming Shabbat (our first “Shabbos Dinah”) since in the Torah portion this week (Vayishlach), Dinah is raped. The Torah reminds us just how vulnerable women are. Sadly today this Torah portion is still as pertinent as it was in antiquity as rape, domestic abuse, and sex trafficking are horrible crimes against humanity that plague modern society.
The Rabbis were unequivocal about respecting women and regarding their dignity:
Our Rabbis taught: One who loves his wife like his own body and one who respects her more than his own body and one who directs his sons and daughters to a straight path and one who carries them close to their time [of maturity], about him it is written “And you shall know that peace is upon your tent” (Yevamot 62b).
However, even today, worldwide attitudes toward rape are often shameful and shocking. A recent United Nations (U.N.) survey of 10,000 men in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea found that close to one-quarter of the men admitted to having raped a woman, with half committing a rape as a teenager, and the vast majority (72 to 97 percent) facing no legal punishment for their crime. The U.N. noted that perpetrators overwhelmingly expressed a singular rationale for why they raped women: “the most common motivation that men cited for rape was related to sexual entitlement—a belief that men have a right to sex with women regardless of consent.”
Rape statistics reported by the U.N. are self-reported by each participating nation-state. Thus, while the United States reported 85,593 rapes in 2010 (compared with a Justice Department estimate of 300,000 and a CDC estimate of about 1.3 million rapes annually), India’s report of 22,172 rapes that year (about 1.8 rapes per 100,000 people, about one-fifteenth of the lowest U.S. estimated rate) is highly suspect. Indeed, the reported statistics might actually indicate that there is still a social stigma attached to reporting rape in many areas of the world, and that the low numbers may reveal more about the lack of prosecution of rapists than the prevalence of rape.
It is absolutely imperative that we condemn rape, and ensure immediate punishment for the offender. The rabbis shunned even those who considered abuse (Sanhedrin 58b):
Reish Lakish said: He who raises his hand to his friend, even if he doesn’t hit him, he is called an evil person, as it says, [Moshe] said to the bad person, “Why are you going to hit your friend?” (Exodus 2).
One nation with a troubling recent history of violence against women is India. However, in India, the acceptance of violence against women and rape may be undergoing a positive societal transformation. In 1972, a teenaged Indian woman named Mathura made history when she accused two policemen of having raped her while she was being held in a police station. At that time, the names of rapists were not revealed, and it was assumed that any woman who was in police custody was presumed to have given consent to sexual activity. Indeed, many wondered why someone who had been sexually active, and whose occupation (drying cow manure to be sold as fuel) marked her as an untouchable (the English word pariah comes from the southern Indian Tamil word for this low caste) would dare make such an accusation. The court acquitted the policemen and accused Mathura of lying, and a series of appeals affirmed the outrageous ruling in 1978. However, this spurred some Indian jurists and feminists such as Seema Sakhare to decades of efforts to change Indian attitudes toward the abuse of women, including rape. Eventually, the laws that were in place that protected assailants and police officers were repealed.
In December 2012, a 23-year-old New Delhi woman and a male friend were attacked on a bus by the driver and five male passengers. The man was severely beaten, while the woman was gang raped so violently that, in spite of having most of her damaged intestines removed, she succumbed to her injuries. However, unlike the 1972 case of Mathura, there was widespread condemnation of the brutal gang rape, and crowds cheered when the rapists were sentenced to death.
The condemnation of rape must be accompanied by other changes in attitude. India is still home to 40 percent of all child brides, and it is estimated that during the current decade, some 18.5 million Indian girls younger than age 15 will be married. This disturbing custom is evidence that we must work to diligently educate and change social norms. We must ensure that education results in social change and that women are treated with respect and dignity, without exception. The rabbis suggested that parents must only “allow” their daughter to marry a learned, civilized, and respectful man:
We learn that Rabbi Meir would say: “Anyone who marries his daughter to an am ha’aretz [A non-observant Jew from a lower socioeconomic background, usually a farmer]—it is as if he has bound her and put her before a lion. Just like a lion attacks and eats without shame [in doing so], so too an am ha’aretz hits and rapes [his wife] and has no shame [in doing so]” (Pesachim 49b).
The rabbis were very concerned that only controlled men be granted access to marriage for the physical and emotional protection of their daughters. The great legal authority, the Rama, ruled that “a man who regularly gets angry and expels his wife, we coerce him to divorce…. it is not the way of Jews to hit their wives, for that is the way of idolaters.” (Laws of Divorce, Even Ha’ezer 154:3). But it was not only physical abuse but also verbal and emotional abuse the rabbis feared and denounced:
Rav Chanana son of Rav Idi said: “What does it mean when it says [in Leviticus 25] ‘A person shall not oppress a member of his nation’?” The people who are with you in Torah and mitzvot you should not oppress. Rav said: “A man should always be wary of verbally/emotionally abusing his wife, for when her tears are found, verbal and emotional abuse is near” (Bava Metzia 59a).
The rabbis codifying Jewish law even went so far as to allow violence to protect wives:
He who says “I will not feed or support [my wife]”– we hit him until he feeds [her]. If the court cannot coerce him to do so, like when he cannot support her [financially] and he doesn’t want to get a job to feed her, and she wants him to do so, we coerce him to divorce her and pay back for the marriage contract immediately. We also do this for someone who won’t sleep with his wife (Shulchan Arukh, Even Ha’ezer, Laws of Divorce, 154:3).
As we consider Vayishlach and observe the current world-view towards women, let us reflect that we must not compromise with those who abuse or who condone the abuse of women. As the Beit Yosef ruled:
I saw in the response of our Rabbi Simcha that [regarding] one who hits his wife…we are stricter with him than one who hits his friend. For regarding his friend, he is not obligated to honor him. However, he is regarded to honor his wife more than his body (Yebamot end of 62b)… If the husband cannot honor the peace agreement and continues to hit her and embarrass her, we agree to take the matter to the non-Jewish courts to force a divorce or to do what the Jews say to him (Gittin 88b) (Beit Yosef, Even Ha’ezer 154:3).
It is our ethical and moral obligation to take action, through education, lobbying our elected officials, and supporting just organizations, to ensure that the atrocities of rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking are adequately addressed worldwide. Let us be inspired to action by the story of Dinah. Let us stand in solidarity with women all the over the world, and here in the United States, that have suffered terrible abuse and fight for change and the hope that no more women will have to experience the plight of Dinah and so many like her.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”