A daughter leaves her parents home to find others like herself. She is seized and brutalized by a prestigious, wealthy, young man. The deed is known and the family has to come to grips with tragedy. Noticeably, the young woman becomes the object of sexual indiscretion, lust, and even family and communal honor. Other factors take center stage and a disagreement arises on how to best deal with the perpetrators. She, the victim, is almost erased in the process. What are her feelings? Where is she left in the crossfire? Where is her voice?

This could be a description of one of the more brutal sections of the Torah; known by many as the Rape of Dena in Genesis 34. But, it also describes what happens far too often in our society and on college campuses.

In the Torah, the sons of Jacob, Shimon and Levy, plot to punish the entire inhabitants of Shechem when the eponymous villain rapes and subsequently tries to marry his conquest. Their plot comes to fruition when, after the Shechemites circumcise themselves, the brothers enter the town and slaughter every man as punishment for the treachery. Despite the chastisement of Jacob, the sons retort that they cannot, or will not, allow their sister to be treated this way. In the end, they seem, at least at this juncture, to have the last word. Their father appears to be silenced by Shimon and Levy’s postbellum rationalization of their actions. “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” Rape demands serious consequences.

Classic and modern commentaries have struggled with the bloody massacre. Were the brothers justified in killing the entire male population? Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch doesn’t think so. He proclaims, “Now the blameworthy part begins which we cannot excuse. Had they killed Shechem and Hamor there would be scarcely anything to say against it. But they did not spare the unarmed men who were at their mercy, and went further and looted, altogether made the inhabitants pay for the crime of the landowner. For that there is no justification.” Rav Hirsch believes that punishing the criminals was warranted but the brothers went too far in killing the townsfolk.

Unlike Rav Hirsch, Rambam and Ramban both support the brothers’ actions. While Ramban suggests that the town was a nasty place in general worthy of being destroyed, Rambam stays closer to the story. Rambam accuses the town of a major moral failure. In the Laws of Kings and their Wars he states, “How must the gentiles fulfill the commandment to establish laws and courts? They are obligated to set up judges and magistrates in every major city to render judgment… For this reason, all the inhabitants of Shechem were obligated to die. Shechem kidnapped. They observed and were aware of his deeds, but did not judge him.”

Not only, argues Rambam, must kidnapping and rape be punished, but woe to the society that allows this to go on unchecked.

This brings us to the events recorded in a recent article in Rolling Stone. The author describes a terrifying gang rape allegedly perpetrated on a naïve first year student at the prestigious University of Virginia. It makes for extremely difficult reading. In the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely tries to give a voice to a modern day Dena daughter of Jacob. To be fair, the story has its critics and the New York Times quotes University President Teresa A. Sullivan saying that UVA is “too good a place to allow this evil to exist.” That may be. Perhaps we will make some discovery that Erdely is wrong and was duped. It doesn’t really matter.

When my wife Nomi and I were the first JLIC rabbinic couple at Brandeis, we once spoke to a group of parents of high school students. After describing some of the more challenging aspects of the campus party culture at our relatively tame college, a parent stood up and declared that she was happy her child was going to a less wild campus, such as University of Michigan. We realized that we had made a grave error. By using our own stories parents fooled themselves into believing that other campuses were safe. (For those who don’t know, Michigan is ranked the 15th best party school in the nation – Brandeis doesn’t even make the cut.)

The New York Times and others criticizing Rolling Stone are also buying in to an illusion. The most frightening paragraph in Erdely’s piece speaks volumes:

S. Daniel Carter, who as former director of public policy for the advocacy group Clery Center for Security on Campus is a national expert on college safety, points out that UVA’s sexual assault problems are not much worse than other schools; if anything, he says, the depressing reality is that UVA’s situation is likely the norm. Decades of awareness programming haven’t budged the prevalence of campus rape: One in five women is sexually assaulted in college, though only about 12 percent report it to police.”

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism “more than 97,000 students between ages 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol related sexual assault.”

Even if these numbers are exaggerated, which I have no reason to assume, they are mind blowing.

Recently, colleges are being pursued by Federal agencies for sweeping this reality under the rug. Like UVA (ranked the 19th best party school in the Nation) many colleges have been handling sexual assault in house. Obviously, it is a cleaner and quieter process that doesn’t seem to put the victim’s needs at center stage. Like Dena daughter of Jacob, the victims’ voices seem to have been erased by college professionals more worried about lucrative tuition payments than the safety of their charges. All decent people should be outraged.

What is there to do?

The novel suggestion of several college professionals highlights the absurdity of the situation. In 2008, in what must be the most creative proposal ever raised by supposedly intelligent people, more than 100 college presidents from the most prestigious universities created the Amethyst Initiative whose stated goal is to lower the drinking age from 21 back to 18. The theory goes that if there is more legal access to alcohol, students will stop binge drinking.

A quick computer search shows that binge drinking slowed in the late 1980’s when the minimum age was raised but picked up again from the 1990’s and on. The cause of the spike in dangerous drinking habits is unclear. Some claim that lower excise tax may have made purchasing alcohol less expensive. But the key here is that in the early 1980’s, when the age was 18, binge drinking was common. Therefore, if no one can suggest with a straight face that campus binge drinking will go down by making alcohol even more ubiquitous than it already is, then why are college presidents pushing for changing the legislation? Excuse me for my cynicism, but one need go no further than the words of the wisest of men, King Solomon, who said “wine makes life merry, and money answers every need.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19) Merry students bring more eager freshman every year. And those students and their money keep the entire system going.

Since the overwhelming number of sexual assaults, according to data collected by various university health services, take place in the context of alcohol, increasing alcohol access doesn’t really seem to be the antidote.

At some point we have to say enough to the madness. Federal prosecutors have been using Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which legislates against gender discrimination in educational situations receiving Federal assistance and they should be commended for this effort. Will this be enough to push colleges to act appropriately to curb the hedonistic culture they have created? Perhaps, but I’m not confident.

Here are a few quick thoughts and suggestions:

  • We need to push for regulations forcing campus professionals to take responsibility. If they fail to do so, they should be held criminally libel for creating dangerous situations or covering up events that happen on campus.
  • In cases where they are not, they should become mandated reporters eliminating the clandestine in house procedures for which they are neither equipped nor trustworthy.
  • Students need to be trained to look out for friends in dangerous situations — especially when alcohol is concerned. This is true both for the potential victim and for the criminal. Under the influence of alcohol and in the context of mixed company, some might perpetrate crimes they would have never done while sober.
  • Alcohol education and education to respecting others need to increase. Campuses need to take sexual harassment as seriously as they do racial discrimination.
  • There needs to be a push for sanity on campuses. Some sort of limitation or supervision of student life, especially when alcohol is present, needs to be instituted.
  • As of now, increasing mix gender situations in housing, bath rooms, and parties is the norm. This needs to be seriously rethought. Groups that cannot be trusted need to be pushed off the campus.

Extrapolating from what Rambam suggests in the context of Shechem, by not acting vigorously to change the campus alcohol and rape culture, entire administrations are guilty. While no one is advocating anything like the terror of the Biblical story, it is time that college administrators, and the public at large, be held responsible for creating a situation where students are put at risk. As Rabbi Isaac Arama declares in his monumental work, Akedat Yitzchak, “a grave sin, done in private, without public knowledge… is [merely] a personal sin and [the criminal] will be punished… yet [the nation] is pure…however, a minor sin allowed by the community…is a sin of the entire community.”

It is high time that we turn to all ask the question of Jacob’s sons.