Agency in the #MeToo Moment

Once upon a time there was a man who went abroad to do business and left his wife in the care of his brother. As soon as the woman’s husband was gone, her brother-in-law began coming to her every day, saying, “Submit to me, and I will do whatever you need and give you whatever you want.” She would refuse, saying to him, “God forbid! I am your brother’s wife, and I am Biblically forbidden to you during his lifetime.” One day, he came to her quarters, sent her servant away, and jumped on her, saying, “Do my will.” And she screamed until, because of her screams, he left her. He then went and hired two false witnesses to testify that she had had relations with her servant. The witnesses testified against her, and the Sanhedrin sentenced her to death. They took her to the stoning heap outside Jerusalem, and they placed her under a heap of stones.

A few days later, a man and his son were on their way to Jerusalem. When they reached the stoning house, they saw that it was getting dark, so they put their heads on the heap of stones and slept there. Then they heard a voice speaking from within the stones, saying “Woe is me that I have been stoned!” They cleared away the stones and found the woman. The man said, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” And she told them her story. She said, “Where are you going?” And he said, “I am going to Jerusalem to teach my son Torah.” She said, “If you bring me with you, I will teach him Torah.” He said, “But do you know how to teach?” She said, “Yes.” So, he took her with him and she taught his son Torah.

One day, the servant of the house became interested in her and said to her: Submit to me and do my will, and I will give you whatever you desire. But she refused. And so, he took a knife and tried to kill her, but he missed and killed the young boy instead. When the father heard what had happened, he said, “Leave my house and go on your way. because every time I see you, my heart is tormented over my son.”

So the woman went on her way, and when she reached the ocean’s edge, a pirate ship came and took her captive. God caused a great storm on the sea, and the ship was close to breaking. The sailors drew lots to see who was at fault, and the lot fell on the woman.

This is the first half of a midrash from Otsar HaMidrashim, an early twentieth century collection of midrashim. The first known manuscript of this midrash is from medieval France, and it resembles a Muslim folktale from the Arabian Nights, called “The Jewish Qadi and His Pious Wife.” The midrash draws on many Biblical and even apocryphal intertexts. In what follows, I want to focus on the text’s connections to the Book of Jonah and the sexual prohibitions in Vayikra, both of which are read on Yom Kippur, and to connect all of that to what has become known as the #metoo movement.

Some of you likely flinched when you read that sentence—and perhaps for good reason. You may worry I am going to write something misguided about a sensitive topic, which I have tried my best not to do. Some may be survivors of sexual assault. Others may feel tired of being lectured to about this, perhaps because you don’t feel it’s as big a problem as it’s made out to be, or because it makes you feel guilty. Maybe you feel there’s nothing you can do about the patriarchy, and you feel terrible but don’t want to talk about it anymore.

I identify with that last one. It’s the patriarchy—what am I supposed to do about it? Can things really change? If we bring down these famous, powerful men now, it’s just going to make things worse. There’s going to be a backlash, an anti-feminist movement, and nothing will ever really be different.

This overwhelming, paralyzing, frustrating feeling of not being able to make change is also what happens to Jonah. God more or less tells Jonah, “You have to go to Nineveh and tell them that they have to stop doing what they’re doing.” The text doesn’t specify what exactly was happening in Nineveh, but it seems fair to guess that they were not treating each other with respect, they were perpetuating and abusing power structures, and that they were treating one another as objects instead of subjects. Jonah responds, “No way,” and he runs away.

Only later in the story do we discover what Jonah’s rationale for fleeing might have been. Once Jonah tells the people of Nineveh they must change their behavior, God decides not to punish Nineveh. Instead of being proud of having been effective, Jonah says, “This is what I’ve been saying all along! You were always going to forgive Nineveh.” In other words, “Why did I bother getting involved? This system is way bigger than I am, I have no power over it, and if things worked out, it wasn’t because I did anything.” This may be why Jonah didn’t want to get involved in the first place. After all, even though Jonah is supposed to be an agent, things just keep happening to him—getting blamed for storms, getting thrown off a ship, getting swallowed by a whale, and getting vomited up by a whale. Even his gourd dies.

The fact that we are all caught up in a system that feels impossible to change is at the center of why #metoo is so difficult to talk about. At the same time, it is also key to the way in which we need to talk about it.

Even when God forgives Nineveh, Jonah still cannot see himself as a subject. God’s request that he see himself as one is so impossible for Jonah that it is infuriating and humiliating. This feeling of powerlessness, and especially the experience of being an agent, while still being powerless in many ways, deserves attention.

Living in a patriarchal world, a world that has restrictive, yet also often contradictory, expectations of us based on our gender roles, not to mention the expectation that we have defined gender roles at all, makes all of us into objects—men, women, and those of us outside the gender binary. We can cooperate with the system, or we can struggle against it, and almost all of us do some combination of both. None of us individually has the power to overthrow the overall structure that defines our lives, and through the choices we make living in it, all of us, or at least the vast majority of us, are doing work in some way or another to help perpetuate it, whether we like it or not.

This can feel demoralizing. But it’s also something that unites us, and it’s something that can allow us to forgive ourselves and begin the process of teshuva.

We are all victims of the patriarchy, and we are all complicit in perpetuating it.

This is not to say that our experiences are the same, or that there aren’t people who have done uniquely awful things. We all know that there are people who have committed acts of sexual violence, and those actions need appropriate consequences. But I’m not talking to those people right now. Their teshuva is a distraction.

I want to talk about everyone else. Can we see ourselves as hurt by the patriarchy in a way that enables us to forgive ourselves for the ways we’ve hurt others? Can we see ourselves as agents in a way that enables us to understand that we, as people in a web of relationships with other people, have the ability to affect others’ lives?

As a counterpoint to the extremes of power and powerlessness in Jonah, the end of the midrash from Otsar Hamidrashim offers a model for what that kind of individual empowerment might look like. When we last left our heroine, she was in a storm on a ship full of pirates, and the lot determining the cause of the storm had fallen on her. So far, so Jonah.

Then the pirates said to the woman: “Tell us, what is your occupation?” And she said to them: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the God of the heavens, Who made both the sea and the dry land.” And she told them all that had happened to her. They became full of mercy for the woman, and God made a miracle for her, that the pirates did not touch her. They sent her to the dry land and made her a small dwelling. And the ocean quieted from its intensity, and the boat went on its way.

The woman remained there and became a great and experienced healer. God made available to her all the kinds of herbs in the world, and she was able to use them to heal each day all kinds of illness. She became richer and more famous until everyone knew of her.

Eventually, her brother-in-law and the two false witnesses became sick, and they decided to go seek out this famous woman healer in search of a cure, accompanied by the husband, who had since returned from business. When they reached her island, they didn’t recognize her, and they asked her for healing. She, however, recognized them, and told them that the healing wouldn’t work unless they admitted all their sins, at which point they confessed everything—in front of her husband. She refused to heal them, they died, and she and her husband lived happily ever after.

What is the moral of this midrash? Focusing on the villains, though they may have gotten what they deserved, is a distraction. This is a story of a woman who lived in a world in which she was repeatedly seen as an object and suffered terribly because of that. But a miracle happened. This woman was brave enough to tell her story, not just once but repeatedly, and eventually a group of people—a group of men, pirates in fact—at the most unlikely moment, saw her as a subject. They listened to her, had empathy for her, and built her a house in a place where she had respite from society and could become a person with more agency. She became a healer and a judge, someone who could see things for what they really were, because she had lived the other side.

The midrash presents this interaction as a miracle, but I don’t think it has to be. We can be like the woman, brave enough to share the stories of what we wanted to be, how we wanted to live, but couldn’t. We can also be like those pirates, brave enough to at least once in our lives step out of societal expectations, including gendered ones, to show empathy and deep care.

We can start telling new kinds of narratives. Instead of a Jonah narrative, in which we insist that everything is happening to us by those in power, and we can’t or don’t want to have a real conversation about how to work on our own relationships to sexuality and power, we can start talking about agency as something more complicated. We are all victims of patriarchy, and that means we have to acknowledge the ways in which we have been unappreciated, hurt, and not permitted to be our full selves. We are also all complicit, and that means we have the capacity and the obligation to speak up and to do more, even if that just means listening with empathy to one person. We never know who we might be helping them, or ourselves, become.

This post was in large part inspired by learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute over the summer with Dr. Elana Stein Hain, who taught the above midrash to a group of rabbis and scholars. See Brent Spodek’s post “Becoming A Man” for a different take on this midrash from another participant in that session.

About the Author
Dr. Sarah Wolf is Assistant Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a David Hartman Center Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Her research focuses on practices of textual interpretation and the formation of interpretive communities in ancient and medieval Jewish culture. She received her Ph.D in Religion from Northwestern University and her B.A. in Literature from Yale University.