The Talmud stands at the core of Jewish learning, the place from which we draw our laws and customs. It informs what we eat, when we pray, what we wear, and how we build our homes. In addition to elucidating halacha, the Talmud provides moral guidance through parables. Although many Jews respect the teachings of these stories, we are often hesitant to link their lessons to uncomfortable issues. But this week, when reading of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, it is imperative that we talk about rape.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that this imperative does not extend to every situation and every audience. Touching on such a sensitive and painful subject should be done carefully and thoughtfully. It is not appropriate to bring up rape in all situations, but it is not acceptable to never discuss this issue, either.
To be clear, there is no sexual assault present in the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. As a short summary, a man is livid when his enemy is accidentally invited to his party, the enemy tries to smooth things over in the moment, but the host humiliates the enemy by refusing to let him stay under any condition. Subsequently, the enemy speaks to the Roman Caesar, setting off a chain of events that leads to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Is the host at fault for his implacable anger? Is the enemy at fault for inciting the Caesar? Are the Romans at fault for their violent actions? We do not place the lion’s share of the blame on any of these men, but on the party guests, rabbis who looked on and did nothing to save the enemy from embarrassment.
The lesson is clear: some situations require bystanders to intervene on behalf of another. Potential social discomfort does not provide an exemption, nor does feigning ignorance. As we reveal the guilty party and draw out the ethical lesson, the connection to rape is clear.
The language of bystander intervention is most prevalent on college campuses, though rape is by no means confined to these spaces. As a freshman, I sat through a mandatory orientation session about spotting predatory behavior, and how to help make sure your friends get home safely at the end of a night out. As a residential advisor in a fraternity, I helped schedule a training for the brothers in the house to practice deescalating unsafe situations and view this as their responsibility as men. Every year, dozens of students became trainers themselves and ran workshops on bystander intervention across campus.
Because of these efforts, many of my friends were saved a tremendous amount of harm because someone else acted in the way we wished the rabbis had back in the 1st century CE. Still, I talked with dozens of women who found themselves in precarious situations in full view of others, ignored, and assaulted. Maybe the people around them did not attend any of the orientations or workshops they were supposed to, but more likely, they did not understand intervention as an absolute moral imperative.
What the Talmud can add to the conversation, not just on college campuses but throughout society, is the language of obligation. We use the word mitzvot in connection to our food and prayers and clothes and homes, we must treat our relationships to one another with the same gravity. We are obligated to step up when a situation seems unsafe. We are obligated to look beyond ourselves to the needs of our brothers and sisters in danger. And our leaders are obligated to use their pulpits, their weekly columns, their speaking engagements to address the modern form of destruction that results from someone’s body and autonomy being violated by another.
Jewish text and tradition cannot be confined only to religious observance when it has so much else to contribute. It is uncomfortable to talk about rape, but it is irresponsible to remain silent as an individual, as a community, and as a Jew.