The inner scream: Rabbinic voices on sexual assault

The rabbis taught well, making the community 3rd party to sexual assault, charging everyone with women’s safety

As I read Danielle Berrin’s account of being sexually harassed by an “important male journalist,” what stuck out to me most was her realization that even though she was in public, she was still in danger. What is it like to be in public, but feel totally alone? How can it be that a victim of sexual harassment is surrounded by people, but has no way to express an inner scream?

We like to think that being in public makes you safe, but obviously it’s not so simple. Deuteronomy differentiates between an illicit sex act that occurs in a public or private setting (22:23-26). In a town, a betrothed woman is considered complicit because she should have screamed out to stop the advance. In a field, she is considered innocent because even if she screamed out, it would have been to no avail — no one would have come to her rescue.

This black and white distinction is disturbing. What if she was actually raped in a town, but nobody heard her scream? Is it even a realistic expectation for someone in the midst of this trauma to be able to scream?

We wouldn’t be the first to be troubled by this oversimplification. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher, interpreted the field vs town distinction as a metaphor. What really matters is whether the woman “willingly consented” to the sexual advance or resisted, wherever the act occurred. This seems like a much fairer standard. But as we all know, evaluating consent is a complicated task for a legal court.

The rabbis chose a different path:

Could it be that she is complicit in a city and innocent in a field? The verse says “She cried out and nobody rescued her.”  …If there is no one to rescue her, whether in the city or the field, she is innocent (Sifre 242:27).

The rabbis interpret the scream as an indication of the critical role of a third party — the person who is supposed to hear the scream and intervene to prevent this act of violence. What matters most is whether this was a context where there were others who could notice what was happening and take action. If it was in a city, but in a context with no third party “rescuers,” the woman is a victim.

The language of “the rescuer” may sound condescending, but I think it is actually a powerful addition to the ongoing discourse about sexual harassment in our present moment. The rabbis focus on the responsibility of the third party, the responsibility of the community. Was this a scenario where a community would have saved a victim from an act of sexual violence? Could the victim trigger a response system to get out of this situation? If the answer is “no,” then this was a coerced act. That might be because it was in a field, far away from onlookers. Or it could be right in the city, where, for whatever reasons, a woman knows she won’t get the response and support she needs to get away. In either setting, there is no way to conceive of her actions as consensual if she faced a scenario with no way out.

By focusing on the third party, the rabbis expand the main characters of this story. Instead of only pointing a finger at a villain and victim, and definitely instead of pointing a finger to judge whether this woman “asked for it,” the rabbis tell us, the onlookers, that we are central characters and we need to point our finger at ourselves. This is a story about a community that is not doing its job.

When there is no trust in a supportive community, the inner calculations a woman makes in this scenario become skewed, as Danielle Berrin demonstrates so evocatively in her narration of her inner monologue. For example, the rabbis discuss a scenario where a woman says “let him be” instead of asking for intervention (tSanhedrin 11:5). One way to read this is a case where a woman has made the calculation that the risks are too high if she asks for intervention. In the words of the rabbis, “it might come to matters of life and death.” Perhaps she fears that if someone tries to intervene the perpetrator may kill her. A woman might determine that it is better to suffer this sexual advance than to possibly suffer something much worse. Keep in mind that losing a livelihood is considered a kind of death according to the rabbis.

How has this come to a scenario where a woman has made a cost/benefit analysis and concluded that it’s better to let her body be used and abused because the costs of stopping this man are too high? When this kind of calculation occurs, our view of the situation can’t stop with the two individuals involved. An individual woman calculates that an intervention won’t be successful and says “let him be.” Many people might judge her for that calculation. But who is really to blame for this calculation? There is a man who thinks he can do whatever he wants. And there are all of us — the community that makes it possible, the community that tolerates “locker-room talk” and subsequent action as part of the way of the world.

We are all part of a culture where these are the economics — where career aspirations, reputation and the possibility to succeed in the future outweigh the value of allowing a woman to feel safe in her body.

It is up to us, as a community, to create a world where all women know that there is a third party support structure AND where calling upon that structure by expressing an inner scream will actually make things better, not worse. Until then, we have to own up to the fact that all of our cities, no matter how civilized, are actually fields. When there are no people to rely upon to act and act effectively there might as well be no people around at all.

About the Author
Rabbi Aviva Richman is on the faculty of Mechon Hadar, an institute of advanced Jewish study in Manhattan, and is a PhD candidate at New York University writing on sexual coercion and consent in the Talmud.
Related Topics
Related Posts