Texts of Terror…Again

So the Rabbi nominated to be the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Force (IDF), Rabbi Karim, has been accused of permitting the rape of non-Jewish women during war in an online answer to a question several years ago (amongst other fairly hideous things he’s described as saying).

I have colleagues who have responded to the specific allegations and, according to the JC, state “As rabbinic leaders we fiercely refute the notion that any part of Jewish law has condoned the use of rape in wartime.” A fuller report from a different perspective can be found here.

What this does is demonstrate to us the problem of our texts of terror (a subject I deal with here). I agree that no part of Jewish law has condoned rape in wartime – and even those texts which deal with battlefield rape do not indicate that it is part of the military strategy.

However, there is no getting around the text of Deuteronomy 21:10-14 which states:

י  כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ; וּנְתָנוֹ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּיָדֶךָ–וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. 10 When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God delivereth them into thy hands, and thou carriest them away captive,
יא  וְרָאִיתָ, בַּשִּׁבְיָה, אֵשֶׁת, יְפַת-תֹּאַר; וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ, וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה. 11 and seest among the captives a woman of goodly form, and thou hast a desire unto her, and wouldest take her to thee to wife;
יב  וַהֲבֵאתָהּ, אֶל-תּוֹךְ בֵּיתֶךָ; וְגִלְּחָה, אֶת-רֹאשָׁהּ, וְעָשְׂתָה, אֶת-צִפָּרְנֶיהָ. 12 then thou shalt bring her home to thy house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;
יג  וְהֵסִירָה אֶת-שִׂמְלַת שִׁבְיָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וְיָשְׁבָה בְּבֵיתֶךָ, וּבָכְתָה אֶת-אָבִיהָ וְאֶת-אִמָּהּ, יֶרַח יָמִים; וְאַחַר כֵּן תָּבוֹא אֵלֶיהָ, וּבְעַלְתָּהּ, וְהָיְתָה לְךָ, לְאִשָּׁה. 13 and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thy house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month; and after that thou mayest go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.
יד  וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא חָפַצְתָּ בָּהּ, וְשִׁלַּחְתָּהּ לְנַפְשָׁהּ, וּמָכֹר לֹא-תִמְכְּרֶנָּה, בַּכָּסֶף; לֹא-תִתְעַמֵּר בָּהּ, תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר עִנִּיתָהּ.  {ס} 14 And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not deal with her as a slave, because thou hast humbled her.

(In full disclosure aspects of this text are the subject of my PhD research)

How are we to interpret this text if not permitting battlefield rape? Of course, there are interpretations of this text, for which I have some sympathy. For example, this could be a demonstration of the Hebrew Bible trying to steer a vector away from a prevalent practice – in which women were raped and then abandoned by the rapist. The Bible may seem to steer the ancient Israelite world towards a protection of women – in which, whilst the woman may still be raped (there is no getting away from this horror), she cannot then be abandoned. Deuteronomy seems to imply, if a man is to be permitted to rape a woman on the battlefield, he must then marry her and provide for her for the rest of her life as a wife.

The rabbinic texts narrow this yet further – they define the specifics of the war being described, that the man cannot rape multiple women or take extra women for his father, the purposes of the rituals that she undergoes and, in relation to Rabbi Karim’s comments, the reason why the Torah may permit such an act in the first place (not to mention a disturbing – as 21st century readers – amount of victim blaming). Actually each layer of interpretation of this text – historically and through cultures – requires a serious engagement with the historical milieu in order to be understood fully.

Of course, the rabbinic texts from nearly 2000 years ago, are all only imagining a scenario that was never witnessed in living memory. The rabbis had not been out in battle. But they do imagine the possibility of a Jewish soldier raping a non-Jewish woman on the battlefield. From that plain sense there is no escape. Why do they imagine that case – well to understand what is going on here, we also have to understand many other things: Jerusalem (as symbol of the Jewish people) was portrayed as being carried away as a captive woman by Rome, as evidenced by Roman coins and the fantasy of violence is something that cultures and communities always have to contend with, especially when victims of violence. Moreover, we need to enter the debate about exogamous marriage – since the woman and man are married and this is not a commonly permitted state of affairs in the Jewish community of late antiquity. And connected to this, we have the way the rabbinic community imagined non-Jewish identity and behaviour. We also have to understand the nature of desire that the rabbinic community struggles to deal with in themselves – their own libido. Finally, we have another problem of widespread misogyny in many cultures of late antiquity – the rabbinic world was no different. These issues are really unpacked through the Deuteronomy text by the rabbis.

This, of course, is all with relation to the rabbinic period – around the time of the first 4-5 centuries of the common era. How this text is interpreted in the medieval period and modern period must also be analysed distinctly.

Does any of this mean that Jewish law today permits battlefield rape. Actually, I would say, we can be categorical in our answer: Judaism does not permit soldiers to rape women (Jew or non-Jew) on the battlefield or rape anyone at any time. But is there a part of our tradition that suggests under certain circumstances no longer applicable there was permission to rape, even if it was never condoned – well I think that needs to be dealt with openly. I also happen to think that, according to the reports, Rabbi Karim has misinterpreted the texts – nowhere have I seen in Jewish literature has battlefield rape been described as part of successful waging of war because of soldier’s sexual inclinations. Why the rape was permitted is a debate but it does not seem to be an attempt to keep up good spirits amongst soldiers – sickening as it is to even contemplate such a possibility. The Biblical texts are dealing with the consequences of warfare and horrific strategies of war in the Ancient Near East which included the rape and subjugation of your enemy by all sorts of means (let’s admit it is still the case today that rape is used as a weapon of warfare in many theatres of war). The rabbinic texts are also dealing with marriage, sexual desire and coping with men’s inability (at least as the rabbis imagined) to control their libido – and all the other issues mentioned above.

Horrific, disturbing, sad and challenging it may be, but I would argue, only by opening up our interpretative community, honestly and sincerely, can we deal with the problem of texts of terror like Deuteronomy 21.

And there is something else. I have just finished teaching rabbinic students at the Leo Baeck College a whole semester about some of these texts. In fact, we began starting with a Legal Case asked of Maimonides in the 12th century about a man and his servant who were having an affair – he was asked if she could be converted and the couple married. Maimonides is asked if the case of Deuteronomy 21 may be applied, not because of the rape, but rather because it is a text that explicitly permits ‘intermarriage’. As a result, Maimonides touches on the laws of warfare that include permission to eat unkosher meat during warfare (as mentioned by Rabbi Karim) – specifically warfare during the conquest of the land of Canaan described in the Bible (not present day – Maimonides’ or ours) – and Maimonides considers the problem of sexual desire.

Throughout our learning together at the Leo Baeck College we shared moments of disgust and horror. None of us contemplated the possibility of the laws of Deuteronomy ever being applicable to today. It wasn’t the purpose of the learning. However, that said, there is a point at which we do need to recognise that in a time of national sovereignty in the State of Israel someone might think not only is the defence of the land the same as the conquest of the land of the Bible, but that laws of warfare described in Deuteronomy might also be applicable. Even if that was not what Rabbi Karim intended his remarks to imply (a debate that I can’t answer here).

My PhD supervisor and I have discussed more than once the problem of at least two interpretative communities laying claim to Judaism (or indeed any religion).  There are followers of religions who are interpreting texts in ways that are abhorrent. We must accept that this too could happen in Judaism. That is so scary, it is terrifying. But unless we confront it, the scourge of violent religious interpretations, of insular, racist, misogynistic, and unethical interpretations will not just fester, they will overtake us in the stakes of authenticity.

I concluded my last blog post on this problem as follows:

Read in isolation the texts are those of terror. From a visitor to synagogue hearing the words for the first time or a naïve zealot studying them alone at home – and everything in between – this isolation of context, history and interpretative tradition leave us vulnerable to undermining what our Judaism might stand for and/or inspired to carry out fundamentalist acts of violence.

Our contemporary social context and interpretative tradition is part of what protects us.  And at the same time, we have a choice to make – we cannot remain silent in the face of the terror in our texts. We must read them to also verbalise a stance that says this is not our way. We have chosen to lead authentic Jewish lives that are different. We have to be cognisant of the parts of our textual tradition that are not all noble ideals and more than that, we have to accept that these strains of thought are in our library of sacred texts. They could have been Judaism, but they are not and we will never let them become Judaism.

Of course there will always be people who are willing to commit atrocities (most do not need religion to help them) and religious texts (of many faiths) can be used to justify horrendous acts (see this sermon on the subject). Our duty is to not allow humanity to be dragged back into the dark ages. Acknowledging texts of terror in our scriptural traditions and choosing another way is part of that duty to humanity.


Dinah – unexpurgated: A Davar Torah for Friday Night

In a couple of weeks (in fact on 25th November) it is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Now it might be our second nature to realise that violence against women is wrong.  Well evidently not to everyone, here are some facts from the UN:

  • Up to 70 per cent of women experience violence in their lifetime.
  • Between 500,000 to 2 million people are trafficked annually into situations including prostitution, forced labour, slavery or servitude, according to estimates. Women and girls account for about 80 per cent of the detected victims
  • It is estimated that more than 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM/C, mainly in Africa and some Middle Eastern countries.
  • The cost of intimate partner violence in the United States alone exceeds $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion is for direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion.

So it is with that in mind that I’m drawn to our Torah portion.  First of all, as I always mention.  The text says the 11 sons of Jacob are sent across the river.  Clearly ignoring the presence of his one and only daughter. The midrash, which Rashi (the medieval commentator) quotes – suggests Jacob does not want Dinah to be seen by his brother as a possible wife for one of his children, so he puts her in a box and floats her over the river.  The midrash further suggests Jacob is punished for this. How? – by the rape of Dinah at the hands of Shechem.

The rape of Dinah is a narrative section not often read in a Liberal synagogue. Though tomorrow it will be studied with our scholar in residence, Dr Ellen Umansky. It doesn’t form part of the lectionary, that’s for certain – and it’s certainly not in Claude G Montefiore’s ‘The Bible for Home Reading’ (essentially an expurgated Bible), nor is Dinah mentioned in the notes at the end of this parasha in Montefiore’s list of Jacob’s SONS.   Why isn’t it read?  Well, I suppose we can see many things in the text that would be exceptionally problematic:

1)   Rape

2)   Fierce condemnation of intermarriage

3)   Revenge

These ideas are all created through the figure of a woman in the Torah.  What else is Dinah known for?  Where is she when Jacob crosses the Jabbok?  Absent.  Absent before and absent afterwards.  Dinah is a figure whose mystery dominates this section of our Torah.  Suddenly, from nowhere she becomes the ‘object’ of our attention.  And we know objectifying women is one small step from dismissing their role as equal and respected human beings.

Yet, because we don’t often read or study this text in Liberal Judaism we even further marginalise her from the place in the Torah. All we are left with is the patriarchal prejudices that we so categorically reject – in theory if not always in practice.  We ignore a case of violence against women and therefore ignore the potential lessons we learn.

The evolution of Judaism begins far back in the unknown history of the Torah.  Some texts clearly made it into the canon, others did not.  Yet their placement in the scroll itself leads to an altered perception of how they can be understood.  Helena Zlotnick (a pen name for the academic Hagith Sivan) deftly reads the narrative about the rape of Dinah in relation to the later Midianite/Israelite relationship of Numbers.  Both focus on an illicit sexual relationship, both focus on a relationship between an insider and an outside.  Through this lens of insider/outsider we start to see the place of women brought into focus.

Women, in rabbinic Judaism, are the outsider who is inside.  Though women have their role, if they over step it they become dangerous, threatening and seductive.  The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash, in the misogynistic milieu of late antiquity, begin to locate the place of a woman quite clearly in the home and out of harm’s way.  Why else are they all but banned from the study hall and the prayer hall.  The exceptions only serve to demonstrate the truth of this claim.

As we turn from the rabbinic period to the post-rabbinic period, when the ideals of the Talmud are starting to be realised, the place of women – of the other – becomes entrenched.  Women have the power to seduce men, to turn them away from their study and their only useful purpose is in keeping a home and creating a family.  Once again there are exceptions, but these do not change how the notion of what it means to be a ‘Jewess’ had closeted and removed from active involvement in life 50% of the community.

Then we reach the modern period.  We start to reject that which has become the normative way of practicing Judaism. We, as Liberal Jews, are able to re-evalute law and deed in light of our time – changing, rejecting or embellishing that which seems problematic.  But we still have a problem.

There are texts that we find distasteful, not fitting for the public reading on a Shabbat morning.  Not ennobling, quite the opposite.  So we don’t.  But there’s a problem in that – by not even studying the section that deals specifically with a woman we contribute to the continuing sidelining of women in Judaism.

How many narratives feature women not as a foil to the male character but as a central and significant part of the unfolding story.  Very few.  What is more, as in later rabbinic literature, rape is akin to a social death.  In the Bible, women who have been raped are damaged goods, they can’t fetch the bride price for their father.  They cease to exist.  Dinah is never heard of again.  She does not die but the single act of violence against her causes her to be deleted from the story – there are 12 tribes and she is not one of them.  So what do we do, we expurgate even the very story in which she features. Every time I ask how many children Jacob had the first answer is 12.  No, he had 13 (excluding the complexity of Ephraim and Menasheh).  12 sons.  1 daughter.

So in memory of Miss Lily whose legacy we meditate upon this Shabbat – a programme fittingly created by the first senior WOMAN rabbi of the LJS (Rabbi Alexandra Wright) – do not do a disservice to Liberal Judaism by expurgating a central narrative from our Torah which contains one of the few female characters and avoid reading it because you don’t like what it portrays.  So I urge you in remembering that violence against women still persists and must be stopped – reinstate Dinah – go home and read what happens to her and then come back tomorrow morning for the shiur with Dr Umansky.