#Metoo Meets Torah?

By Rabbi Aviva Richman

When it comes to teaching consent, traditional trainings don’t work. Trainings that focus solely on informing people of legal policies, do very little to actually improve the situation in a workplace. What matters most is culture.

Our entire public conversation about assault, harassment and what ought to be the inviolability of people’s bodies is about what kind of society and leadership we have.

I am exploring this now in the midst of a two-part series at Hadar. Whether or not traditional Jewish texts have any legal applicability, as “people of the book” we have to own the fact that Torah plays a pivotal role in our culture. What we read in our cherished texts, and more importantly how we interpret them, is a critical part of shaping the culture of our Jewish communities.

Working through difficult texts of Torah can act as a mirror, to draw our attention to the ways in which the difficulties “of the text” continue to exist in our world, and to give us language to name problems so that we can try to approach these problems more intentionally and more strategically. But I think we can, and must, expect more in our encounter with Torah. If we learn Torah in a way that is sensitive and creative, and brings in all that we know from our experiences in the world, Torah should be able to play a role in imagining, envisioning and enacting a more redemptive reality.

Here is a snapshot from the first session. (You can listen to the recording of the full recording here):

When discussing rape, the Torah focuses on the environment, drawing a distinction between the city and field. At face value, this distinction is quite disturbing. In a city a woman is presumed to be complicit; she must not have cried out because if she had people would have intervened. In the field, a woman is presumed to have been coerced; even if she had cried out, nobody would have heard and come to her rescue. This passage raises a million questions. Couldn’t there be cases of coercion in the city? What if she couldn’t cry out because she was gagged, or scared, or numb from shock? What if there happened to be no one around to hear her? What if there were people around but they weren’t able or willing to respond?

The earliest rabbis were sensitive to these questions, and interpreted the city/field distinction as a metaphor:

Is it possible that she is culpable in the city and exempt in the field?
The verse teaches: The betrothed maiden cried out and there was none to save her.
… If there is none to save her, whether in the city or the field she is innocent. (Sifre, 243)

The question is, was this a context where she could have expected people to hear, care and respond. Before any conversation about consent can get off the ground, the rabbis stress that there has to be an environment that is a “city” – where there is a context and culture in which people care and there is clear expectation of response to an act of assault.

A medieval commentary makes it clear that creating a “city” – a culture that cares – depends on leadership. The Ritva, R. YomTov ben Avraham of thirteenth century Seville, (Ketubot 51b) remarks that under the rule of Ahashverosh, the entire kingdom was considered a “field.” He describes Ahashverosh as: ‘a “lover of woman,”’ and goes on to say that “anyone in his kingdom who raped a woman didn’t care about it… and the fact that [women who were coerced] didn’t scream is because there was no one to save them.” When a powerful leader models a demeaning treatment of women, no one in that society will take this kind of assault seriously.

From this text, we see that the city versus field distinction isn’t about whether there happened to be some bystanders around who could have swooped in on a white horse to valiantly rescue a victim. This is not a local issue about individuals, but depends on the larger culture in which a particular city or field, so to speak, is situated. When the supreme leader of a land sets a tone that he has rights to any woman he wants, it can’t help but pervade the entire ethos of the culture.

I don’t think I have to say much about what it meant to me to find this passage a few months after seeing a video of our now-president boasting about assaulting women. It’s not just that it was a gross window into the less than ideal private life of an individual. It is totally destabilizing. Suddenly we are not sure whether we are in a field or a city – are we in a context where we can expect that people will hear and people will care?

A journalist could be in the middle of a hotel lobby, but still be in “the field” based on these criteria. A lawyer could be clerking for an esteemed judge and still be “in the field.” A gymnast could be in a doctor’s office in a busy city, with a parent in the room and still be in “the field.”

This focus on the importance of culture challenges us to dream of a better reality. R. YomTov asserts that people only commit these kinds of assault in a culture that doesn’t care. In a community that does care, and where everyone knows the community cares, these kinds of assault won’t happen. Though he describes a case where a minority population, really a minority of a minority – Jewish women in the Persian kingdom of Ahashverosh – are victims of an external culture over which they have no control, the question for us is: How do we take responsibility for the culture in our own communities and the leaders we put in place and honor? The challenge that the Torah puts forth to all of us is: how do we build a city, that is, a culture that cares?

Consider this an invitation to come to session two, Tuesday January 30, entiteld: “Victim, Survivor, Advocate?: Towards a Redemptive Narrative” where we can learn, dream and build a city together.

Rabbi Aviva Richman is a faculty member at Yeshivat Hadar.