Our Tradition,Ourselves: Desire, Power, and Abuse. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

From Kiddushin 81a : Young women whom the community had just redeemed from captivity were brought to spend the night in the upper story of the home of Rav Amram the Pious. When one of them stepped out for just a moment, Rav Amram the Pious grabbed a ladder that ten men together could not lift, and began climbing.   כי מטא לפלגא דרגאן, when he was halfway up the ladder, he locked his knees and cried out: There is a fire in the house of Amram. Upon hearing this, the Sages came and found him in that position.

The urgent and ubiquitous social discussion about sexual misconduct and power differentials, presents us with invaluable opportunities. As people, to ask why are things going so terribly wrong? And as Jews to look with fresh eyes at our own sources, for the guidance that they offer us, and so that we can raise  the important questions that we might need to ask. Of course this is a very large discussion, but let’s start it by suggesting some of the points of departure.

While not the central issue of the stories breaking every day, these stories nonetheless give us the opportunity to think hard about the surprising – even shocking – power of illicit sexual desire. On Kiddushin 81a the story of Rav Amram Chasida is just for starters:

רבי מאיר הוה מתלוצץ בעוברי עבירה יומא חד אידמי ליה שטן כאיתתא בהך גיסא דנהרא לא הוה מברא נקט מצרא וקא עבר כי מטא פלגא מצרא שבקיה אמר אי לאו דקא מכרזי ברקיעא הזהרו בר’ מאיר ותורתו שויתיה לדמך תרתי מעי

Rabbi Meir would ridicule transgressors by saying it is easy to avoid temptation. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman standing on the other side of the river. Since there was no ferry to cross the river, he took hold of a rope bridge and crossed the river. When he reached halfway across the rope bridge, the evil inclination left him and said to him: Were it not for the fact that they proclaim about you in heaven: Be careful with regard to Rabbi Meir and his Torah, I would have shattered your reputation, and reduced your value to two ma’a.

And then, the same story, this time with Rabbi Akiva!

Rabbi Akiva would likewise ridicule transgressors. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman at the top of a palm tree. Rabbi Akiva grabbed hold of the palm tree and began climbing. When he got hallway up the tree…

The surprising power of illicit sexual desire.

Bur the Talmud doesn’t tell these stories simply for their shock value. As the best way it knew how to explain the rabbinic injunction of yichud – the prohibition upon placing ourselves in situations in which we are alone with someone of the opposite sex. And laws that limit physical contact, and laws that demand that we examine and take responsibility even for our thoughts. Current events, though primarily about something else, still invite us – indeed urge us! – to think seriously about these halachot.

What current events are primarily about of course, is the exploitation of power differentials.  Which is a theme that is central both to scripture and to halacha. The abusive potential of the power differential between creditor and lender, produces scriptural laws forbidding the taking of interest, preventing creditors from invading the homes of borrowers and seizing collateral – in particular from widows, and even from subjecting the borrower to subtle social humiliations. It produces laws that determines when wages are due and forbids employers from delaying payment, laws that hold employers liable if they cannot produce the work opportunities that they had promised, and even laws that give a slight legal advantage to employees locked in a wage dispute with employees. The concern over the exploitation of power differentials produces laws which guarantee the stranger equality under the law, specifically forbids taking advantage of the stranger’s unfamiliarity with the local commercial practices, and even prohibits – in the strongest terms – verbal bullying of the stranger. The sin for which King David is sentenced to suffer for the rest of his life is the sin of abusing his power in taking the wife of, and then directing the death of Uriah the Hittite. The sin that seals King Achav’s fate is not idolatry, rather the convening of a kangaroo court to sentence a commoner named Navot to death and to then appropriate his vineyard to the crown. And, among the sins that bring the priests Chofni and Pinchas to their untimely ends is their taking advantage of their position to lie with women who had come to offer sacrifices to God.  Intentional abuse of power to bring suffering and ruin upon the weaker, is reckoned in our religion as a direct affront to God, a shameless denial of the sacredness of the human being, a mocking of the image in which all were created.

 ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃

God watches over the stranger, encourage the orphan and the widow, and confounds the ways of those who exploit them.

And we also need, at this moment in time, to also acknowledge that when it comes to the power dynamic between men and women, our very same Biblical and rabbinic tradition strikes notes that are unsettling and problematic to the modern ear, notes which can be used – and have been used – to justify dangerous, abusive behavior. We think about the fundamental structures of the marriage and divorce laws, the barring of women from positions of judicial, and religious legal authority even when the matters being deliberated materially affect their welfare. Even the subtle yet deeply affecting matter of who “counts” and who does not. Current events have given us the opportunity, and frankly the responsibility to continue thinking about how – as people faithful to Halacha – we work to mitigate the potential and real abuses of our system.

In this vein, I will leave us with a few quotes (my translations) from a shiur that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l gave 20 years ago. Rav Licthtenstein was reflecting on the punishment the Torah metes out to the rapist, who is required to pay 50 silver shekels to his victim’s father, and offer to marry her.

“The perpetrator is perhaps punished, but the victim’s suffering is not addressed. One must honestly admit that it is difficult to digest this approach…, and that through modern eyes we would certainly take the assault itself much more seriously.

One cannot claim that our disgust at violence arises from reading too many romantic poems or too much 18th century French philosophy. It arises from our cleaving to God and the values of kindness and mercy with which our entire tradition is shot through.

If we were functioning today according to Biblical law, would we apply the laws of rape as they appear in the Torah, or would we say, “this is our eternal Torah, our Torah of truth, but in our present reality in which rape has an entirely other dimension, causing trauma that perhaps didn’t exist in bygone days, we must address the matter differently?”

אני סבור שהתשובה השנייה היא הנכונה

I believe that the second answer is correct.”

This is our eternal Torah, our Torah of truth. And, we must know how to apply and live it so that no one winds up abused by it. There is a fire in the house. It is our opportunity to think deeply about desire, power, and about our religion.

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