Giving a Voice to the Silenced: #MeToo One Year Later; By – Rabba Claudia Marbach

The MeToo movement is a year old, but the abuse of women is much older. Bereshit provides numerous examples of women in uncomfortable sexual situations. As usual, the Torah does not reveal  the interior experience of its characters, so the midrash comes to fill that gap.

When Sarai is taken into the palace of Pharaoh, the Torah tells us only וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה׃the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace (Gen. 12:15). The midrash, in contrast, acknowledges her anguish and her sense of abandonment and violation:

אף היא אמרה רבונו של עולם אברהם בא עמך בהבטחה, מפני שאמרת לו ואברכה מברכיך (בראשית יב ג), ולא הייתי יודעת כלום, אלא כיון שאמר לי שאמרת לו לך לך, האמנתי לדבריך, ועכשיו נשארתי יחידה מאבי ומאמי ומבעלי, יבא רשע זה ויתעולל בי, עשה למען שמך הגדול, ולמען בטחוננו בדבריך!

Sarai, cried out, saying: “Master of the Universe! when I heard from Abraham that You had told him, ‘Go forth,’ I believed in what You said. Now I remain alone, apart from my father, my mother, and my husband. Will this wicked one come and abuse me? Act for Your great name, and for my trust in Your words. (Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha 8).

In the midst of Sarai’s MeToo experience, she calls out to God with righteous indignation. The events that had led her to this moment were not of her own making; God had made a pact with Avraham to which she was at best a passive participant. Now, she demands, it is God’s job to make things right. The outcome is reported in the Torah:

וַיְנַגַּ֨ע ה’ אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֛ה נְגָעִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים וְאֶת־בֵּית֑וֹ עַל־דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרַ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת אַבְרָֽם׃

But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account (of the words) of Sarai, the wife of Abram. (Gen. 12:17)

The midrash thus reads Pharoah’s affliction by God as the direct result of Sarai’s demands. The midrashist continues:

אמר לה הקב”ה, חייך אין דבר רע נוגע ביך, שנאמר לא יאונה לצדיק כל און ורשעים מלאו רע (משלי י:כא), ופרעה וביתו אעשה בהן דוגמא

And God said to her, “By your life nothing bad will touch you, as it says ‘No harm befalls the righteous, But the wicked have their fill of misfortune.’(Proverbs 10:21) I will make an example of Pharaoh and his household.

How contemporary it seems that the midrash not only seeks to punish Pharaoh but to publicize his misdeeds. Yet while Sarai was being threatened within the palace, a place with many people, no one answered  her cries — or perhaps they chose to ignore them, out of fear or indifference.

Then, as now, one of the hardest questions was to determine whether consent had been given. If in the field, the Torah tells us (Deut. 22:23-26), consent is presumed not to have been given because if a woman called out she would not have been heard. The clear implication is that a woman who does not cry out must have consented.

Commenting on this pasuk, the Chizkuni (13th century France) doubts this implication, and recognizes a different possibility:

אילו צעקה לא היה אדם מושיעה והיתה יראה פן יהרגנה. אם כן ספק הוא לן אם נתרצית אם לאו ומספק אין להרגה דספק נפשות להקל.

If she had cried out no one would save her and she would fear for her life. Therefore, whenever there exists doubt about the victim of a rape having consented tacitly, no court will punish her.  

Sounding very modern, the Chizkuni recognizes, psychologically, that silence does not constitute consent. But he does not extend his reasoning to the case of the city. The  presumption of the Torah is that when one cries out in a city one will be heard and saved. Today, though, city life seems more isolated and private than the cheek-by-jowl existence of ancient times. Our city spaces can be inaccessible,more like the field of old, and in them, voices are not necessarily heard.

The MeToo movement is giving volume to silenced voices. The Torah instructs us to listen to those with no voice — the stranger, the widow and the orphan — and to address injustice. Just as God listened to Sarai, we should strive to listen carefully not only to what is said, but also to what is unsaid and unable to be said.

 

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: