By Rachel Landis, NFTY NAR
Last fall and again in recent weeks, the American Jewish community was rocked by sexual assault allegations against many of its most prominent members. As a Jewish woman, I was particularly upset to see how so many men who claimed the same faith as me could come away from their Jewish upbringing with such different morals. I was not the only one to feel this way, with many synagogues around the nation adding a few extra lines to the Al Cheit, the prayer for confessing our sins, specifically condemning specific aspects of harassment and being a bystander to it.
Just as the Torah discusses many issues relevant to our lives, the Torah has much to say about sexual harassment and assault. There are many of these stories in our biblical texts, but two in particular give us a solid list of what to do and what not to: the stories of Tamar and Dinah.
In both of these stories, we hear a tales we are all too familiar with. Tamar is trapped alone, forced to submit, and immediately discarded. Dinah is told she is loved and then is attempted to be bought by her abuser. The only difference in these stories is the reactions of these women’s brothers, or their “protectors.”
Tamar’s brother, Absalom, is outraged on her behalf, but asks her to remain quiet about what she has endured. Tamar begs to openly discuss her trauma, and her brother tells her not to brood over it because it will be shameful to their family. She is forced to suffer alone.
Dinah’s brothers, on the other hand, strike back in a big way. They trick Dinah’s abuser by letting him think they are to be married before killing him and rescuing Dinah. The Torah frames this as a positive action and in some ways it is; they are rescuing their sister.
But there is one thing I noticed in these texts that I’m sure won’t be lost on others either; Dinah and Tamar have no control over the narrative of their stories. They are never given a chance to speak for themselves and express what they are feeling or what they want. Despite these instances, we are never given the chance to hear Tamar and Dinah discuss the violence against them, because their voices are drowned out by the outraged men surrounding them.
This is one of Torah’s biggest issues – not always giving a voice to the women who are in it. But, it can be one of our biggest lessons – we need to lift up the voices of survivors. It is all too easy to be caught in a story and argue about semantics, but at the end of the day, if we are going to get justice for victims and survivors, we need to pay attention to their words and their stories. The Torah has much to teach us, but we also have much to learn from the stories and words that are in between the stories that are told. It is there that we can begin to seek justice.