Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
There has been what feels like a rash – an epidemic even- certainly a disease, of recent news about women whose treatment has been so horrific it defies imagination. Not only just has it been this year, but really only over the past month, that these stories have come out.
In some ways, these cases seem to have little in common. The rescue of three women kidnapped a decade ago, held captive and repeatedly raped by three lunatics, who were, we like to think, not like “us.” Three teenage girls who were raped and publicly humiliated for the serious crime of going to parties where they thought wrongly that they could trust their friends, or who were simply acting like teenagers, or for no reason at all. Three girls who were violated, two of whom were so humiliated by the public support of their violators that they committed suicide. Those boys must have been psychopaths, the girls who tormented them mean girls, spoiled. Or maybe we should mourn for the future of these boys, ruined by a single act. Hard to know, opinion seems to be split.
But these are aberrations, are they not? Committed by bad people, people not like us.
Headline, from today: Pentagon Study Finds 26,000 Military Sexual Assaults Last Year, Over 70 Sex Crimes Per Day Not, of course, by the enemy, which perhaps, while vile, would be something our soldiers might be prepared for, but by their colleagues, and by contractors.
What could these all have in common?
Well, one thing they all have in common appears to be men.
Not because all men are like these: decidedly not – if they were, we wouldn’t be shocked and horrified by these stories. Yet there does seem to be something there. But maybe let’s set that aside for now, while we inquire a little more.
What is really, I believe, the key to these incidences is a deep abiding modern problem of “rights.”
Each of these cases are examples where some person, or people, decided that they wanted something – not just an object, like a thief, but something deeply personal, a person’s intimacy, their body, their bodily integrity, their own -not the other person’s- pleasure, and when it was not freely given, they took it.
In these cases, men had a sense that they had a right to sex, and apparently a right to sex with someone regardless of what that person’s feelings about it were, and regardless of consent. And in fact, in five of the above cases, they had a right not only to sex without consent, but to actually take ownership of these girls.
The idea that men have a right to sex is one that is supported by our culture – and not only ours- that teaches that women’s’ purpose is to exist for the benefit of men, for their pleasure and for their use.
Earlier, I’d thought that I was going to write about how Judaism teaches differently, to point out how our tradition focuses not on rights, but on obligations, and forces us to take others’ humanity into account. But the truth is, Judaism has some of these same tendencies traditionally: in the Torah, women are treated as chattels to be purchased, whose value is less if they are sexually violated or experienced. The rabbis of the talmud did recognize the unfairness of women’s treatment. Sifrei notes, “The Omnipresent’s compassion is not like that of flesh and blood. Flesh-and-blood creatures have greater compassion for males than for females. But the One who spoke and the world came into being is not like that. Rather, His mercy extends to all, to the males and to the females, as it is said [Ps. 145:9]: ‘The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is upon all His works’”
But this recognition of unfairness doesn’t extend quite deeply enough to inform their opinion that women’s purpose in life is to marry, to bear children and to make her husband’s (ba’al – master) life easier by serving him.
But this isn’t really about women.
What about the current debate over guns? There’s a large group – a minority of the American public, but large enough to have a strong voice- whose desire to have any gun they want, with no additional background checks, no additional licensing requirements, their right to own any gun they want at any time- takes precedence over any other consideration, even other peoples’ deaths. Even large numbers of other peoples’ deaths.
And since there may be individuals whom I haven’t pissed off yet, yes, I’m going to throw this in too: There is also a certain group of people, whose right to live in a certain place is untempered by the fact that others must be dispossessed of that place for them to do so, that their desire to walk daily in a place where their ancestors walked is stronger than any other consideration. It is regardless of the cost not only to the dispossessed, but to their fellow citizens whose children sometimes die protecting them as soldiers, and whose young children are even now having their education budget slashed because Israeli politicians are unwilling to touch the millions and millions of dollars being poured into the settlement project.
But this isn’t about settlements, and it isn’t about guns. It’s not about women. What it’s about is two things: the culture of entitlement, and the reality of our humanity. It’s about Charles Ramsey.
Because Charles Ramsey, who helped rescue those women, is a hero. He’s a guy who lives in the same culture as all the rest of us. He is in fact, someone who in some ways is also a victim and perpetrator of that culture of entitlement: he is, in fact, a batterer, and a man who has failed to pay child support to the woman he battered.
He is a person who felt he had the right to lay hands on another person because she was “his,” -to the extent that he went to prison for it. And he also, was the person who, when he heard screaming and thought it was a domestic violence situation, went to the door of the house where he heard the screaming. And is this tshuvah, repentance? I don’t know. But as Joan Walsh points out in this piece on Salon,
“Ramsey insisted on saying Ariel Castro was “cool,” and not a “freak of nature.” He seemed to be reminding us that even monsters can appear decent, and even decent people can do bad things.
Many observers have already noted that it was remarkable for Ramsey to intervene even though he said he thought it was a domestic violence dispute, when so many people look away and do nothing. Maybe his own experience played a role in his response; maybe there was some hope for redemption. But at any rate, the fact that a convicted abuser intervened to stop abuse is a good thing, not a scandal.”
We are part of that culture. We -all of us- can’t see the water in which we swim, and so it leads us to not even think about the attitudes we have towards others, where we think that our rights trump theirs. We feel that we have a “right” to all kinds of things, in stead of viewing the world through the prism of obligation to others, to see ourselves as part of something where our needs and immediate desires and even our “rights,” may sometimes have to be submerged to that of others’.
But if Judaism has something to teach us here, it is that we do not need to be cynical. It is possible for us to turn our lives around, as Ramsey did. More importantly, we all need to recognize that Ramsey is right: Ariel Castro is not a monster. He’s probably not any different than I am – or if he is, it’s in degree and not in kind.
All of us do bad things. I am not of the persuasion that says there are no bad people, only people who do bad things. Nope, I disagree with that. There are bad people. BUT, it is very difficult, I think, to see the point at which doing bad things tips over into being a bad person – don’t know what it is. I’m pretty sure Castro meets that standard, but short of his horrific behavior, I think it’s not always so clear.
There is no take away here.
We live in a world full of people who do horrific things, and some of that comes because our culture teaches us messages about some people: women are to service men; God gave me a certain place; my fear of possible intruders is more important than the actual societal plague of gun-deaths. The people who believe these things – under most circumstances- aren’t doing wicked things. Most people who believe these things are living very normal lives, in which they try to do their best by other people. But when we go on allowing these messages to live on, there will be consequences: war, death, rape. Unless we can make the effort to change ourselves, BOTH one at a time and societally. Judaism recognizes (in lots of places – commentary on the story of Noah – a man “righteous in his generation” as well as commentaries in portions of the Torah that discuss the priesthood) that societies have the power to shape the individuals within them, but it also says that we are obligated to, each of us, act on our own. We are not excused from improving ourselves simply because our culture teaches us or supports us in acting or believing poorly – indeed, if we wish for the society to change, there is no other way than for each of us, individually, to take that first step and change it, so that eventually there will be enough of us to make a difference.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.