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.
Commentary on Parshat Noah, Genesis 6:9-11:32
In this week’s Torah portion, Noah, after the flood recedes, Noah leaves the ark, gets drunk and is lying naked in his tent. One of his sons, Kham, goes in and sees him lying there. He goes out and tells his brothers what he saw. They go in backwards and cover up their father, making sure not to look at their father while he is naked. When Noah wakes, he curses the son who looked at him while naked.
This seems somewhat over the top, doesn’t it? I have heard endless drashing (commenting) on what “really” happened, but what if we simply took it at its plain meaning? Recently, there has been an important discussion raised in the US — one that women have tried to have many times before, but it seems to have taken this year’s particularly painful electoral politics to successfully bring it out: a discussion of the sexual harassment and predation that women live with as part of our normal lives.
It has taken the clip of the male candidate in this election — and the sexism that the female candidate has been subjected to over and above the usual ugliness of partisan rivalry — to show to many decent men that it is nothing unusual in women’s lives to have to make decisions about what we ignore, what we put up with, and what we suffer through every day, at work, on the street, and in every place that we go – and how bad it can really get.
These conversations are also what allowed journalist Danielle Berrin to speak about her experiences within the Jewish community at the hands of an older male celebrity who saw nothing odd in his behavior at all — quite likely because it wasn’t odd, in many ways, either here in the US or in Israel.
Of course, Noah was a man, not a woman, and his story comes out of a patriarchal society, where shaming a man was far worse. In that sense, it is difficult to bend the particulars of the case to our current situation. But what we can draw from it is exactly how demeaning it is to be viewed against one’s will.
What initially appears to be a rather minor incident has generations of repercussions. The broad outlines of the case are familiar to us: someone looks at someone else in a compromising and humiliating way, and then goes and boasts about it to others. In this case, those who hear the boasting do the decent thing – they work to make the situation less humiliating to the victim, regardless of his drunkenness (interestingly, no blaming the victim here!). Not only do they not indulge in the locker room talk, they take pains to separate themselves from the improper behavior and preventing it continuing. It ends there, and they do not stand for it.
When Noah awakes, he knows what happened to him, and he is angry. In this case Noah had the power to take back his honor by cursing his son – or did he?
It’s good that as a nation, we’re finally having this conversation. I have to admit that I don’t have a great deal of hope that it will change things. We seem have some variant of it whenever there is a scandalous crime against women (anyone remember Steubenville? Audrie Pott? and so many others), but in the end, we seem to lack the will or ability to really change our societal views of what we are allowed to do to women without women’s consent.
I also wonder, given the absolutely commonness of sexual aggressiveness in our society, what we actually could do. I don’t really see any useful outcome to trying to, for example, make sure every man who has ever been inappropriate with a woman loses his job. It’s not clear to me that that improves the situation – and I’m not sure what would. If Kham is cursed, not only himself, but all his offspring, does that actually improve the chances that the next generation will be better?
In the end, even the story of Noah doesn’t seem to offer much help. Noah built his ark in order to escape the horrible behavior of the society of the time, including in our midrash, sexual immorality – God intended to wipe the slate clean, but it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. As for Noah and his sons, who didn’t manage to wipe out the terrible behavior that their society inculcated in them, well, we hear nothing more about Noah other than that he lived another 350 years and then died. And as for Kham – his son’s son was Nimrod, who was arrogant and founded Babel, of the famed tower.
Pronounced: ark, Origin: English, the place in the synagogue where the Torah scrolls are stored, also known as the aron kodesh, or holy cabinet.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.