A phrase is making the rounds on social media: #Me Too. It refers to women who are sharing their stories of sexual harrassment and abuse. A startlingly powerful wave of reaction is carrying off prominent men, one after the next, with breathtaking rapidity. And some of us watch with an uneasy feeling, wondering: where will it go next; how far will it go?
In the parashat hashavua, the weekly reading from the Torah this week, we find the disturbing story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter.
Jacob and his large family, along with their servants and their flocks and herds, have just arrived in an area in the outskirts of the city of Shekhem, and they have set up their tents and settled in. Among the responsibilities of a young woman of Dinah’s age would be that of going to the nearest well to draw water for the household; while this may have often been an onerous chore, one can imagine her in this case excited to go to this new watering hole, to see the local women, and to possibly make a social connection.
Probably she did not go alone, for such a large camp would need more water than she alone could draw; perhaps the young women among their servants came with her – perhaps they were even friends. But she was the only one who, according to the text, ran into trouble:
Here’s what happened next: the man who raped her decided he wanted to keep her; her brothers and father met with him and his father to discuss her situation and whether she would marry her rapist; and her brothers, after pretending to agree to the marriage, took outsized revenge upon the people of Shekhem, catching them unaware and slaughtering all the men of the town.
No one doubted her story. The man involved was punished with death. But: so was every other man in the town.
The story is disturbing enough in its depiction of the suffering of the innocent young woman, but the outsized anger that causes so many more, who are likewise innocent, to suffer is likewise troubling. G*d forbid we should doubt the true word of one who comes forward to tell a story of sexual oppression, and G*d help the person who becomes convinced that she has suffered abuse when she has not – and even more, G*d help the accused innocent in that case. Who will believe that person?
The faster each name is publicized, the farther they fall, the more our yetzer ha’ra’ – our evil impulse – prods us to overlook due process, and to tolerate a rush to judgement that may be flawed.
In the Salem witch trials a contagious hysteria caused people to accuse their neighbors of acts for which they were punished – although they were innocent.
In the Middle Ages, European Jews were accused of the “blood libel” – using the blood of a Christian child to make matzah – and murdered.
When I lived in Ukraine I heard stories of people who denounced their neighbors – because as a reward they were given their neighbors’ apartment.
In Jewish law, two witnesses are required to convict a person of wrongdoing in a capital case. No one is allowed to indict herself. And as the Torah says, the very height of injustice is that which sweeps away the innocent with the guilty. Even HaShem expressed remorse after the Flood.
Times like this require us to review: every human being is created in the Image of G*d. Reducing anyone to a two-dimensional, single-issue soul is to do violence as great as that which we seek to abhor. While we pillory each other, what are we distracted from seeing? Powerful forces in our society seek to shred what’s left of our social contract; let our time-tested ancient Jewish ethical tradition support you as you seek to balance all the conflicting truths in the painful reality of our lives.