Thursday, November 29, 2012

Attitudes to sexual abuse and women: the case of Dina

The crime of sexual abuse and religious institutional responses to it is on the agenda in Australia. On a practical level, abuse must be dealt with by reporting alleged perpetrators to the police, following due process and unequivocal support for victims. There must also be a willingness to confront past wrongs, not a whitewash. This post is not about the practices or prevailing attitudes in the Jewish community in the 21st century on this issue, nor is it a commentary on the position of women in traditional Jewish communities today. Rather, this is an examination, mainly, of our centuries’ old texts as these relate to current issues. 

There are four main elements explored in this post. 1) The repugnant suggestion that abuse or rape should be linked to the victim’s behaviour or dress. 2) The attitude to women’s participation in society. 3) The degree to which the needs of victims are prioritised over other concerns. 4) Whether religious communities are prepared to trust outside authorities to deal with abuse. This is an exploration of these issues in Jewish sources mostly related to the rape of Dina who by some accounts was only 8[i] or even 6[ii] at the time.

The Torah text seems straight forward enough. “Dina, the daughter of Leah, that she bore to Jacob, went out to see with the daughters of the land. Shchem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he took her, “laid her[iii]” and tormented her[iv]”.

Leaving the Home
One anomaly in this text is the way that Dina is introduced with an emphasis first on being a daughter of Leah then Jacob. One interpretation of this seems to blame Dina for her ordeal. “The text connects [Dinah] to her mother to teach: Just as Leah was an “out-going” person, so too [Dinah] was an “out-going” person[v]”. Her going out to see the daughters of the land, is taken to mean that she went out not just to see, but “to be seen[vi]”, to show off her beauty[vii], adorned like a prostitute, for promiscuity[viii]. There are references to uncovered meat being grabbed by either a bird[ix] or a dog[x] that also encourage women not to be seen. In these early sources, the story of Dina becomes a morality tale with a message that “every woman that goes out to the market place, in the end she will stumble (morally)[xi]”.

While the form of this guidance in blaming a rape victim is highly problematic, I think there are some benefits to dramatically less draconian ideas of modesty as well as some downsides to an “anything” goes attitudes. A silly example is a year 7 girl (aged 11-12) that I taught some years ago who told me she and a boy in the class have been sniping at each other ever since “they broke up” when they were in year 6 (aged 10-11).    

Well intentioned home-girl
Abarbanel, a 15th century scholar, rejects any blame being placed on Dina, based on his understanding of the story and her character. “This [rape] did not happen to Dinah because she was an “outgoing” girl by nature; (on the contrary)she was Leah's daughter and [Leah] was the one who stayed home all day whereas Rachel was the (outgoing) shepherdess… This teaches that [Dinah] didn't go out for wrong reasons, G-d forbid. [She went out] only to see the girls in the land… since there were no other girls except her in Jacob’s house, and she wanted to learn from them… as young girls tend to do[xii]”.

Gender Roles
Another source also defends Dina as a person ‘who would normally stay at home’, but Shchem enticed her out by organising musicians to play outside her house[xiii]. A third view is that Dina was essentially male, based on a teaching that her mother was originally destined to have a son but prayed for the sex of the child to change to female[xiv]. While these early teaching do not blame the victim for her rape, they do reinforce restrictive gender roles.  

Outgoing is good!
The idea that women should be confined to the home is strongly rejected by recent commentary, most creatively by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson. As leader of the Chabad movement he advocated for women to have an influence beyond the conduct of the home to draw other Jewish women closer to Judaism. He argues that the characterisation of Dina as “outgoing” is meant as praise, and that her intention of leaving the home was to be a positive influence on the local young women[xv].  A similar argument is made by a recent article from another school within Orthodox Judaism[xvi]. Timeless principles of respect and ‘treating others as we would want to be treated’ are applied differently in our modern context to the way they were many centuries ago.

Putting aside questions of blaming the victim, a key issue is how people respond to reports of abuse. Some religious leaders have rightly been criticized for putting other considerations ahead of the needs of the victims. In some cases people known to have abused children were not reported to police. This was probably prompted at least in part by concern to the welfare of the perpetrator or their families. In terms of Jewish law, the over-riding concern would surely be the protection of the innocent and vulnerable[xvii]. This principle is expressed in the Torah itself in the words “do not stand (idly) by, on your brother blood[xviii]”.

In the case of Dina’s attacker, Shchem, his father, Hamor, the local ruler is indifferent to the crime. The failure to bring Shchem to justice is seen by Maimonides as a grave offense, not just on the part of Hamor but of all the people of the town. He even goes so far as to justify the killing of the townspeople by the sons of Jacob as a fitting punishment for their failure[xix]. While the idea of collective culpability is disputed[xx] and Simon and Levi’s anger is eventually cursed by their father[xxi], the principle of communal responsibility for justice is not.  

One respected Australian Rabbi addressed one obstacle to reporting suspected offenders, namely traditional mistrust of the non-Jewish authorities. The authority insisted that laws against handing over a Jew to the authorities (Moser) were based on completely corrupt anti-Semitic governments officials in other times and places. There can be no justification of this mistrust in a modern context in countries that have essentially sound criminal justice systems. 

In practice, Sexual abuse of any form must be countered as effectively and forcefully as possible within the constraints of the law. We must utilise the secular institutions best placed to handle these matters including the police and we must confront the past honestly. The victim is to be supported, the responsibility and blame rests with the perpetrators and with those who could have prevented these crimes. There are a range of teachings from earlier times that do not sit well with the modern reader.  Creative ways of applying these teachings are leading to more open attitudes toward women.

[i] R. Bachai, Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1319, note 13
[ii] Pirkey d’Rabbi Eliezer, Mecheta Sofrim 21, in notes to Meam Loez (Engish translation) there is a calculation based on some earlier sources  that she was 15½
[iii] The common translation is “he lay with her”, which implies two people doing something “with” each other.  The Hebrew text does not have this connotation, the words are וישכב = “and he lay” אותה = “her”, which can be taken to mean that he acted on her. 
[iv] Genesis 34:2
[v] Midrash Tanchuma – Vayishlach 7
[vi] Old Midrash Tanchuma Vayishlach 10
[vii] Midrash Agada, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1317, note 3
[viii] Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1317, note 2
[ix] Bereshit Rabba 80, A few years ago there was uproar in response to Media reports that a Sydney based Imam implied that the way women dress was a factor in a rape case. He was said to have used an analogy of “uncovered meat” that is eaten by a cat. Yet, my own tradition seems to include teachings that echo that very sentiment.
[x] Old Midrash Tanchuma Vayishlach 19
[xi] Bereshit Rabba 8:12
[xii] Abarbanel – Genesis 34:1, translation adapted from Coppersmith D,
[xiii] Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer 38
[xiv] Rashi commentary relating to Genesis 30:21 “And then [Leah] had a daughter and she named her Dinah.” Leah judged (din) herself, saying: “If this is a male, Rachel will not even be equal to the maidservants.” So Leah prayed and he turned into a female.
[xv] Likutei Sichos vol. 35, p.150-155
[xvi] Coppersmith D,
[xvii] I am challenged by the inferences that can be drawn to the contrary - that protection of the innocent is not to be the overriding priority- from the following midrash. "And he got up that night and took his two wives and two maidservants and his eleven sons" (Genesis 32:33). Where was Dinah? [Yaakov] placed her in a box and locked her in. He said, “This evil man (Esav) has a haughty eye – lest he see her and take her from me.” God said: “You prevented kindness from your brother and as a result you suffered. Because if she had married Esav, she would not have been raped,” as it says later (Genesis 34:1) “And Dinah went out." (Breishit Rabba – Vayishlach 77:9), translation from
[xviii] Leviticus 19:16
[xix] Maimonides Yad Hachazaka, laws of kings, 9
[xx] Ramban commentary to Genesis 34:13
[xxi] Genesis 49:7, Jacob’s last messages to his sons on his deathbed

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Speech to son Nachman at his Bar Mitzvah celebration

Family and friends, it is very special to be celebrating Nachman’s Bar Mitzvah with you. Thank you especially to Shoshie’s parents Dr. & Mrs. Eichel for all your help in every way and especially with the celebration tonight. Thank you to my father for learning with Nachman each week. To Shoshie for all the work you put in to tonight and to everyone for being here and making this Simcha what it is.

Nachman Yehoshua, you are a lucky man. Your privilege includes access to the spiritual inheritance of our people and your family. The land we celebrate on tonight echoes with its own stories and spirituality of the Aboriginal Cammeraygal people. I acknowledge their elders past and present. While Aboriginal people struggle to preserve their language and heritage, you Nachman have had the zechus of growing up immersed in Torah, at home, at Kesser Torah College and at Chabad.

As you being your journey as a commanded Jewish man, uou can draw inspiration from your two of your great grandfathers who you are named after. Dr. Rabbi Nachman Eichel and Rabbi Joshua Tanchum Kastel, both of whom loved the Torah. Grandpa Eichel would learn with his granddaughters, Mommy and her sisters every week.

Zaidy Kastel also spent his last years with Torah study partners after a life of time devoted to education.

These two men have between them faced two of the most evil murderous and hateful men of the twentieth century Hitler and Stalin, outlived them and lived their lives in a way you can emulate.  

Grandpa Dr. Nachman Eichel like you Nachman had great determination. If he wanted to accomplish something, he got it done.  He wanted to get Semicha, ordination as a Rabbi, so he got it from several distinguished Rabbis. During the Holocaust he managed to save the lives of others, by helping the grandson of the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Akiva Sofer and his son Binyamin leave Hungary.  

After the Holocaust Grandpa’s family went ahead to Australia but he remained and resumed his medical studies in Switzerland and became a doctor, only to arrive in Australia and be told that that his qualification would not be recognised here. Knowing very little English, he repeated his medical studies, with a textbook in one hand and a dictionary in the other. When Grandma passed away on a Sunday, there was the challenge of burying her the same day as the Torah teaches but the unions would not allow a burial on a Sunday. Needless to say, Grandpa ensured that the burial happened on the Sunday.

Nachman, you also have great will power and inner strength. You must have been around 5 years old when you stood at the children’s table at a shul Kiddush and an adult decided to help themselves to some of the kid’s food. You told them politely but firmly, “this is the kids, table!” You have shown determination in your school work, the Masechta Gemorah that you completed and the Pilpul you did so beautifully. You show it in your being on time to shul on Shabbos to lead the pesukei d’zimrah. This gift is also a double test. Will you get over-confident? Or will you rise to your potential? Will you be flexible when this is the right thing, rather than argue and by sheer force of will manage to get your way? These tests will hopefully be a small challenge to overcome as you determinedly pursue worthwhile goals and achieve them. There is nothing that stands before will,
 כל מילין דעלמא לא תליין אלא ברעותא[i], All matters of the world, depend on nothing but will.
By the time your Zaidy Rabbi Joshua T Kastel[ii] had his Bar Mitzvah, the monster Stalin was General Secretary of the Communist party.  Stalin had his own 1st commandment that allowed the state to steal grain from the farmers and leave them to starve[iii]. This commandment was to replace the first of the 10 commandments “you should have no other gods”.

Stalin’s communists tried to destroy Jewish education. In addition to threats, arrests and executions they also use ridicule. My Zaidy Kastel, sat us grandchildren around him and told us about the day his father read an article in a communist paper mocking Chasidim in the town of Nevel, who still dripped Mikvah waters from their beards. He turned to my grandfather and said Tanchum, we found you a Yeshiva and promptly sent him to Nevel.

After migrating to the United States, Zaidy Kastel, spent his life helping others study the Torah he defied the communists to learn. In the process earned the affection of his community.

One evening in the early 1990’s in Boston, I was sitting with my family at a New England Lubavitz Yeshiva, fund-raising dinner that is honouring my grandfather. I was in my twenties considering what I wanted to do with my life.

A wealthy donor of the school spoke about the first time my grandfather came to his office to ask for a donation for his school. The speaker’s father had been a donor and had passed away, now my grandfather was hoping the son would follow his father’s example.

The speaker saw my grandfather through the window. “Rabbi Kastel walked toward the office-building. He hesitated, stopped, turned around and walked a few steps away. Then he turned around and walked toward the building again. Stopped again...he was nervous. But he really had nothing to worry about, we all loved him”.  

Grandpa Eichel, was similarly a man who was greatly loved by the patients he cared for. As Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa used to say: Anyone whom his fellow men are fond of, the spirit of Hashem is also fond of[iv]”. Nachman you have been blessed with Chein, with grace. You have good friends, both at school and at Shul. I remember with some pride, how you made friends with Toby the caretaker at the old Chabad House. Toby was a quiet non-Jewish man. He was very fond of Nachman who liked to help with some of the tasks at Shul.

Nachman. You are blessed with faith and trust. This is the foundation for almost everything.
You have knowledge. This enables you to learn more, to teach, to do and to keep Mitzvos.
You are strong, equipped to overcome obstacles to doing what is right, including yourself.
You are confident, able to take some risks and make mistakes, an essential part of achievement. 
You are a friend. I hope you always approach all people, regardless of religion, or other differences with friendship and grace.

You are loved. No matter what you do or don’t do, you are precious to us and we love you.

(I also spoke to Nachman on the Shabbat of his Bar Mitzvah celebration, here is the link )

[i] Zohar 2 162b
[ii] born June 6, 1913
[iii] Snyder T, Bloodlands,
[iv] Pirkey Avot 3:9

Friday, November 23, 2012

Elephants Talk & Silence

This image is from
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Yesterday a Muslim educator taught me something very powerful about silence. Students from Australian Arabic Muslim families will be meeting with Jewish students in the coming weeks in the aftermath of the death, despair and destruction in Gaza and Israel. From an adults perspective, it is “the elephant in the room”, that needs to be discussed. Yet, the educator pointed out that by discussing it in the context of an interfaith school program we are giving an implicit message that Israel and Palestine should be seen as integral to interaction between Jews and Muslims in Australia. He thought the right message for his students in that particular context is that we are Australians of different faiths who are learning to respect and like each other.

On the other hand this week, I spoke with a number of educators responsible for supporting migrant children, some of whom are likely to lose their jobs due to government cuts. I began the discussion with the inspiring clip from Martin Luther King Jnr. He invokes Moses standing on the mountain top seeing the promised land of Canaan that he will never reach but to which his people will soon arrive. King says that he too is facing hard times, but despite having loved to live a long life, “it doesn’t matter about me now…because I have been to the mountain top and I have seen the Promised Land…” and he was confident that his dream would be realised. The message to the teachers was although it is a difficult time, the work they do and the broader shift to at least a general acceptance of diversity is unstoppable. Having acknowledged the difficult issue on people’s minds and seen it in this context was really uplifting, we were then able to discuss other matters.

The following is a more general reflection on speaking out and silence mostly written in 2010 but still relevant.

The obligation to speak out or be silent
If we are silent in the face of apparent injustice, at least certain circumstance we can be considered complicit in it. Speaking Talking about our grievances, might result in resolution, or at least give us the feeling that we did what we can. The negatives of silence need to be considered against the problems arising out of speaking out. In some situations, our critique can be ill-informed, driven by unconscious and unsavory motives, cause unnecessary embarrassment, or fail to achieve anything apart from defensiveness, hostility or even escalated offending behaviour and “push-back”. The Talmud comments about the people in its own time[i], there was no longer anyone with either the ability to offer or accept criticism[ii].

Style. Wording, tone, privacy/audience etc.
“It's not what you say, but how you say it”- is a view that I don't think is true all the time, but it does have some merit. The commandment in Leviticus (19:17) to rebuke, rebuke your fellow[iii]4”, is followed with a caution “and do not bear sin because of him” which is interpreted as demanding concern, in some circumstances, about humiliating the person being criticised.

Being wrong – asking a question
If we approach what appears to be a problematic situation with a recognition that we might not have all the facts, we can carry our responsibility to stand up for justice without judging others unfairly. Our patriarch Jacob sets a friendly tone and uses the approach of asking a question of a group of shepherds that seems to be workers, idle on the job. “My brothers, where are you from?” Jacob begins, after some small talk he observes “The day is still long, it is not time to gather the flocks, give your sheep some drink and go take your sheep to pasture[iv].” The shepherds explain that they are unable to carry out their next task without more help because there is a big stone on top of the well that can only be moved when their colleagues arrive so they can all give water to their sheep. No harm done.

Unresolved issues- One cost of silence
A sad, but rarely discussed episode in the lives of the biblical Rachel and Leah occurs when their brothers and father (Laban) become resentful of Jacob's prosperity. Their brothers are heard saying to anyone, but the accused party “Jacob took (stole) everything that belonged to our father , and from what belonged to our father he created all this honour[v]”. Jacob notices, Laban's face, “and it is clearly not the same as it was yesterday, and the day before that”. He had accepted the slander (Lashon Harah- evil tongue) against Jacob[vi] without bothering to check with Jacob about his side of the story. The opposite of “when a man sins against another man, he should not hate him and be is a Mitzvah to notify him and say, why did you do this to me?[vii]

Jacob and his wives, Rachel and Leah discuss the need to leave the employ and town of Laban over his on-going financial mistreatment on the part of their father. The two daughters/wives reply, “Do we still have any part or inheritance in our fathers house? Did he not consider us as strangers to him, selling us and eating our money”. I find it very significant, that neither sister ever said anything to Laban about their hurt feelings or anger about being sold to Jacob. Jacob also does not talk to Laban about his complains about the financial dealings, instead explaining only to his wives that Laban changed “my wages, 10 times”.

Unlikely to be heard
To rebuke someone involves some hope that it might help. The Talmud states that just as we should say words of rebuke that will be heard, it is a Mitzvah (Commandment) not to say that which will not be heard[viii]. As a Christian Australian Member of Parliament, Shayne Neummann, pointed out to me a while back, it is hard to imagine Jacob having any confidence in talking to Laban after he substituted his beloved Rachel with Leah. Especially, considering that when Jacob first protests to Laban “Why did you deceive me”, instead of an apology, Laban attacks Jacob cleverly saying “it is not done thus in our place, the younger before the older”, implying like you who usurped the right of your older brother Esau. Clearly, Laban's rebuke of Jacob is driven by an ulterior motive, seeking to justify his own wrong doing. A caveat on the principle of rebuke that will not be accepted is that in some cases where our silence can be seen as acquiescence, we need to consider the wider audience, not just the perpetrator.

There is a western idea that talking is always good.  I think it is ethical and wise to consider the situation and benefit or harm that will be caused by either speaking or being silent.  

[i] The content of the Talmud was developed between approximately 100 bc to the year 300 CE
[ii] Arachin 16b. Also discussed on
[iii] Leviticus (19:17)
[iv] Genesis 29:7
[v] Genesis 31:1
[vi] Seforno
[vii] Mimonedes, Yad, hilchot Deot, 6:6
[viii] Talmud, Yevamot 65b