Over the past few weeks, the Haredi Jewish world, especially in Israel, has been publicly litigating accusations of abuse from more than 20 people against Jewish educator and children’s author Chaim Walder. Though he was found guilty by a Jewish court of sexually abusing children and women and subsequently committed suicide, Walder insisted on his innocence in his suicide note and was eulogized by the mayor of Bnei Brak. And while there were leaders who condemned Walder and forbade people to read his books, there were many who continued to support him and even to blame the media and accusers for his death. Witnessing this wave of support, a survivor of his abuse, Shifra Horowitz, took her own life at the young age of 24. In the aftermath of Shifra’s death, more Haredi leaders and institutions have been vocal in condemning sexual abuse publicly, but the tragedy here runs deep.
Among the many layers of calamity was the use of Torah to defend an abuser and ultimately to drive a survivor to her death. Too many individuals looked upon as religious authorities use precepts and ideas from the Torah to justify a culture of silence and complicity with the abuse of vulnerable children and women. Some religious leaders argued for a presumption of innocence despite the credibility of the accusations and the ruling of the beit din. Others argued that publishing the accusations transgressed the taboo of shaming someone in public. Those who look to religious tradition for enlightenment should be appalled by such arguments. Moreover, we should feel the weighty responsibility of seeking out morally responsive Torah in this moment. Judaism has been and continues to be shaped by the interpretation and application of our most sacred texts, in an ongoing effort to create a dialogue between the past and the present. And the ideas and laws that we choose to marshal in moments like these leave an indelible mark on Jewish life.
And this is especially important for those among us, myself included, who are still learning about how to center the dignity of survivors.
In the face of such intense scandal and tragedy, where is the Torah that leads to healthy society, that can challenge us to have moral integrity in this moment? How can religious tradition bring out the best in us rather than defending the worst in us? And how can this be done given some of the clear gaps between the way that classical Jewish texts relate to rape, abuse, gender, and power, and the way we do today?
One place we find such Torah is in the extended rabbinic homily about the Bible’s account of King David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba, a married woman whom he beds and whose husband he has killed at war (II Sam. 12-13). This text is troubling, at least for its lacunae around consent and the resolution that leaves Bathsheba married to King David, both characteristic of and, in the case of marrying one’s rape victim, considered ethically responsible in their historical context. And yet, a rabbinic amplification of the story found in Tractate Sanhedrin (107a) models a moral integrity in dealing with that narrative which expresses the power of interpretation.
This midrash amounts to later interpreters exploring what leads to abuses of power; recognizing the allure of excuse-making; and placing a premium on transparency and education to prevent further abuses. The rabbis are unafraid to examine the transgressions of even a great leader, someone whose name would become synonymous with Jewish monarchy. They rewind the story and imagine the steps that led up to the abuse of power in the first place. And they read further between the lines of the biblical version to give us further insight into how David understood what he had done, and how others reacted to it. It is indeed Torah for this moment.
According to this midrash, Bathsheba and her husband Uriah’s nightmare began with royal piety that turned to arrogance. David is described as asking God why in the amidah, people do not refer to the Divine as the God of David alongside God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. David wants God to be associated with him when people pray. Here the rabbis depict a leader who has come to believe his own myth. He thinks he is pious and worthy of this kind of inclusion in the liturgical pantheon. David’s question should worry us: He is too convinced of his greatness.
God responds that while Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all passed a test, David has not. So, King David requests a test, and God administers it. His test is whether he can control his lust, and he fails. He sees the married Bathsheba bathing on the roof and has her brought to him.
The opening of this midrash has familiar tropes: someone whose religious status leads to hubris; who enters questionable situations to prove something to himself; and a glaring omission of any ombudsman or ethical guidance in a context of tremendous power in the hands of a single individual. While admittedly other sources in rabbinic literature claim, on a technicality, that David did not sin, in this telling, the rabbis recognize and even expand upon the story of his sin. (See the recent piece by Yael Leibowitz for a thoughtful suggestion about how educators might approach the rabbinic text that exonerates David.) At the same time, as modern readers, we should also be sensitive to the fact that Bathsheba becomes objectified in David’s story as part of a Divine test rather than a subject in her own right.
This midrash is an extended story made up of multiple scenes. In the scene that follows, David makes excuses before God (and himself!) to justify his behavior. He claims that he could have passed the test had he wanted to, and he failed on purpose; that he was not really trying to look at Bathsheba; he even argues that God should not prosecute the sin because it just wouldn’t look good for someone of his stature to be felled by this kind of sexual scandal. These are familiar excuses: distortions after the fact and the prioritization of public image over moral reckoning. The word “gaslighting” even comes to mind.
The final portion of this aggadah deals with public responses to abuses of power. And it speaks to all of us, sending a clear message about the right and wrong ways to publicize scandal. This portion of the narrative has two parts: first the “don’t,” and then the “do.”
The “don’t”: Rabbis are studying the rules of capital punishment, and they turn to David scornfully and ask him what the punishment is for committing adultery. Clearly, their aim is to humiliate him. He fires back: “At least those who commit adultery get a share in the world to come, while those who shame their fellow in public do not.” This part of the aggadah is as important for what it is not saying as for what it is saying. It describes a situation in which the religious leadership imagined in David’s time are not engaged in either recognizing David’s punishment and repentance or acting to prevent further abuse. They are simply making him the butt of their jokes. That is emphatically not leadership. It is perhaps a self-righteous way of distancing oneself from the offender, but it is not making the world any better.
At the same time, contrary to how some religious leaders have used this passage in the Walder affair, this aspect of the story is not saying that we should not discuss abuse of power publicly, certainly if doing so can prevent danger. The following lines in the rabbinic retelling make that point explicit. David negotiates with God, begging for the whole affair to be removed from the Bible. But though David has been punished, God refuses to censor this incident, and answers instead:
It is already ordained that your son Solomon will say in his wisdom, ‘Can a person make a fire in their bosom and their clothes not be burned? Can one walk upon hot coals and their feet not be burned? Likewise, one who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife; whoever touches her shall not be innocent.’ (Proverbs 6)
We must not cover up abuse even and especially when it is committed by leaders. God insists that the story of David’s abusive behavior toward Bathsheba and Uriah be included in the canon so that future generations will learn how to do better. David’s very own son Solomon, credited as the author of the Book of Proverbs in the opening verse, will learn this lesson. Moreover, he will teach this lesson as part of his core Torah so that the coming generations will learn that people reap what they sow. Blame for the consequences lies squarely with the perpetrator.
This is the entire point of the rabbis having created this midrash in the first place. While the Bible tells of David’s sin, punishment, and repentance, the rabbis want us to delve deeper into the importance of this story being included prominently in sacred Jewish Scripture. What is it meant to teach us, not only about David, but about ourselves? About how to prevent the abuse of power? About how to respond to it? For this, they argue that we must know even more than the biblical account of David’s sin. We must expand and expound upon what led to it in the first place. What are the dangers of inflated self-understanding, and how do we curb it? How do we delude ourselves and gaslight others in the aftermath of our own bad acts, and how do we allow ourselves to be deluded by bad actors? And critically, how do we shape a culture of transparency and moral education in the face of the abuse of power, to protect and respect survivors and to prevent future harm?
In the end, this morally insistent midrash is woven into the tapestry of Jewish life as David’s story does end with his inclusion in the amidah, but not as he envisioned it. Each and every amidah opens with words from Tehillim (Psalms) 51, a chapter describing David’s recognition of his own sinfulness. In that chapter, he pleads with God to accept his repentance: “God, open my lips and my mouth shall express Your praise.” That is how we begin each and every recitation of the central prayer of our liturgy, each and every day. Ultimately, David is included in the liturgy not for his perfection but for his remorse. And remorse is impossible if one is unwilling to admit one’s transgressions in the first place.
To be sure, there are significant gaps in this rabbinic rendering and in the biblical narrative itself, which is part of what makes applying ancient texts to contemporary situations challenging. Most critically, neither the biblical nor the rabbinic renderings offer us Bathsheba’s side of the story, nor does this rabbinic amplification deal with David’s sending of her husband, Uriah, to his death. Recognizing these absences is imperative to transmitting Torah responsibly from generation to generation.
But I believe that the moral aspirations of this midrash invite us to continue to expand upon the story: What is Bathsheba’s experience as the survivor of this, who is ultimately made to marry the man who forced her to commit adultery? What would she have wanted if she could have chosen? What did Uriah think when he came home from war, and when he was sent to the front lines to die? While we do not find answers to these questions in the rabbinic telling, sadly, there are many Bathshebas and Uriahs out there today whose stories and perspectives can help fill in the gaps.
To return to where we started: Those of us who seek depth in religious tradition need to learn and to teach Torah that values safety over nepotism and integrity over public image. This midrash demands moral reckoning in the face of the abuse of power. And it is our responsibility to pick up where it leaves off.
Elana Stein Hain is the Director of Faculty and a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.