Navigate to News section

Thou Shalt Not: Yom Kippur and Sexual Assault

A new book about America’s rape culture provides some perspective on the High Holiday passage Leviticus 18, which is light on punishment for perpetrators

Marjorie Ingall
September 22, 2015

At the Mincha service on Yom Kippur we read Leviticus 18, detailing a zillion sexual prohibitions. The Lord lists all the people we’re not supposed to have sex with (also, don’t give any of your children to be sacrificed to Moloch) and concludes: “Keep my requirements, and do not follow any of the abominable customs that were practiced before you, and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God.’”

OK then! Now would ordinarily be the time when a progressive like me would talk about the problematic aspects of the bit about “lying with a woman as one does with a man.” You’d think I’d be ready to offer liberal commentary about how to interpret the text as a product of a different time or as a literal warning against cult prostitution rather than consensual gay sex. You might also think I’d point out that a lot of anti-gay crusaders don’t keep kosher, don’t freak out about garments that combine wool and linen, don’t follow the Torah’s dictate about stoning disobedient children to death. (I think longingly about that last one sometimes.) Nope. Right now I’m thinking about this Bible passage in light of the fact that my 13-year-old daughter will be reading from it in shul, and I’m thinking about the world I want her to live in.

I’m also thinking about Leviticus in light of a different book Josie and I both read recently. Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It, written by my Internet friend Kate Harding, is relevant to what Josie will be chanting tomorrow afternoon in shul. Harding’s book is a hard-to-take but easy-to-read look at the way Americans brush off rape and sexual assault, work extra hard to blame victims and excuse perpetrators, and bend over backwards (as it were) to assume that anyone accused of rape is the victim of an underdressed, brain-addled, gold-digging whore. Josie called the book, which is rigorously researched but written in a chatty, often-funny, informal style, “The best non-fiction book I have read in a long time—maybe ever.” She’s an evangelist for it at school, where there’s a five-kid waiting list for it.

Rape is not one of the crimes listed in Leviticus 18. Unsurprising. The Torah is not great on rape. In a text in which people are put to death for adultery, Sabbath-breaking, and contempt of court, the penalty for rape is paying the victim’s father a fine (and maybe marrying the rape victim).

Also unsurprising: Our kids in Jewish schools and Jewish camps casually throw around the insult “slut” for any girl deemed promiscuous. (They don’t have to be promiscuous. It’s just like in the movie Easy A.) Outfits are called “slutty,” but only on girls we don’t like, girls who can’t sit with us. Get called a slut, and suddenly other boys have certain expectations, and nothing else matters.

And when a girl is sexually assaulted, the assumption is that she made it happen. She went there; she drank that; she wore that. We’ve internalized victim-blaming. Most women never report assaults, because why would they ever expect justice? In her book, Harding cites the most recent National Crime Victimization Survey, which found that 64 percent of rapes are never reported, and only 12 percent lead to arrest. A look at a nine-year-period of crime reports in Salt Lake City found that only six percent of reported rapes were prosecuted.

We need to remember: Even girls in short skirts who go to frat parties get to say no. Harding writes:

No one, of any gender, is legally allowed to rape someone else while drunk—just as no one’s allowed to drive a car, beat someone up, steal money, destroy property, or commit fraud while drunk.

But, notes Harding, the rules change when it comes to sexual assault:

If a frat boy gets plastered, wanders into the street, and gets hit by a drunk driver, the driver is the criminal. If a businessman overindulges at happy hour and insults an equally loaded person who decides to punch said businessman in the face, the punch thrower is the criminal. If two people drink the exact same amount of alcohol and do the exact same amount of the exact same drug, and then one murders the other, the killer is the criminal, and the dead person is the victim. See how this works?

She later notes, “There is no Bad Personal Choices threshold past which someone deserves to be raped, let alone one past which rape is not a criminal act.”

As we’ve seen in our own Jewish communities, even rabbis commit sex crimes. Yes! Rabbis! And because they are prominent and important men, the victims are disbelieved or even blamed for the rabbi’s behavior. Congregants and former students and friends say that the victims lied, or that the rabbi’s behavior was misconstrued, or that the rabbi may be flawed but is still a good man who deserves to keep his flock.

When someone with a lot of power acts inappropriately with someone with only a little power, the less-powerful person needs to be listened to. As Harding puts it, “It is not reasonable and fair-minded to say, ‘We can never know what happened, because we weren’t there,’ about every last report of rape or sexual assault, and let that be the end of it. You’re not being as objective as possible when you do that; you’re betraying a bias against anyone claiming to be a victim.”

And now I’m also reminded of The Book of Jonah, which Josie will also be reading from tomorrow afternoon. (The shul sweetly encourages recent Bar and Bat Mitzvahs to participate in their first Yom Kippur service as adults.) Jonah is a prophet who doesn’t want to be a prophet. He knows no one wants to hear what he has to say, that no one wants to be told they need to shape up. But finally he speaks up, does God’s will, and tells the people of Nineveh to repent their evil ways. To his shock, they do. (He’s pissed about that, too. Jonah is the sullen teen of prophets.) I’d like to raise a kid who speaks up about injustice, even knowing that it doesn’t tend to make you popular. And speaking up means pointing out victim-blaming and slut-shaming and moral hypocrisy. Sins that aren’t named in Leviticus 18 but should be.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.