Shaya Cohen -


The Tragedy of – and Exit Strategy from – Rape

One of the challenges of adulthood is coming to recognize that there are any number of situations that just cannot be helped. Bad things happen. They may – or may not – have been avoidable, but either way, once they have happened, the only thing left to do is to decide what to do next.

Rape is a worst-case example. Being taken against your will causes damage that may never heal, both for the victim and, if the matter is generally known, in the eyes of others. A feedback loop between victim and bystander helps to perpetuate the shame and other damage.

There are no obvious remedies to the damage caused by rape. Vengeance may bring some satisfaction, but it does not undo what has already been done: A woman who has been raped has to live with it for the rest of her life.

To understand possible remedies, we need to better understand the nature of the damage. A raped woman may quickly heal from any physical abuse she has withstood. The real damage has no physical component at all; pity, guilt, shame, self-esteem problems all can attach to the victim, and make the rest of her life considerably more unhappy than it might have been otherwise.

This means that any possible remedy for rape must be something that in some way mirrors or mitigates the damage: the remedy must contain symbolic value that helps a person find a way to move on, both in their eyes, and in the eyes of others.

The first outright rape in the Torah is the story of Dinah. She is the daughter of Jacob, with twelve brothers. When the traveling family is settled in, in a place called Shechem, she goes out to talk with the daughters of the land, presumably for some female companionship – hardly a crazy thing for a girl with twelve brothers to do.

The local prince sees her, desires her, takes her by force, and then humbles her. And here the Torah uses a word never found heretofore in the Torah: in the eyes of her family, that prince defiled her, which means that he changed her status to that of a person who is unable to spiritually grow (in the King James version, the word is translated as “unclean.”) The Hebrew is tamei.

Dinah’ story is an unmitigated tragedy. The text tells us that her brothers ended up annihilating the guilty party and all his kinsmen. But the vengeance makes no difference to the victim’s life. In the Torah, Dinah does not remarry or have children. She lives out her days, even entering into Egypt with the family, but she remains defiled, tamei. She is forever known to readers of the text as nothing more than a rape victim, yet another example of how bad things can happen to good people.

Nobody’s life should be defined and constrained by a single tragedy. And I think G-d agrees. I think G-d saw Dinah’s pain and suffering, and decided to find a mechanism that would allow a person to regain their equilibrium as a person, to put the past behind them.

Why do I think this? Because the word, tamei, is first found with Dinah. Indeed, the word appears three times in the Dinah episode, and then it is not mentioned again until deep in Leviticus. The Torah’s usage of the word clearly connects the specific laws of spiritual limitation with the episode of Dinah. Like so much in the Torah, the instances in Genesis help explain and justify the laws found further on.

I think G-d realized that, for one reason or another, people feel somehow wrong when they undergo certain experiences. It may be, for example, that they have come in contact with something that is tamei – a dead animal or person, or specific bodily emissions. It might be something big (like rape) or something small, like touching a lizard. There are connotations affiliated with tamei, with things that remind us of our mortality or animal physiology; the things in life that tell us that we are ultimately not purely spiritual beings, that we can be hurt and that we will eventually die.

Fixating on our weaknesses, failures, and mortality is not, of course, healthy. When we are in that tamei state, we can no longer elevate and connect with the spiritual, holy goals that G-d commands us to aspire to. That is the challenge with so much of life: focusing on making the most of our opportunities, instead of obsessing on our background and events that we can do nothing about. Dinah was not necessarily ruined because she was raped, but between herself and her family, it seems she never was able to move beyond it. A dead animal and Dinah are both tamei because both lose their potential.

But in Leviticus, G-d describes ways to move on. Waiting a preset amount of time is usually a key element in shedding the status of being tamei, as is the use of the ritual bath, to feel reborn and newly tasked in the service of G-d. In the case of being in contact with death, we use the Red Heifer ritual to symbolically reconnect to life before death, to the recreation of mankind in the Garden.

These rituals are all, of course, only useful to the extent that they help us move on from whatever it is that damaged our potential in this world. I think the evidence is pretty clear that these rituals usually achieve this goal, at least with those of us who believe that they do. That is one of the powers of ritual: if we commit to it body and soul, then it works.

And note, too, that there is not necessarily any whiff of sin involved in becoming tamei. The status is not about having done anything wrong (indeed, there is no sin in becoming newly aware of our mortality or weaknesses), just as Dinah did nothing wrong. Ridding ourselves of the spiritual burden of tamei allows us to enter G-d’s house, to re-engage in seeking holiness and growth in every aspect of our lives. It does not undo what has been done, but it does allow us to put the past behind us and move on.

Remember that the origin of this concept is found within the reaction of Jacob and his sons, the father and brothers of Dinah:

Jacob heard that he had [made tamei] his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home. … Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor—speaking with guile because he had [made tamei] their sister Dinah … The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been [made tamei].

If we read this carefully, we can see that the entire concept of being tamei was possibly even invented by Jacob and the brothers. After all, both Sarah and Rebekkah had been taken by other men – but in those cases, their husbands had allowed it to happen, they – not their wives – were the guilty parties. Sarah and Rebekkah were not raped: they were abandoned. But Dinah’s violation was seen through a different lens by the men in her family, creating a kind of shame and lasting damage that had never occurred before.

But if man invented tamei, then it is G-d who decided how it must be addressed, who reminds us through all the relevant laws that there is always a way outward and upward, a way to put even a terrible past behind us, a way to make our lives holy. See: Leviticus.

[An @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith triple-collaboration]

Comments are welcome!

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