Naming Gender-Based Violence to Stop Gender-Based Violence

In honor of the annual international campaign, 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

The texts of Tanakh were written with male hands, redacted by male minds, transmitted for the benefit of men by men. For almost two millennia, scriptural commentary in both church and synagogue has been almost entirely male, written with male hands, redacted by male minds, and transmitted for the benefit of men by men.

We cannot respond to texts of terror we find in this male corpus with the cliché that “times were different then.” The times, where cisgendered male power is concerned, are not as different as we might wish. Moreover, if we refuse to judge texts of gender-based violence we abrogate our moral responsibility – we give those texts either our approval, our excuses, or our indifference.

I’ve been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the texts of Tanakh for almost fifteen years. For the past few years I’ve taught for the ALEPH Ordination Program, where I was ordained as a rabbi in 2011. All my courses address issues of gender, power, and class. I am currently writing a book for Routledge Press in which I address the ways in which male homosociality and male friendship in Tanakh are dependent on the use (and abuse) of women and women’s bodies.

It is painful work. I write and teach about texts engendered by rape cultures while working in a rape culture. At least one in five of my transgender, genderqueer, and nonconforming students will be sexually assaulted during their college careers. One out of every four female students will be the victim of sexual assault.

For over two millennia, the Bible’s male texts, male commentary, and male scholarship have licensed the power and control of cisgendered men. College and seminary courses still feature syllabi dominated by male authors and reflecting male concerns. Song of Songs, for example, is still taught as an exquisite, transcendent love story. Cisgendered men profit from such a reading. Such readings describe a mythical sexual equality between the female protagonist and her lover despite the fact that the male partner is often absent and appears and disappears in ways that should concern its readers.

My students ask: Is the female protagonist being portrayed as an obsessed woman who can think of nothing else than a man who is manipulating her? When she calls for her lover, he does not answer. When she goes to look for him, she is stripped and beaten by the city’s watchmen (5: 6-7). Is the Song of Songs a cisgendered man’s fantasy of a sexually accessible woman, a fantasy in which such a woman is brutally punished for her sexual initiative (again)?

How do we deal with a long tradition of cisgendered male fears explaining away cisgendered male violence in the textual tradition? In 2 Samuel 13, Amnon, King David’s eldest son and heir to the throne, is described as sick with “love” for his half-sister Tamar. With the collusion and aide of his cousin, Jonadab, he sets a trap for Tamar and rapes her. After he rapes her, Amnon’s lust turns to loathing.

The Hebrew root for “hatred” (sinn-nun-aleph) is used no less than four times in a single verse. We read: Then Amnon hated her, a great hatred indeed; the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the lust he had felt for her (13:15). Where does such a hatred come from? The rabbis explain: the reason Amnon hated Tamar after he raped her was because she had tied her pubic hair around his sexual organ during the rape and castrated him (BT, Tractate Sanhedrin 21a).

Despite decades of feminist scholarship, despite the addition of masculinity studies and the brilliant work being done by scholars of Queer studies, we have yet to fully articulate the dangers of biblical texts written by men, interpreted by men, and dominated by men. Biblical texts describe rape cultures. Their violence goes unnamed in countless social, political, educational, and religious settings; thus, in turn, these texts and much of their commentary continues to support rape cultures.

Texts of gender-based violence are part of our inheritance. Their gender-based violence must be named, revealed, and condemned if we are to create the world we long to see: One in which sexual violence against any human being is made fully impossible.

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