In the Beginning (in Honor of Sexual Assault and Abuse Survivors)

[E]verything I know of God… must find an ethical expression. … The attributes of God are given not in the indicative, but in the imperative. The knowledge of God comes to us like a commandment, like a Mitzvah.

To know God is to know what must be done.

Emmanuel Levinas


A week ago, I was at our university library, in a room with several female staff members. The Brett Kavannaugh hearings came up. “Without any one here saying a word,” I say, “we could assume that a good number of the women in this room have been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or sexually abused. And we would be right.”

Those two sentences elicited one story after the other. In the end, three-quarters of the women present said that they were among the victims. There was the young black mother who didn’t say exactly what had happened to her. There was the middle-aged white woman who described her assault in detail. There was an older white woman who confirmed: she, too.

In how many such rooms are we finding out, yet again?  There was that relative… There was that classmate. There was that doctor, that lawyer…

A few days ago, I stood in a university hallway with colleagues. The conversation turned to the Brett Kavannaugh hearings. Both my colleagues wryly admitted that they had had to make appointments to talk with a counselor. Both are victims. There were grief-filled attempts to joke about the number of counselors compared to patients. “How are they finding time to fit everyone in?” one colleague asked.

My students include survivors of sexual assault. How many have I spoken with about sexual harassment, sexual abuse committed by family members, being raped by a college classmate and not believed? Students who had been harassed, students who had been sexually abused as children and minors, students whose parents and friends blame them for the violence done to them. They spoke (sometimes) this past week.

Sexual assault victims know well how memory works – and doesn’t. They remember the fear, the panic, the unmitigated horror and the terrible, seemingly unerasable shame. Not one can forget those things. They know that if they speak, the details they can’t recall will be used against them.

They know that they will be dismissed.

Today, Senator Orrin Hatch told sexual assault victims who approached him to “grow up.”

A rape victim asked me this past week how not to despair.

This Shabbat is Bereishit. In Genesis 1, we are afforded verse after verse of beginnings, of new light and new green and new life. Everything is magic; everything belongs on the good earth with the heavens above.

God is in the midst of a sweet, bursting creation. Nothing is not right. Everything is complete. Each part belongs to each other part. The world is whole. It is very good.

In that moment of mystical, perfect time, God’s power fills every green thing, every swarming thing, every flying thing, every swimming and crawling and walking thing. Reading, verse to verse to verse, the creation of the world is nothing less than a divine incantation, a prayer of being and becoming. There is light everywhere, starry and silvery light, blinding and brilliant sunlight, light rippling through seas and green leaves and grasses.

I crave this light.

I crave beginnings.

I crave an incantation of such divine power that it can heal the wounded and heal those who wound.

We have been given this world and all the life in it. Only we can write the words, invoke the purpose, create the incantation that will bring us a beginning of lasting light.

I understand despair. I feel it. I know it.

There is no answer to despair but the imperative. We must know what must be done.



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