Religious Life

Assault of Sarah

Assault of Sarah
8 Cheshvan 5778
Rabbi Alexander Davis

I don’t know if this happens to you. But whenever I go to the movies and I watch the credits, I secretly take note of all the Jewish names. I feel a sense of pride seeing the list of Spielberg and Goldberg and Weinberg. But since the Harvey Weinstein scandal, seeing those list of names scroll by, I feel shame as a Jew and as a man. Now, I ask a different question: Him too? Was he abusive? Did he know about it? Her too? Was she also assaulted? Her too? Was she also a victim?

I recognize that this is a sensitive topic. I am cognizant that some of you may have faced harassment. And I am aware that we are here celebrating a simcha. But I also am compelled to speak about it with words of condemnation for the perpetrators, compassion for the victims and in search of change for how men act toward women.

As you know, the problem of sexual harassment and assault is not limited to the motion picture industry. It is not unique to any demographic or denomination. “It has happened in a Jerusalem marketplace,” wrote a recent reporter. “On a flight to Israel. On the way home from an Orthodox Brooklyn wedding. Clearly, Jewish women are among the hundreds of thousands saying, hashtag #metoo signifying that they’ve been groped, harassed or assaulted by men.” Nor is this issue unique to our day and age. It seems to go back to our earliest times. In fact, it is right here in our parsha.

Often, we read the words Lekh Lekha and we sing Debbi Friedman’s song and we skip right past the scene that immediately follows. But not this morning. Here is a recap of the scene.

Just after arriving in Canaan, Avram and Sarai leave the holy land and head to Egypt to escape a famine. Recognizing that Sarai’s great beauty would be attractive to the Egyptians, Avram devises a plan. He knew that as her husband, they’d kill him to get rid of him. So he tells Sarai to say that she is his sister figuring they wouldn’t kill him as her brother. When they arrive in Egypt, Egyptians officials do indeed marvel at her beauty. And they begin arguing with each other over who would have their way with her. Eventually, calmer heads prevail and they decide if anyone should have Sarai, it should be a person of great power and prestige namely, Pharoah. So the officials bring Sarai to Pharoah’s court. But just when Pharoah was about to have his way with her, God sent plagues to Pharoah and to his house. Seeing it as a sign of divine punishment, Pharoah pushes her away and tells Sarai and Abram kum lekh, get up and get out. So they return home to Canaan.

This is a challenging scene on many levels. According to the Torah, throughout the scene, Sarai is silent. She does not respond to Avam’s request that she lie about being his sister. She does not speak when taken by the officials or taken by Pharoah. She does not try to run away or resist. She is powerless, acted upon rather than a woman with agency.

Pharoah who used his power and prestige to make unwanted advances on Sarai is contemptible. But I’d like to focus on the role of Avram. Many traditional commentators justify Avram’s failure to protect his wife and save his skin. But not all excuse his behavior. The 13th century Spanish commentator known as Ramban says quite simply, “chata Avraham avinu chet gadol b’shogeg. Abraham unintentionally committed a great sin” by failing to protect his wife from assault.

500 years later, the leading German rabbi, Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, expanded on the comment teaching that the Torah never presents our great men as perfect. Indeed, if they were perfect, they wouldn’t be role models for us because we could not identify with them.  Instead, the Torah is honest with the shortcomings of the patriarchs. And therefore, Hirsch writes, “we must never whitewash the spiritual and moral heroes of our past, to appear as apologists for them.” The same is true for us. We must not hide our failures as a society and as individuals. We must stop protecting the perpetrators and covering up the scandals. We must be honest and open to stem the pain, embarrassment and suffering women experience at the hands of men who believe that their desires are more important than their dignity and self-worth (Akiva Gersh).

And indeed, some are heeding Hirsch’s warning. In the aftermath of the #MeToo campaign, a courageous orthodox Israeli rabbi posted a powerful, personal confession on Facebook:

I have objectified. I have disrespected. I have taken advantage. I have harassed. I have violated.
I have sought sexual gratification/conquest with little to no regard for the feelings of the other.
I have touched without certainty of consent.
I have pursued in ways that caused discomfort and possibly fear.
I have uncovered what someone wanted covered.
I have looked when someone expected privacy.
Much of it was as a boy, but not all.
Maybe most of the women do not remember, but assuredly some do.
Maybe what I did was so run-of-the-mill that it isn’t what any of the women posting “MeToo” are referring to.
But so what.
I know the culture and I was a participant in it, even as I came to fight against its more egregious manifestations
I am not shocked by what other men do because I remember my own actions and thoughts and I can extrapolate.
I feel guilt and shame. I feel pain for pain I caused, or that I minimized or ignored.
But I also feel, and know, that I am responsible. I can do better. I can do more.

We can do better as a society. But how?

I was surprised to learn in the aftermath of the Weinstein affair that federal labor regulators of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have concluded that harassment prevention training is often ineffective at combating gender discrimination. That is because these efforts tend to focus on avoiding legal liability rather than stopping misconduct. And I leave it to experts to unpack the findings and make adjustments. But one thing seems clear: videos and training manuals alone will not solve the issue because they don’t address the underlying problem.

Ours is a culture that objectifies women. That is the root of the issue.  There is a pervasive, societal norm that views women as things, sexual objects to be admired and handled rather than as people with their own independent identities, wants, needs and desires. But when a gender exists to satisfy the needs of others, it dehumanizes them. (Robin Tran).

If we want to address this issue, it will require uprooting and transforming deeply ingrained ideas and perceptions (Gersh). It requires upholding the lessons that are at the heart of the Torah, teachings brought to humanity by the Jewish people- that humans beings are more than a body. Our value is not measured in the score of a beauty pageant. We are, each one of us, a precious soul, an image of the Divine inherently worthy of honor and dignity for who we are not how we appear, for who we are not what we do, for who we are, not for how we benefit others. This is a lesson Abraham comes to appreciate.

Think for a minute. What is the very first thing Abram says in the Torah, the first words he utters? Abram’s first words are, “Hey Sarah, you look really good. isha yafat mareh at.” (12:11). Now, I am not saying that a husband can’t tell his wife she looks beautiful. And given the fact that she was 65 at the time, it is charming. But in its context, the statement suggests that Sarai is an object of desire, one Avram can take advantage of to guarantee his own survival. Give Avram some credit. The plan works but I wonder at what cost to their relationship.

Jump ahead 60 years, and it is worth nothing that these first words that Avram speaks are the polar opposite of the last words he says about her. According to the midrash, in Abraham’s eulogy for Sarah, he exclaims, “sheker hacheyn v’hevel hayofi isha yirat adonai hi tithalel beauty is vain but a woman of character, she should receive the highest praise.”

Abraham learns to look beyond Sarah’s beauty and to see a woman of piety. But that is not all. He learns to speak up and fight for justice. He learns that from none other than God.

When God saw Sarai threatened by Pharoah, God immediately responded sending plagues. This saved her from Pharoah’s advances and taught a lesson about standing up for justice. It is a lesson Abram learns as we seem him stand up for the people of Sodom and Gemora. It is a lesson we must learn to practice.

We have come a long ways since biblical days but in some ways not so far. We still have much work to do to create a culture that treats all people with honor and respect. It begins with what we teach our sons and daughters, the images and messages we produce and consume as a society. But it truly begins by affirming the lessons first articulated in our Torah. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “There is no greater defense of human dignity than the phrase from the first chapter of the Bible that dared to call the human being ‘the image of God’.”