I was preparing for my layning, my turn at chanting the Torah portion, when I stopped short. I could not get the words out. The melody of the chanting, the “trop”, is joyful, uplifting, and in a major key. But I couldn’t do it. Because the words I was chanting in that normal trop were about rape – specifically, the rape of Dina by Shechem, the non-Israelite son of Ham the Hivite.
V’yishkav otah vaye’aneha – And he laid her down and tortured her. (Genesis 24;2)
How do you chant about rape? How do you sing in the normal uplifting tune, as if everything is normal, when the story is about this awful violence against a girl?
One more moment of being a woman entering a man's world, a reminder that everything we know and do, pretty much, was constructed by a male perspective. For thousands of years, when chanting the Torah was the realm of men’s work, these words were chanted just as all other words in the Bible. Because, of course they were.
To be fair, the bible does not exactly condone the rape of Dina. On the contrary, the entire story that follows is about the rage of Dina’s brothers at such an awful thing, the vengeance they sought, and the way they suffered in the long term because of their uncontrolled anger. And while the reader is led to believe initially that their rage was about the fact that Shechem was uncircumcised and therefore impure, we soon realize that this was just a ruse. After all, every man in the town went through circumcision in order to make the rape palatable to the Israelite brothers, but the two of them massacred the entire town anyway. So, it is safe to assume that the brothers were pretty angry about what Shechem did to their sister, and not merely because his penis had a foreskin.
And to be quite honest, part of me is grateful to Shimon and Levi for caring. After all, there are a lot of terrible things that happen to women in the bible that barely get noted. Most of the time, the mistreatment of women is treated as par for the course. Grabbing, silencing, using, abusing, ignoring, marrying off against their wills, covering, punishing, blaming, manipulating, hurting, selling off, and yes, raping women and girls are all in the Bible.Just the culture, the way things were done back then, or something. We read this, we treasure these books, we chant the stories with celebration and fanfare, and move on. So at least here we have this monstrosity of a brutal massacre by brothers who seemed to be genuinely upset about their sister's rape. It’s as chivalrous as it is horrifying.
For the most part, the Jewish tradition reads all these texts with the same tune. A recitation of our history for the purpose of remembering. The good and the bad. But I couldn’t do that this week.
This was a big responsibility for me. I am figuring out...
This is a dilemma. I loved Good Will Hunting, the Harvey Weinstein-produced movie that made the very young and then-unknown Ben Affleck and Matt Damon instant stars and Oscar winners. (Of course, watching it again not too long ago, the sexist tropes bothered me more than they did back then. Perhaps the topic for a different post… or maybe it is the same topic. Not sure.) Now that we know the truth about Weinstein – that he is likely a serial rapist, among other things – does that mean we can’t watch his movies anymore? Or The Cosby Show? Or anything by Dustin Hoffman? Or House of Cards? Or Woody Allen (whose latest flick actually idealizes a pedophiliac relationship?!) Or Ben Affleck by the way? (When did he stop being cute?)
I think of this as the Wagner dilemma. It’s the question of whether we can still appreciate great art even if it comes out of terrible people. Wagner was a Nazi-precursor, beloved by Hitler himself, whose music is apparently brilliant despite his unapologetic anti-Semitism. (I’m not much of a judge of classical music, but I did take a few course in music appreciation over the years, and I can recall a class at Barnard where the lecturer likened a particular Wagner opera to an orgasm. I am not making this up.) Anyway, this is the dilemma. Is there a way to still hang on to the art even if the person who made it was a big, big creep?
This question came up in synagogue this morning in a discussion about the Torah portion. The rabbi, Philip Nadel, asked us whether, despite everything that we know about Abraham’s life, we can still appreciate that he might have been a great leader? His question was met with boos and hisses – well maybe not literally, but that was the sense of it. To remind you, as Osnat Eldar mentioned in the sermon that I posted here last week, Abraham did some pretty awful things in his life. He pimped out his wife in order to acquire material goods and maybe influence. More than once. He was willing to sacrifice his son because God said so. He never seemed to apologize for any of it. And we call him “Abraham Our Father.” It’s a little nauseating.
We do this often in our tradition. Think about David, Father of the Messiah. He raped Batsheba after pulling a Freundel by secretly watching her immerse in the ritual bath, thus impregnating her; then had her husband, Uriah, killed to cover it up by creating a battle out of nothing and placing the husband on the front line. Yes, he really did that. At least David, as opposed to Abraham, apologized, and was punished. Although he at least one son who was also a rapist. So there’s that. But, come on, Messiah! Like that.
So what do we do with our misogynistic tradition? It seems like our rabbis were very willing to so easily...
Let me start by saying that I’m a fan. I think you’re a fine actress and a powerful activist for issues that I care strongly about – women’s lives, parenting, and Judaism, among others. I’ve been following your social media work (more than Big Bang Theory, to be honest), and I know that you have some important ideas to share with the world, and I deeply admire your courage, your intelligence and your willingness to use your platform to make a difference in the world. So please take my comments in that context.
As someone who has written hundreds of articles and three books on hot-button topics, I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a lot of hate. But I also know that every once in a while, there are lessons in there. Not all pushback is vicious. Some of it helps us examine our own ideas and find where we can do better.
Like many other people, I read your New York Times editorial on Harvey Weinstein with great interest, which quickly turned to dismay. I wanted to learn more about your experiences with body commentary in Hollywood. But the way you conflated issues did not work.
It sounded like you were saying that since you were always so cruelly typecast as the “ugly” and therefore asexual one, that this somehow protected you from sexual assault. It sounded like you concluded that since you embraced that “ugly asexual geek” label, that you are outside this whole dynamic of sexual abuse.
I have a feeling, though, as someone who sometimes says things that come out wrong, that maybe you didn’t mean to say it that way. From your online response, I think I understood that you weren’t trying to say that women who dress a certain way deserve to be sexually assaulted. I think maybe you were trying to offer another angle on how sexual abuse works in Hollywood. Maybe you were trying to paint a different picture of the way women’s lives, careers and self-concept are so often molded by powerful men or dumb commentators with a following.
You did not say it in these words, but I would like to suggest that you are a victim of Hollywood’s sexual abuse problem, too.
You were a girl with an acting career who was told she was ugly. You were, I might add, a smart, talented, and very cute girl (I loved you in Blossom, by the way) whose face was nitpicked by every jo-shmo in the industry. And that left you with many scars. You still carry them with you. You still think that the only part you can safely play is ugly geek, even though you are still smart, talented and, by the way, beautiful.
That is also a story of sexual abuse, and it is one that we need to hear.
Many women and girls have every minutia of their appearance commented on, mocked, or gossiped about ad nauseum....
Women have never needed tools for empowerment more than we do now. As America puts an admitted sexual predator into the White House, when the hatefulness of sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia have been unleashed and legitimized in one of the most powerful offices in the world, as stories of violence and intimidation are starting to flood in, we need tools to help us maintain our own safety and the safety and that of our communities. In supermarkets, malls, subways and public spaces all around the world, new faces of fear are being unleashed. Just today, a friend posted a story about being attacked at her gym in New York for wearing a Hillary Clinton t-shirt. Now, more than ever, women need tools for dealing with everyday sexism and abuse, to help us ensure safe spaces for ourselves and the people we love.
Enter El Halev. This phenomen organization directed by Sensei Yudit Sidikman, is leading the way in women's empowerment self-defense and safety. El Halev ran an outstanding conference this week for educators and therapists to mark the International Day against Violence Against Women, which falls tomorrow. The conference explored approaches to providing safe spaces and dealing with trauma. People from all around Israel participated in a range of lectures and workshops providing insights and tools for dealing with physical, emotional, and sexual trauma. Sessions included samples of El Halev programs such as Freedom to Choose, Impact, the Young Lionesses, as well as crafts, bibliotherapy, and brick-breaking. Speakers also explored the role of self-defense and "Personal Safety Literacy" as key components of the broader feminist vision of gender equality and creating a world in which women and men can both thrive.
Admittedly, as the Board Chair of the organization I am possibly biased about how amazing the conference was and about the organization generally. But my feeling at the conference was really one of privilege. I felt truly honored to be part of all this. I was so excited to speak to so many people there, all of whom share this vision. The atmosphere was electric. And it is so gratifying to watch the organization -- with its incredible staff and throngs of magnetic students, instructors and parents -- to emerge as a leader in thought and in practice about women's power in the world.
The truth is, I became Chair in 2014 because of my experience with the organization, not the other way around. I decided to join the board because I had taken the self-defense course, Impact, which teaches you to stave off attacks -- physical, emotional, and sexual. The course changed my life in many ways. Before I took it, I thought, I'm a pretty tough and experienced woman. I thought I knew how to say "no". I thought I knew how to set my own boundaries. But I didn't. It was only through the course that I realized how vulnerable I really felt and acted, how I participated in my own disempowerment. I am still learning...
Trump stands above Clinton during the second presidential debate.
One of the creepiest aspects of the second presidential debate was the way Trump seemed, from his body language, almost to be stalking Hillary Clinton. When she moved to one side, he followed. He stood behind her, often with very little distance between them, silent, frowning, looking like he was growling. Body language expert Janine Driver called his movements a pre-assault indicator and said that she was getting “really nervous” for Hillary because he was “like a dog starting to get anxious.” Screenwriter Adrienne Parks wrote in Huffington Post that this was a kind of “upstaging,” where he was trying to seize power and divert attention away from her and back to him. “This was infuriating to all of us who have ever been forced to stand our ground on the rigged white male playing field”, she wrote. “I felt the unfairness of it to the bone. This was live televised assault and battery with intent to maim, politically rape, and kill.”
I was also extremely uneasy watching Hillary speak while this large, menacing creature was behind her, a person who had just promised to dedicate himself to sending her to prison. As a short person – I’m five feet tall – I have spent most of my life dealing with situations in which the men in the room loom over me. Of course most are not dangerous. But in that kind of physical imbalance, even a little ill-will can feel threatening. And in situations where men actually do have more power than women – such as Orthodox synagogues, rabbinic courts, school playgrounds, and many workplaces – the feeling of powerlessness that you get from being surrounded by men hovering over you can be very real.
I asked my Facebook friends if any of them felt triggered by Trump’s body language. The resulting extensive thread offered a resounding “yes”. Here are nine situations that other women and I have been reliving as we watched Trump stand near Clinton in the menacing way he did:
(1) Abusive ex-husbands. Many women I have spoken to have been reliving nightmarish situations of abuse from ex-husbands. One women told me the way her husband used to stand behind her when she stood in front of the mirror, telling her how many of her body parts are “fat”, “ugly” and “disgusting.” She has been happily remarried for many years, but Trump has been dredging up many old, painful memories and fears. “It is the accumulation of my lived abusive assaults, dismissiveness, egotistical mansplaining, sexist, misogynist, ‘women don’t know anything’ experiences as a woman all wrapped into one person,” she said about watching Trump.
(2) Bulldozing coworkers. There is countless research about men bulldozing women in work situations – talking over women, dismissing women, infantilizing women, mansplaining,manterrupting, gaslighting women, and harassing women. Trump triggers many of these situations every time he talks to or about women. During the debate, he looked like every fiber in his being wanted to crush his rival. It...