Friday, August 20, 2010

blaming the victim

It is inevitable that at some point in one’s learning one will encounter a statement(s) of Chazal and/or Rishonim that seems out of line with one's own moral compass. How is one to square what Chazal or the Rishonim teach with one’s own sense of justice and fairness? The solution to these type questions will generally fall into one of three categories: 1) denial of the validity of our moral compass, usually accompanied by the argument that our moral compass is influenced (or corrupted, depending on how strongly one wants to formulate this position) by Western thought, which the Torah transcends; 2) denial of the superiority of Chazal’s moral virtue, usually accompanied by the arguments that Chazal were influenced by their own cultural and social mores as well as the fact that their moral teachings are not absolutely binding in the same sense halacha is; 3) attempts to bridge the gap by contextualizing Chazal or showing that our own moral compass is not absolutely at odds with their moral teaching. Many on the right show more sympathy than I do for the first approach; many on the left show more sympathy for the second. My preference is for the third approach.

So much for the general; I want to focus on the specific problem of Rashi’s attitude towards rape. The Torah in Ki Teitzei distinguishes between two different cases of sexual assault: the case of rape in the field, where there are no onlookers, and the case of a supposed assault that takes place in the city. In the latter case, since the woman did not cry out for help (when such help would have been available), the assumption is that she consented to the act taking place and she is punished along with her attacker. Commenting on the description of the attacker “finding her in the city,” Rashi (22:23) writes that it is the very fact that this woman wandered out into the city that invited the situation. Rashi’s comment here brings to mind his comment on the episode of Dina’s rape, “VaTeitzei Dina bas Leah,” (Braishis 34:1) where he explains that Dinah did not act as Ya’akov’s daughter should, as she "went out", and therefore precipitated the situation.

Is this not blaming the victim? While the case could be made that the woman our parsha is speaking about is not a victim, as her lack of protest indicates consent – she is an adulteress – yet it is still noteworthy that she alone and not her male partner is criticized for inviting the opportunity for such a liaison to take place. Furthermore, the Netzi"v explains that the command, "V'la'na'ara lo ta'aseh davar," not to punish the woman in a case of rape in the field, is necessary because although this is a clear case of "ones," unwilling sin, without the pasuk one might have thought the woman should receive some punishment for being out of the home. Certainly Dina was a victim, and she is criticized. Is one to be blamed for being mugged, or does the guilt lay at the muggers feet alone?

One approach to understand Rashi, taking option #3, is to contextualize his comments. “Going out” to the city in Tanach was not the same as a woman taking the subway to Manhattan today. Our parsha tells us that Amoni and Moavi men may not marry into Bnei Yisrael because of their failure to show compassion to Bnei Yisrael by bringing them food and drink when Bn”Y were in desperate straits. Why do the women escape blame? Chazal explain that women did not venture out of the home, therefore they cannot be blamed for not going out with food. We see that kol kvudah bas melech pnima is not limited to the Jewish people, but was part of the value system of antiquity (my wife gets the credit for this observation). A woman “going out” alone would have been promiscuous behavior, inviting an “accident” to happen.

I would like to suggest a different approach, or maybe another layer to the previous one. Robert Mnookin, director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, in one of his books draws a distinction between consequences and blame. Mnookin writes that when trying to discuss or negotiate while in conflict with another party, the conversation often fails because each side tries to shift the blame to the other party. Who’s at fault overshadows any discussion of what happened and what can be done to correct the situation (sounds like most business meetings : ) Successfully charting a course away from conflict demands shifting the frame of discussion from blame to an exploration of the consequences of each sides behavior, regardless of who is right and who is wrong. If the behaviors that create the conflict can be changed, a settlement can be reached.

Perhaps Rashi’s comments about “going out” need not be taken as a statement of blame, but rather as a statement of consequence. Mnookin (if I recall correctly) does not hesitate in his book to say that a person who is mugged contributed to the consequences – but contributing to an event does not mean one is at fault or to be blamed for what happened.

I don’t know if my reading can stand on its own; I think both approaches together make the most sense. What do you think?


  1. I like the first pshat> I am not so enamored with the 2nd pshat. The 2nd pshat doesn't really explain why she should be punished.

    Also, as far as approach 1 & 3 I don't think they are mutually exclusive. Meaning someone who takes approach 1 might still use approach 3 at other times. It really depends on what answer you come up with.

  2. Thanks for this post. I like the third approach also.

  3. Rashi's words are "Because (she walked outside her house) he slept with her. A breach invites a thief. Had she stayed at home, this would not have happened." I find it hard to see your interpretation into the middle clause of Rashi.

    Things definitely change. Shlomo Hamelech's Eishes Chayil seems to have been out and about, and would not have been lauded by Moshe Rabbeinu. There's a difference between nomadic desert dwellers and residents of cosmopolitan areas. We find this distinction in the Gemara as well, where the Jewish women of rural villages are said to have worn burkas, but not the women of the larger towns.

  4. I was bothered by fitting it into the words as well, but the very line you quoted, "A breach invites a thief," convinces me that we are speaking of consequences, not blame. Do we fault lax security for crime tacking place, or is it merely a contributing factor to the thieves' success?

    >>>There's a difference between nomadic desert dwellers and residents of cosmopolitan areas.

    A little too much contextualizing for me. The Jews were about to enter E. Yisrael and move beyond the nomadic desert dweller period just as this halacha was being given.

    >>>The 2nd pshat doesn't really explain why she should be punished.

    In the case of ones she is not punished, so no kashe. In the case of ratzon, she is punished for the ratzon.

    Neither 1, 2 or 3 are mutually exclusive, but I think certain people tend to be inclined to favor one approach over the other.

  5. B, I have difficulty with what you say about Eshes Chayil b/c of the Midrash that identifies it as the eulogy Avraham Avinu said for Sarah Immenu. That's quite a bit further back in history.

    Now for how they teach this stuff in BY schools, they do, indeed blame the victim. Dina is pointed to as a negative example for the ideal BY girl. I'm speaking from a very clear memory about how it was presented in a class I took. The teacher acted very affronted by the fact that I did not openly embrace this approach.

    What's funny is that when they are taught the episode of Amnon and Tamar, as my daughter told me, they are taught that Tamar's status as bethula is meant to connote she was tznua. The lesson one could derive from here is even a tznua could become the victim of rape. So the idea of a girl only getting what is coming to her goes out the window. But the girls don't bring one episode to bear on another.

    Another illuminating point about Amnon and Tamar -- forever immortalized in Pirkei Avos, as well as Nach -- is that Amnon did blame his victim. Though she had done nothing, he projected the hatefulness of himself onto her and threw her out as if she were the one who initiated. It's an interesting psychological point that people who have wronged other often come to hate their victims; it seems that allows them not to hate themselves.

  6. The Torah offers a number of accounts of women going out. Rivka went out to draw water and was unmolested. Rachel went out to tend the sheep and also was unmolested. Tziporah and her sisters who tended their fathers flock were harassed, though. Moshe had to come to their rescue.

    The criticism of Dina may not be that she was going out about her business but that she was going out in idleness, rather like many of the young women who can be seen on Central Avenue. She did not have a particular purpose. The Eshes Chayil goes out on business, not for window shopping, picking up lattes, and having her nails done. That's it! Dina must have worked at Camp Atara and wanted to use her gift certificate for a manicure.

  7. The ba'alei musar ascribe guilt to Dina, but even they contextualize to avoid the "blame the victim" problem. Rashi says that Dina followed in Leah's footsteps, as Leah also "went out" to greet Ya'akov and bring him into her tent. Remember that this "going out" of Leah's led to her being rewarded with the birth of Yisaschar! Dina must have been acting l'shem shamayim as well, but for someone on that level even the slightest tinge of inappropriateness leads to punishment.

    The meforshim say that Tamar had a superior level of tzniyus, as evidenced by the fact that she refused to consent to the advances of Amnon despite his technically being permitted to her. I believe you once asked why Tamar deserved to suffer the fate she did; I do not have a good answer.

    Rachel and Tziporah were unusual cases; Rashi makes a point of mentioning that Rachel had no brothers, otherwise they would have been the ones entrusted with the flock (I can't remember if Rashi says the same by Tziporah).

    >>>She did not have a particular purpose.

    Habatalah m'vi'ah l'ydei shi'mum, which according to some means znus.

  8. Garnel Ironheart4:54 PM

    Missing from this discussion is the concept of personal responsibility.
    In theory a lone woman can go wherever she likes, whenever she likes, dressed however she likes.
    In reality, a lone woman who wanders into the "wrong" part of time at night dressed in attractive clothing will likely be attacked and raped, chas v'shalom. No, we cannot blame the victim and the assailant should be punished but at some point we have ask her "What were you thinking?!"
    And perhaps this is the message the Torah is trying to get through to us. In the city and in the field are, as I have had it explained to me, not just to be understood literally but also as paradigms for a place where there is relative security for a woman and a place where she is unable to get help is attacked. What was the woman doing all alone out there? Should she not have be thinking ahead? Are there not consequences to that?

  9. >>>Are there not consequences to that?

    That's exactly the point -- consequences, but not blame.

  10. Going into a highly risky situation one should know to avoid can be blameworthy, even if the primary blame is on the attacker.

  11. Mike S.5:16 PM

    Several comments, both on the Biblical passage and on your point.

    It is hard to take the Biblical passage as making a distinction between city and field entirely at face value. After all, the beit Din does not execute anyone for this or any other offense (other than Meisit) without the offender accepting a warning. Thus, we do not depend on the location to distinguish a rape victim from an adulteress, at least regarding capital punishment. So I think the Sifrei (which is Rashi's source) is understanding the text as a warning about consequences. And we find similar things today--after all, even though the mugger bears full moral and legal responsibility for his theft, we still warn our children and visitors not to walk through certain neighborhoods at night. We don't in this way mean to suggest a moral equivalence between the mugger and his victim; we want to save our friends and children needless (and fairly predictable) pain and anguish.

    As for comparing our morality with that of Chazal, while this is somewhat related to your third option, one has to understand that there are some moral principles that are absolute, there are many that depend on the situation. So acts that were immoral in Chazal's society might be moral and vice versa. And Chazal understood this very well. Thus, to take an example from this weekends daf yomi, 40 years before Churban Bayit Sheni, when there were many murderers whom the Romans would not let the Sanhedrin touch, they removed from Lishchat hagazit ending capital punishment, despite the mitzvah of the Torah.