Friday, November 24, 2017

Vayeitzei—“Yatzanis” and Rape Culture

With all the sordid past history of nonconsensual activity recently being dredged up primarily at the highest levels of show business and government (never more has “show business for ugly people” been more appropriate) and the tendencies in some quartersnot all of them frum—to blame the violations on modesty failings on the part of the victims, it might be worth examining two examples of pre-Sinaitic “rape cultures” in the text and midrash, and whether or not the perception that the midrashic lit draws a strong correlational line between modesty levels and male rapaciousness is an accurate one.

Let’s start with an ostensibly tangential observation from last week’s parsha which, we will see later, bears on the questions raised here.  Rashi on 25:20 s.v. “ben arbai’m shanah” provides the midrashic calculation that Rivkah was 3 years old when she married Yitzchak.

A former mara d’sara once emphatically asserted from the pulpit that “Rashi doesn’t hold by Rashi.”

So let’s ask this question: was Leah really a “yaztanis”?

Let’s remember that the Rashi in next weeks parsha (31:1, s.v. “bas Leah”) that ostensibly hints that Dina was a “yatzanis” like her mother makes a retroactive reference to 30:16 in this weeks parsha, whre in the ma’aseh dudaim, Leah “goes out” to meet Yaakov [and, interestingly, the product of that night’s union is Yissachar, the tribe that embodies Torah scholarship].  And Rashi says nothing here about Leah’s ostensible “yatzanis” tendencies, when it actually happens; he waits until next week.

So was Leah really a “yaztanis”?

Let’s also remember that while the text and midrashim make several references to Sarah’s ostensible reticence (“ha-ohelah”, “hinei ba-ohel”), there are less (if any) such references to said reticence on the part of Rivkah and Rachel, both of whom are encountered for the first time in the text at the well, very much outside the tent.  (And should one mention Rashi’s comments on 24:16 about Rivkah’s sexual purity, it only underscores the point: a woman be outside the home is not therefore to be assumed a…“yatzanis”.)

And what was Leah doing the whole time Rachel was outside?  She was davening to not end up with Esav, “crying until her eyelashies fell out” (TB BB 123a)—and the prayers worked.  (Interestingly, next week we see that Yaakov went to so far as to hide Dina in a box to keep her from Esav, and the Heavenly response isn’t as positive to that move.)

Was Leah really a “yaztanis”?

Is it possible that—like in his reference to Rivkah’s age—“Rashi doesn’t hold by Rashi”? 

Or possibly—Rashi was being ironic?  “Leah?  A yatzanis”?  C’mon.”

(As was mentioned in these pages previously, other commentaries didn’t assume Rashi was being ironic and just out-and-out didn’t hold by Rashi.)

So while we at least raised questions about Leah being a “yatzanis”, what does that have to do with rape culture?

Let’s go back a week:  Rivkah grows up in a rape culture, in a household that sets the tone for the local outrageous practices: Besuel, her father and the local prince, would—as per Massechet Sofrim 21—deflower all virgins upon betrothal as a ruler’s privilege; he was slain by an angel before he could deflower his own daughter.   (Furthermore—staying (very reluctantly) with the “age three” issue—the midrash nots that the “custom of the Arameans was to deflower all virgins when they reached the age of three”. Rashi’s comments on 24:16 about women being “shomer oso makom” once the mabul should be unnecessary to point out the particularly heinous nature of the Aramean culture of nonconsensual relations, if only to point out that the women were not at fault for it.)

And as we will see next week, the rape culture of Shechem emanates from the very top of the power structure, which lead several commentaries to justify Shimon and Levi wiping out Shechem’s entire male population.

Again, as mentioned before in these pages, while there is no direct source justification for the theory that Lavan shared his father’s rapacious tendencies, Rachel might have feared he did and facilitated the deception that allowed her sister to get Yaakov first and kept her from her father on one hand and the equally rapacious Esav on the other.

(Certainly, a look at the sequence of events in the latter part of Chapter 31 when Lavan catches up to Yaakov and his family indicate for his violent intentions, if not propensities (31:29, 43), his lack of respect for his married daughters’ space (31:33; and he persists despite her telling him “derech nashim li”); and his concomintant lack of boundaries in discussing his daughter’s married lives (“im te’aneh”, 31:50).  His drive to own everything he could get his hands on might not have stopped at his daughters’ persons.)

The real lesson from “yatzanis” here might be twofold:

First, if you pejoratively label either Leah or Dina as a “yatzanis”, you might very likely be wrong.   

Second, if you think ostensible “yatzanis” tendencies—no matter how you define it—in any way “explains”, never mind mitigates, any unwanted male attention of any kind, ever—you’re part of a much larger problem.