Sexual Violence in the Torah: When There is no Happy Ending

There are parts of the Torah that we don’t learn about in Sunday school. While I am proud that our beloved book is rich with moral teachings, instructing not to “hate [our] kinsfolk in [our] heart” (Leviticus 19:17-18); warning “not [to] subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless” (Deuteronomy 24:17); and imploring us to "speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy” (Proverbs 31:9), there are also some texts that condone violence. While there are hundreds of stories of our biblical ancestors to lift up and guide us to be better humans—to be hospitable and welcoming like Sarah, to be kind and generous like Rebecca, and to be courageous and brave like Miriam, Vashti, Esther, and countless other women in our tradition—there are other stories that we dare not mention. Every now and then, we encounter biblical characters and stories that are almost too painful to retell. Yet, painful as they may be, it is important that we retell these stories in the hopes that we may learn from them. Perhaps the lessons they teach will inform the way we approach modern challenges of today.

The story of Tamar, niece of King David, falls into this latter category. Tucked away in the thirteenth chapter of 2 Samuel, and kept from being read as a Haftarah portion like a well-guarded family secret, the synopsis of the story of Tamar and Amnon reads a bit like a Bravo soap opera. Amnon, son of King David, lusts after his half-sister Tamar. Knowing that Tamar is off-limits, Amnon and his friend Jonadab scheme a deceptive plan to get Tamar alone in a room. They decide that Amnon will fake an illness, and inform his father, the king, that the only thing that will make him feel better is if Tamar brings him food. King David, wanting to make his son happy, unknowingly hands his daughter into Amnon’s devious hands. As Tamar approaches Amnon’s bed, he grabs ahold of her. “Come lie with me, sister,” he pleads.

Sadly, I don’t even need to quote the text for you to guess what unfolds. Tamar’s petrified pleas for Amnon to stop are ignored, and she is ‘laid upon by force.’ No longer a virgin, her value diminishes in Biblical society, and Amnon, overcome with great loathing for the woman he once lusted after, forces her out of his sight. When Tamar’s other brother Absalom hears of what has transpired, he urges Tamar to keep quiet and not to “brood over the matter.” Despite the text telling us that “Absalom hated Amnon because he had violated his sister” (2 Samuel 13:22), no one ever utters another word about the incident, and Tamar is forced to carry her shame and trauma alone.

Though Absalom does enact revenge on Amnon by killing him two years later, Tamar does not receive the justice she deserves. Tamar is shamed. Tamar is silenced. Worst of all, Tamar’s story isn’t anything we haven’t heard before.  

If the story is shocking, it’s because it is in the Torah, not because rape is an anomaly in our society. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. On college campuses, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted. In the LGBTQ community, the statistics are even higher. The National Center for Transgender Equality found that nearly 1 in 2 transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Tamar’s story is painful to digest, not only because it’s hard to know exactly what moral lesson we are supposed to glean from this explicit display of sexual violence, but because this depiction of power and manipulation is relatable for so many of us.  

The Rabbinic sage Ben Bag Bag instructs us: “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in [The Torah] not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). So I turned the text, again and again, searching for some semblance of meaning to take away from this horrific story, knowing that it must be in our sacred book for a reason.

The more I read and reread the story, the angrier I became. In addition to the rape itself, I couldn’t help but notice that Tamar’s pain was compounded by the conspiracy of the men in power around her; Amnon and Jonadab’s scheming together, Absalom’s silencing of his sister’s trauma, and King David’s complacency with the horror that just unfolded…what good could I find in here?!

Throughout the years, many Jewish and biblical scholars have commented on the trend of silencing women in the Torah. When Dinah is raped in Genesis 34, she is not afforded the opportunity to voice her pain. When, according to numerous midrashim, Vashti is sexually harassed  and ordered to appear naked before the drunken king and his court, she is not given an opportunity to explain herself and why dancing naked makes her uncomfortable; only that she “refused to come at the king’s command” (Esther 1:12). Other women, like Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife, aren’t even given names. Unlike these other women, however, Tamar is afforded the opportunity to speak up. “Don’t brother, don’t force me…don’t do such a vile thing! Where will I carry my shame?” (2 Samuel 13:12), she pleads. Tamar’s story is not about the absence of consent, she very clearly says NO. If Tamar’s clear and vocal refusal is disregarded and intentionally ignored, then what hope do we have for justice for those in our own communities who are assaulted--not just women and girls, but for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals as well as men? Too often, they are told that didn’t say no loud enough, didn’t try hard enough to fight off their assailant, or were blamed for their harassment, assault, or rape because of the clothing they were wearing.

We want to believe that the world we live in now is more just than the world Tamar lived in thousands of years ago. We want to believe that the heroes in our Torah, men like King David, were righteous and compassionate.  Yet we have far to go.

I now know that Tamar’s story is a wake-up call. A cautionary tale that the work to eradicate sexual violence from society is not finished. We cannot shirk away from the difficult truth that these abuses of power and manipulation are still rampant in our communities. If we work together, we can make a difference; not only in finding ways to support victims of sexual violence, but to prevent sexual harassment and assault from infiltrating into our communities in the first place.

This is why we are asking that you submit a comment opposing the Department of Education’s proposed rule to scale back schools’ responsibilities to address sexual harassment and assault under Title IX and deny victims of sexual harassment and assault due process. The proposed rule requires schools to ignore and dismiss Title IX complaints that occur outside of a schools’ program or activity (including most off-campus violence and online harassment), allows schools to pressure survivors into mediation in lieu of a formal investigation, and redefines what constitutes sexual harassment under Title IX.

Like the silencing of Tamar, the proposed rules are likely to return schools to a time when rape, assault, and harassment were swept under the rug. If implemented, these new regulations will disrupt years of progress toward ensuring academic institutions are held accountable for student safety. From now until January 28th, we encourage you to submit a comment in honor of Tamar and the millions of other survivors of sexual harassment and violence.  We cannot allow ourselves to remain silent amidst policies that would further humiliate survivors and fail to hold schools accountable in protecting students’ civil rights to access education free of fear. We have the opportunity to make change; to heed the call of our Torah stories to create a world that is safer for all students. Please act now.

Ally Karpel serves as the 2018-2019 WRJ RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Samantha Frank, HUC-JIR student, also contributed to this blog. 


Published: 1/10/2019

Categories: Our Social Justice, Women's Rights