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Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

Today’s post is by Yael Klangwisan, Senior Lecturer in Education at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.  In this post she reflects on the violence of a sacred text towards the lesbian community through the lens of Naomi Alderman’s novel “Disobedience”, and the 2017 film directed by Lelio. 

Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

[Rav]: In the beginning Hashem made three types of creatures.  The angels, the beasts and the human beings.  The angels He made from His pure word.  The angels have no will to do evil.  They cannot deviate for one moment from His purpose.  The beasts have only their instincts to guide them.  They, too, follow the commands of their maker.  The Torah states that Hashem spent almost six whole days of creation fashioning these creatures.  Then just before sunset, He took a small quantity of earth and from it He fashioned man and woman.  An afterthought?  Or His crowning achievement.  So, what is this thing?  Man? Woman?  It is a being with the power to disobey.  Alone among all the creatures, we have free will.  We hang suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts.  Hashem gave us choice, which is both a privilege and a burden.  We must then choose the tangled life we live. (Opening lines of “Disobedience”, Lelio, 2017)

The relation of tradition and sexual freedom is a tangled space, particularly for those identifying as LGBTQ+. Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel Disobedience explores this space, and particularly the signal themes of faith, truth, and freedom in the context of lesbian desire. In 2017, the cinematic realisation of the novel was directed by Sebastián Lelio. Like other films of its kind, Lelio portrays the disconnect between the frum (religious) world and the secular world and traces the personal cost of this divide in terms of sexuality with great effect. Alderman’s novel has a striking point of difference to the film, and this is the strangely affirming arrangement of each chapter around the Torah and the interpretive writings of the sages as the plot evolves. This positioning rests subtly on the wings of a particular kind of creative, resistant reading of the sacred text.  It is a compilation and interpretation of sacred texts in such a way that their violence against women expressing same sex desire is disempowered.  In Alderman’s novel, and similarly in Lelio’s film, the role of speech in defining and realising women’s sexual freedom, is at the fore.  Alderman’s presentation of this real struggle as the narrative progresses is heart-rending. The twist is when freedom to realise one’s true sexual self is incarnated from within the very texts and traditions that repress it. 

Alderman’s novel is set in an orthodox Jewish community in North London and begins with the death of the revered Rav Krushka, which is then followed by tumult over the appointment of a successor. This appointment is a contentious process that is cast into further disarray when the Rav’s estranged daughter Ronit returns from New York for the Hesped (her father’s eulogy).  Ronit stays with her cousin Dovid, the ascendant rabbi, and is surprised to find that he has married her best friend and first love, Esti.  Ronit finds herself falling in love again with Esti and this presents a crisis for them all. 

Joseph Nacino of Lesbian News describes Lelio’s film Disobedience as “a transfixing consideration of love, faith, sexuality, and personal freedom” (2018). Stephanie Zacharek from Time Magazine describes the two female protagonists, Ronit and Esti, as “circling each other warily, each cautious about disrupting the pattern of the other’s life” (2018). For Zacharek, these very patterns and cycles of orthodox Judaism bring comfort but can also lead to alienation and intense loneliness for those who are estranged.  Zacharek describes Rachel Weisz’s character Ronit as assertive yet dreamily wistful, and Rachel McAdams’ character Esti as subdued and pragmatic about her life in the orthodox community. Esti has kept her true desires and sexual identity tamped deeply down and this fiercely suppressed part of herself is about to burst out.  

In the film, Alessandro Nivola plays the character Dovid.  Dovid is deeply observant and, in terms of tradition a good husband. However, for Esti, Dovid’s generosity, patience and benevolence are suffocating.  Captivation and care are entangled. As Zacharek notes, “In Disobedience, three people reckon with the cost and meaning of freedom. Everybody pays. But if it were free, what would it be worth?” (2018). Joel Streicker, who reviews the novel for the journal Shofar, suggests that “the novel’s sympathies shift from Ronit’s anger and bitterness to Esti’s unfolding self-understanding and self-assertion” (2008). While Ronit seems to have found a certain troubled freedom in New York, and certainly one on her own terms, Streicker points out that for Esti, it is in fact God who makes space for every creature’s freedom to disobey tradition—though one “cannot escape the consequences of disobedience” (2008, 204).  There will always be a price. This is the crux of the theology both in the film and the novel—God might be an ally.  For Streicker, Alderman’s novel enacts “a reconciliation between Orthodoxy and lesbianism, between individual desire and collective constraints on it” (2008, 205).

Lesbianism is not strictly considered a breaking of the law in Judaism.  It is not mentioned in the Hebrew bible and only became a concern to the sages in later periods.  Thus, in Sifra, the midrash on Leviticus, in its commentary on Lev 18:2-3, there is reference to a prohibition against lesbianism or mesolelot.  In the Talmud (Nashim) Yevamot 76a, the sages consider whether lesbians could marry priests and try to answer the question of whether lesbians are “virgins”.  The Mishnah contains the text of a debate over whether lesbianism is a minor or major infraction for the Jewish community.  And in probably the strongest denunciation, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides associates lesbianism with an ambiguous Torah reference to the “practices of Egypt” and prescribes flogging.  Maimonides says in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:8:

It is forbidden for women to enmesh [play around] … with one another and this belongs to the “practices of the Egyptians” [of] which we have been warned: “you shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt” …  However, a flogging for disobedience (mardut) should be given, since they have performed a forbidden act. A man should be strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women who are known to engage in this practice from visiting her, and prevent her from going to them.

Lesbianism was outlawed by the sages primarily because it is considered a danger to the community, to men’s control of their marriages and symptomatic of the apparently rebellious nature of women. It is ironic that while clearly not a capital offence, it does, for the sages, make a woman impure for a period of 12 days and at the end of this time, she is considered “straightened out” enough to return to her husband, children and community.

While in the novel Alderman does quote the sages on “the practices of Egyptian women,” this is not where she begins what could be a futile battle against tradition’s status quo.  She begins in the unlikely place of the Shabbat service with the most unlikely companions of Genesis and creation.  She begins with an exploration of wonder in a portion of prayer from the Mishnah Tamid 7.4 chanted in the Shabbat morning service: “And on the Shabbat, the priests would sing a song for the future that is to come, for that day which will be entirely Shabbat and for the repose of eternal life” (Alderman 2006, 1; also Neusner 1998). On the theme of the creative power of speech, Alderman offers the possibility that one might create her one’s own world through speech and does this through the old Rav’s drash (exegesis) on Genesis 1. 

“Speech,” said the old Rav. “If the created world were a piece of music, speech would be its refrain, its recurring theme. In the Torah, we read that Hashem created the world through speech. He could have willed it into existence. We might have read: ‘And God thought of light, and there was light.’ No. He could have hummed it. Or formed it from clay in His hands. Or breathed it out. Hashem, our King, the Holy One Blessed Be He, did none of these things. To create the world, He spoke. ‘And God said, let there be light, and there was light’. Exactly as He spoke, so it was. … The Torah itself. A book. Hashem could have given us a painting, or a sculpture, a forest, a creature, an idea in our minds to explain His world. But He gave us a book. Words … What a great power the Almighty has given us! To speak, as He speaks! Astonishing! Of all the creatures on earth, only we can speak. What does this mean? … It means we have a hint of Hashem’s power. Our words are, in a sense, real. They can create worlds and destroy them. They have edges, like a knife.” (Alderman 2006, 7-8)

Alderman recalls that the sages compare the Torah to the primordial water that covered the world (Gen 1:2). Without it, they say the earth would be nothing but a desert.  In a way, these waters of the Torah serve as a mikvah (ritual pool) for the world.  As a mikvah, Alderman hints that the very impurity that is created and attributed by the sages, for example, the laws that magnify Esti’s feelings of guilt, can also be washed away by the sages’ own sayings.  Here Alderman celebrates the sacred without allowing the strictures of a violent text to cultivate shame regarding a woman’s desire for another woman. 

“Without Torah, man too would be only a shell, knowing neither light nor mercy. As water is life-giving, so Torah brings life to the world. Without water, our limbs would never know freshness or balm. Without Torah, our spirits would never know tranquillity. As water is purifying, so Torah cleanses those it touches. Water comes only and forever from the Almighty; it is a symbol of our utter dependence on Him. Should He withhold rain for but a season, we could no longer stand before Him. Just so, Torah is a gift which the Holy One Blessed Be He has given the world; Torah, in a sense, contains the world, it is the blueprint from which the world was created. Should Torah be withheld only for a moment, the world would not only vanish, but would never even have been.” (Alderman 2006, 18) 

Yet while water covered the earth, chaos exists too.  Even from the beginning God wrested between order and chaos, life and death.  In tohu vabohu and the ruach elohim (Gen 1:2) there are tensions and balances that all beings are fated to navigate, as God did too in the beginning—that this very tension is written into the fabric of the world. Alderman takes the reader to the shacharit morning prayer: “All say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a slave. Men say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman. Women say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who made me according to His will. from shacharit, the morning prayer.” (Alderman 2006, 58). This prayer and its troubling gender binary invokes a certain kind of violence, but Alderman links this prayer to the story of the Sun and the Moon and deconstructs the presumed inequity from within the tradition.  As in that first great chapter of Torah, on the fourth day the sun and the moon were made by God, just as man and woman were made (as per what is written) and were originally of equal status, a mirror image of each other: 

“For it is written, ‘And God made the two great lights.’ But the moon complained at this, saying, ‘Two rulers may not use one crown.’ And Hashem replied, saying, ‘Very well, since you ask for one to be lesser and one to be greater, your size shall be diminished, and the size of the sun increased. Your light shall be one-sixtieth of its previous strength.’ The moon complained to Hashem at her plight and, so that she should not remain utterly without comfort, Hashem gave her companions – the stars.” (Alderman, 2006, 58).

In this story, at the end of days, the Moon will be returned to her former glory, and be once more equal with the Sun.  Alderman suggests that one might learn from this that God listens to creatures and these creatures can sometimes be in the right. “In the first place, we learn that the moon was correct, for Hashem hearkened to her words” (Alderman 2006, 58-59). But also, we learn that Hashem is merciful – that this God recognizes the plight of those considered lesser and gives comfort to those in need. Esti muses that the stars are God’s gift to the moon. Ronit and Esti’s girlhood love and desire are as a gift of Hashem, as if the Moon (the motherless and abandoned Ronit) was given Esti, who was like a constellation of stars to her.  As the narrative of Ronit and Esti winds through Alderman’s bricolage of the Torah and the sayings of the sages, Alderman reminds the reader of God’s propensity to hear, to listen and to change God’s mind. In the whimsical stories of the sages she offers the possibility that God hears and answers the cry of the soul (Ps 66:19).

“God instructed the moon to make itself new each month. It is a crown of splendour for those who are borne from the womb, because they are also destined to be renewed like her. from the kiddush levana, recited every month after the third day of the lunar cycle and before the full moon What is the shape of time? On occasion, we may feel that time is circular. The seasons approach and retreat, the same every year. Night follows day follows night follows day. The festivals arrive in their time, cycling one after the other. And each month, the womb…” (Alderman 2006, 101)

Alderman describes a beautiful scene that relates to the haftarah readings (cycle of readings from the prophets) associated with the new moon.  What is felt here in the writing is the rhythmic constancy of the Jewish calendar, its unceasing movement, as if the cycle of readings was tidal.  These patterns of practice are deeply embodied, finding kinship in the lunar rhythms of the womb.  These cycles are thus interior and hold the observant reader in a cultural and maternal embrace.  There is a sense that these cycles cannot be held back from their return. They are as inevitable as the seas and, just as these same cycles draw forth Jewish practice, Alderman wants to suggest they will inevitably draw forth the truth of oneself.  Esti is sitting in the sabbath service in the balcony reserved for women, and the Haftarah is to be read.  The reading happens to be from 1 Sam 20. It is as if even the seasonal readings from the Tanakh arrive as gifts to support Esti’s realisation of her desire for Ronit and what that might mean regarding for the elemental truths of her sexuality and moreover, her own community’s failure of love: “The tones of the Haftarah, more melodic and more poignant than those of the Torah reading, speak so often of faithlessness and betrayal, of Israel’s failures of love towards God.”(Alderman 2006, 101)

Esti is pictured following the English story of 1 Sam 20 with her eyes. She is captivated when Jonathan says to David “Tomorrow is the New Moon, and you will be missed because your seat will be empty.” (1 Sam 20:5).  Jonathan is the son of the mercurial King Saul, but also in a deep and abiding relationship with David (1 Sam 20:17).  David is King Saul’s favoured musician. In the Haftarah reading, King Saul’s anger at David inexplicably grows, and the King’s increasing aggression has the courtiers on eggshells. Incredibly, Jonathan, the King’s own son, has made an escape plan with David. He cautions David to hide in the countryside nearby. David would miss the start of the feast to celebrate the new month. Jonathan would wait to see how Saul took it. If all was well, Jonathan would send word that David could attend after all. But as it turns out, Saul was incensed, and when Jonathan tried to calm his father, Saul humiliates his son in front of the entire court: “Do you think I don’t know that you have chosen this David, son of Jesse, to your shame and the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam 20:30).

In Esti’s recounting of this tale, she notes the Haftarah reader was talented, that he could even reproduce King Saul’s rough and anguished voice.  It speaks to her and Esti wants it to speak to Ronit. “Do you remember? she whispers. “It’s Machar Chodesh. Tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Do you remember what you told me once about this day?” Through the cadences of the reader’s voice, low and melodious, Ronit and Esti remember David and Jonathan’s meeting in the fields outside the city, telling of a love which the sages record, was the greatest that had ever been known. Alderman writes, “the notes fluttered up and down the scales, falling like tears and rising like an arrow sprung from the bow … Machar Chodesh. When we read about David and Jonathan…” (2006, 108-109).

In a later chapter Ronit will reflect on this same text again with Esti. It has a central meaning for Esti and her initial reasons for choosing to marry Dovid.  She had been trying to sublimate her desire for Ronit through the only legitimate avenue available to her, by marrying Ronit’s own cousin.

“‘Do you remember “tomorrow is the new moon”? The story of David and Jonathan?’ I nodded. ‘And do you remember how much David loved Jonathan? He loved him with “a love surpassing the love of women”. Do you remember?’ ‘Yes, I remember. David loved Jonathan. Jonathan died in battle. David was miserable. The end.’ ‘No, not the end. The beginning. David had to go on living. He had no choice. Do you remember whom he married?’ … ‘He married Michal. They weren’t very happy. Didn’t she insult him in public, or something?’ ‘And who was Michal?’ It clicked. I understood. Michal was Jonathan’s sister. The man he loved with all his heart died and he married his sister. I thought about that for a moment, taking it in. I wondered whether Michal and Jonathan had looked anything like each other. I thought about King David and his grief, his need for someone like Jonathan, near to Jonathan…”. (Alderman 2006, 210)

Esti finds within the cycle of synagogue readings that these have nurtured a kind of liminal journey to the truth of herself, though it has taken years of such cycles.  The novel and the film coalesce at this point.  The Haftarah of Machar Chodesh, and the intimate meeting of Jonathan and David in the field, coalesces with scenes from the Song of Songs.  In Lelio’s film, Dovid appears in a scene with his religious students quoting and commenting on the Song of Songs 1:13-15.

[Dovid]: “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts.  My beloved is to me as a cluster of henna blooms … in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi.” 

[Talmid]: “Is it about sensuality? That is, the way in which true love manifests itself?”

 [Dovid]: “But it might also be that between a male and a female, there is something higher than that?”

[Talmid]:  But isn’t it that the references to sensual pleasures celebrate physical love here?  The enjoyment of that love becomes, in this context, the highest …

[Dovid]: “See, you are fair, my love.  You are fair.  Your eyes are doves.  See, you are handsome my beloved, yea, pleasing, and our bed is verdant.”

This scene segues into the next on the image, “Our bed is verdant.” This image then acts as a foil when Dovid and Esti appear in the intimacy of their home with the words “our bed is verdant” still drifting in our minds.  We see Dovid’s and Esti’s careful attention to one another, as if the other was so fragile they might break. The ground between them is a desert.  Even with their attentiveness and extraordinary care for the other, they both seem to know there is little flourishing there, that they are the companions of the other’s slow grief—two fig trees that never bore fruit. As if to intensify the contrast, there is a lovers’ interlude in Hendon, the grassed space of Golders Green in North London. The parkland is transformed via the elemental passion of Esti’s and Ronit’s love into the gardens and wild spaces of the Song of Songs, true joy.  Esti and Ronit walk down dark paths, and into a wintery domain, into the somber North London streets in the evening, as if they were the Song of Song’s lovers searching for each other in Jerusalem’s alleyways (Son 3 & 5).  Ronit and Esti share the intense beauty of their remembrances, their secret places, the scent of hydrangeas.  They listen at the door of their hearts for one another, revel in the rising of desire, searching the other out.  Eventually the inevitable culmination of their renewed relationship takes place.

As in chapter 5 of the Song of Songs, there is danger too in the shape of watchers, guardians of the community’s way of life, those who seek to maintain a certain way of life, those whom Alderman might suggest have misunderstood the Torah all this time.  Thus, pressure is brought to bear on Dovid by a community of brothers and uncles.  Dovid will need to keep the order of his own house and to “straighten out” the outré sexuality of his wife if he wants to lead the community.  What transpires, then, is a scene between Esti and Dovid reminiscent of Moses before Pharaoh in Exodus (9:13). In the film, the narrative of freedom is a spoken thing.  Esti, as the supplicant Moses, asks for her freedom – that is, the freedom to live in the dignity of who she is, to live and love truly – and Dovid grants it.  In the novel, Alderman also draws on Exodus and the Moses narrative when she has Ronit dream of the Passover, but in this dream, Ronit is the angel of death who flies over the city (2006, 253).

Alderman concludes her novel with the curious Talmudic tale called the “The Caving Walls of the Study Hall.”  The story itself is based on an interpretation of Deut. 30:11-14: “this instruction … is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Found in Talmud Baba Mesia 59:2, the tale is set as a classic debate on Torah, and concerns theology and the proper interpretation of the law.

On a certain day, regarding a certain interpretation of the law, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but the other sages kept rejecting them. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. But the sages to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.”

Said [Rabbi Eliezer] to them: “If the law is as I say, may the river prove it.” The water in the river began to flow backwards. But they said to him: “One cannot prove anything from an river.”

Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to cave in. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls and said to the walls, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, and nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there today at a slant.

Then said Eliezar to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says…”

But Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “‘The Torah is not in heaven!’1” … We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to ‘follow the majority.'” (Ex 23:2)

Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: “What did G‑d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.

“The Caving Walls of the Study Hall” is a profound text that holds the matter of the love of Esti for Ronit gently, and even more gently, Esti’s journey of self-realisation and sexual liberation. The delicate turn in reading here is in the image of a Hashem that smiles.  It is as if Hashem is at this very moment the embodiment of Ronit’s father, raised up with face alive with mirth:  “My [daughters] have triumphed over me”.  What is striking in the novel (and also in the film), is the way in which the narrative calls on the Torah and the Talmud, as allies on behalf of Ronit and Esti and their desire.  These two women are, each in their own way, alienated and estranged from their community.  They have also been a precious awakening to each other.  This is regardless of Ronit’s separation from her father, cousin and community and Esti’s attempt to live an observant life as a rebbetzin, frum wife and a teacher.  This love is made even more challenging in a sheltered community that cannot accept the truth of the otherwiseness of Esti’s desires.  “I have always felt like this,” Esti says to Dovid in Lelio’s film (2017), “I will always feel like this.”  The way in which the film and novel draw upon the sacred text to frame Esti’s untangling and unfolding acceptance of herself and her sexuality is deeply moving, similarly the resolution of Ronit’s quandary over her troubled love for Esti and the community of her childhood.  This connection is tender and honouring of an age-old and beautiful set of sacred texts and traditions, without forfeiting the sacred human right to dignity, freedom and the expression one’s whole self in ways otherwise to that tradition.  It is in this kind of reading that Alderman finds a liberating trajectory of scriptural interpretation on behalf of lesbian desire, that is, the possibility of finding sexual freedom in the very texts that violate it.

REFERENCES

Alderman, Naomi. Disobedience. London: Penguin, 2006. Kindle Edition.

Harding, James.  The love of David and Jonathan. London: Routledge, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Neusner, Jacob. The Babylonian Talmud :  A Translation and Commentary. Hendrickson, 2005.

Neusner, Jacob.  The Mishna: A New Translation. New Haven: Yale University, 1988.

Lelio, Sebastián. Disobedience. Film4, FilmNation, Element Pictures, et al, 2017.

Nacino, Joseph. “Love as disobedience,” Lesbian News (April 2018): 10-12.

Steicker, Joel. “Review of Disobedience,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, 26, no. 3 (2008): 203-205.

Zacharek, Stephanie. “Forbidden lovers seek grace in Disobedience,” TIME Magazine, 191, no. 19 (May 21, 2018): 54-54.

Image: Charles Landelle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Rape of Men and Rabbinic Literature

Today’s post is by Tali Artman Partock and examines the much-neglected topic of the rape of men in rabbinical texts. Tali studied Hebrew literature and psychology as an undergraduate, followed by a Masters, and PhD in rabbinic literature, all at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Her diverse research interests lie in the areas of Judaism and early Christianity; midrash, folktales and hermeneutics; gender studies; and the Bible in literature and film. Tali teaches at the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge, and Leo Baeck College.

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The rape of men is something that is often just hinted at in the Hebrew Bible. It tends to be confined to, or is threatened during times of war, or in warlike situations. The rape of men by men in “everyday life” is not only not mentioned, but is not even conceptualized, or labelled as rape. In fact, as both Judith Hauptman and Ronit Irshai argue [i], the word “rape” in the Hebrew Bible refers only to penetration of a female virgin without the authorization of her father.

The early layer of rabbinic literature (that is, Tannaitic literature, 2nd-3rd century CE), however, marks a radical change. Not only is the forced penetration of men here becoming marked as rape, but a whole discourse emerges to deal with its criminal and sacral implications.

The problem troubling the rabbis concerns the soul both of the rapist and of the raped. But above all else, the rabbis want to prevent the crime. Towards that purpose, from a Jewish legal perspective, the Mishnah allows an extraordinary thing: namely, the right not only of the rape victim but of any bystander to kill the attacker-rapist in (self-)defence.

The first text to address the issue in a legal codex appears in the Talmud in Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:7 (edited circa 220 CE). Here it says:

“The following must be saved even at the cost of their lives: he who pursues after his fellow to slay him or after a man or a betrothed maiden [to rape them].”

This is not only a recognition of the danger of rape of men by men, but a conceptual revolution. The idea of pre-emptive killing of the pursuer extends from the right to self-defence in the case of attempted murder. But how?  The answer comes from the fate of the raped betrothed maiden (mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:24), who is sentenced to death herself, even though she was raped, because the rape happened “in the town.” In other words, the rape, beyond being terrible in itself, leads to the victim’s death (on sacral grounds), and to the attacker’s death (on criminal and sacral grounds). In that sense, raping a betrothed virgin is like murdering her, making the argument of killing in self-defence comprehensible. The same logic is then applied to the biblical verses regarding male-male sex: here, too, the death penalty is threatened for both the penetrator and the penetrated (Leviticus 20:13).

The Bible does not address the problem of coercion when it comes to men, which poses an ethical dilemma for the rabbis, and an opportunity to learn something new: that in this case, too, rape is like murder, and killing in self-defence, therefore, permissible. This is in line with Roman legislation by Emperor Hadrian, which allowed de facto rape victims (male or female) and their family members to kill the rapist on the spot if caught in the act.[ii]

But what if an attacker is not killed in time (that is, before the rape takes place)? Are rape victims, male or female, to be executed, in the way that might be derived from Leviticus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 22:24? The rabbis have a new agenda here, too. In Sifre to Deuteronomy, Ki Teitzei, a Tannaitic midrash on the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

“Just as when a man rises against his neighbour and murders him (Deut. 22.26), teaches that all who are raped [coerced] in the Torah are blameless, but [also]  that we save them by the life [of the one who pursues them] only in this case. Where, then, do we learn that one should [do the same also in the cases of] he who chases his fellow to kill him and after the man [to rape him]? It is said: so is this matter (Deut. 22:26). Can one do the same to he who pursues a beast or desecrated the Shabbat or worships idols? The Torah said: ‘this matter’ [only] (Deut. 22:26), ‘this’ is punished by stoning and all the rest – not by stoning.”

The verse the Sifre relies on is no longer Deuteronomy 22:24, but Deuteronomy 22:25-26: the case of the betrothed virgin who is raped in the field (rather than in the town). In her case, she is found blameless and only her rapist is put to death. This is another step forward for both women and men as victims: not only does this passage offer victims protection (like the Mishnah passage), but it also cleans them of all fault and blame.

The Amoraic Babylonian sources (3rd-6th century CE), much like those from Israel (3rd-5th century) follow the same logic to the same result.[iii] An interesting point is made also about the strange spelling of the word for “maiden”: in Hebrew the word for maiden is na‘arah, whereas the word for a male youth is na‘ar. In Deuteronomy 22:26, unusually, the word for “maiden” is missing the final consonant (transliterated as “ah”). Noting that the spelling is gender-ambivalent, the rabbis reach their conclusion on the basis that just like in the case of a girl (na‘arah) so in the case of a boy (na‘ar) there is no guilt for the raped.[iv]

In its Roman context, the question of rape of men becomes more complicated. On the one hand, unlike in Livy’s testimony, according to which a man who has been penetrated could not stand in a court of law, unless he was raped in war or by pirates [v], rabbinic literature does not deny a raped man any legal rights. On the other hand, the Roman economy of desire, making boys and slaves particularly vulnerable, still influenced the rabbis in many ways – but that will be a subject for a different post.


[i] Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice (Boulder, CO and Oxford: Westview Press, 1998), 81; Ronit Irshai, “Rape of Unmarried Women: From Hazal to Maimonides.” Shnaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri 28 (2014-15): 177. (Irshai’s paper is in Hebrew.)

[ii] See Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law & Society (London: Routledge, 1995), 118-19.

[iii] There are two main Talmudic traditions: the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi). Talmud is aptly described as a discursive and intergenerational rabbinic discussion. It is one primary focus of traditional Jewish scholarship.

[iv] This might be surprising in a Babylonian context. After all, in the Zoroastrian tradition represented in the Videvdad (8:26-32), the punishment for a man who submits to anal intercourse against his will is “eight hundred strokes with the horse whip, eight hundred with the bastinado.” While the editing of the Videvdad might be two or three centuries later than that of the Bavli, much like the Bavli, it, too, reflects oral traditions that are centuries older.

[v] Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010),  106.

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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Barbara Thiede

Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede

When my university (University of North Carolina, Charlotte) went on spring break March 2, I made the decision to see if I could put all my classes online. Because I also teach online for ALEPH Ordination Programs (a Jewish seminary which ordains rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic pastors), doing so was not as difficult for me as for some of my colleagues. In the meantime, my spouse, Ralf, and I moved roomfuls of furniture around in our little ranch house to accommodate our son and daughter-in-love, who moved out of a tiny one-room studio apartment in Brooklyn, New York,  into our tiny home library (now outfitted with a bed, sitting area, and workspace!).  We joked about how much the room would go for on Airbnb and promptly dubbed it R&B (Ralf and Barbara). We’ve been alternating the cooking, so I’ve been treated to some real culinary variety.

Next, we started a huge project in our backyard, clearing away a veritable mini-forest of dead shrubbery that wisteria had marked, claimed, and devoured, and built three raised garden beds. This also necessitated digging up loads of mulchy dirt, moving it aside, creating the beds, refilling the beds with the dirt and home grown compost, and planting our vegetables. This explains the picture of me lying face down in the grass while our son grins up at his dad. His back is stronger. So far, everything is thriving and we look forward to the first products gracing our table.

For the first weeks, working was very difficult indeed. Finding a routine was challenging. My students have felt the stress and, since we take the time to check in, it is clear to me that they are facing a range of serious issues.  One is a refugee whose mother works at Wal-Mart; another is taking care of an elderly and sickly grandmother. I’ve known what it is to have students in vulnerable situations every semester of my teaching life, but now, I think it is fair to say, they all are vulnerable. One student has a daughter whose best friend died of Covid-19 — she was in her early thirties; another was clearly suicidal and needed connections with health care professionals. Sometimes, I start our check-ins with lighter questions just to relieve the stress: “A package just arrived at your door. It is perfectly safe to open it. What’s inside?” Answers included, of course, masks, cures, vaccine. And they included: “My mom!” “A puppy!” “A boat!”

Which aspects of your work past and present might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?

My current book, Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, treats a set of texts that  demonstrate how male friendship depends on women’s bodies for its creation and sustenance. I am also preparing a paper for SBL entitled “Gang Rape, Murder, and Dismemberment in Judges 19-21 and Little Bee: How Biblical and Modern Authors Inflict Moral Injury.”

How are you bearing up and what’s helping you most? Am I behind in my work? Of course. Do I feel — all the time — that I can’t actually grasp the depth of dislocation the world is experiencing? I do. Do I sometimes resent the “we can get through all this” when so many won’t? Yes. Do I fear that we will not learn the lessons of this experience? I do. Humankind is notoriously insufficient at caring for humanity and the planet it lives on. 
I am bearing up by walking a lot, by gardening as much as I can, and by listening to a lot of Sephardic-Ladino-Iraqi-Turkish music. It reminds me to dance. And I hope and pray for humanity to pay attention to the obvious lesson, here. We share this world unequally. We suffer its pain unequally. We are obliged to flatten that curve, too.

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Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Today, 27 January, marks Holocaust Memorial Day  and 75 years to the day since the liberation of Auschwitz.[1] The Shiloh Project joins the many people worldwide solemnly marking this momentous day.

While other genocides and other mass human rights violations have occurred and continue to occur, the Holocaust is also singular. The Holocaust, or Shoah,[2] has taken millions of lives and has affected and warped millions more, as well as influenced the course of history, consciousness, scholarship and much, much more. For these reasons and others, it remains important to talk about, to remember and to commemorate the Holocaust if any good at all is to come from this tremendous carnage, in the form, for instance, of recognizing the enormous damage and tragedy that comes from the confluence of discrimination, dehumanisation, unquestioning obedience to authority and terror. This recognition is then, hopefully, taken forward as commitment to preventing any further human rights atrocities.

Given the focus of the Shiloh Project, let us point out, too, that sexual violence carried out as part of the Holocaust is slowly beginning to receive more attention.[3] This is demonstrated, for instance, in the important work of Shiloh member Miryam Sivan. Miryam has presented on sexual abuse in Holocaust literature at the Shiloh conference (see  here and here) and has featured in our series on the 16 Days of Activism (see here).

Last year, Miryam published her novel, Make It Concrete.  (For a review, see here.) This novel tells the story of Isabel Toledo, a strong and independent woman, living in today’s Israel. Isabel has three children, several lovers and works as a ghost writer, recording the narratives of Holocaust survivors. But her life and equilibrium is unsettled by a past that predates her life.

What is most affecting about Miryam’s novel is the feeling of the past bearing down heavily on the present. Her account makes clear that our grandparents’ and parents’ lives and the fear and pain of the past can resonate and reach harmfully into present lives and times. This is worth reminding ourselves of as we reflect today on the Holocaust and on the wars and atrocities and refugees’ fates of our own time: how might what is happening now shape and harm lives in times to come? What can we do better?

Please read Miryam’s novel: Miryam Sivan, Make It Concrete (Brooklyn, NY: Cuidono Press, 2019).

[1] This is not to be confused with Yom HaShoah, commemorated in the Jewish calendar on the 27th day of Nisan. This year, in a grisly coincidence, Yom HaShoah will begin at sundown on 20 April, the birthday of Adolf Hitler.

[2] I have written elsewhere about the names ‘Holocaust’, ‘Shoah’ and ‘Porajmos’, as well as about the problematic practice of ascribing the word ‘Holocaust’ to other grand-scale horrors, e.g. ‘The African Holocaust’ to the HIV and AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. See Johanna Stiebert, ‘The African Holocaust: What Is In a Name?’ Missionalia 37/2 (2009): 192-209.

[3] For one example, see The Guardian (October 2019),reporting on Nazi atrocities committed against the Sinti and Roma. The article (see here) makes reference to Hermine Horvath’s ‘unusually explicit’ account of sexual abuse perpetrated by an SS leader.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 6 – Barbara Thiede

I teach full-time in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and serve as the Program Director for our department’s graduate program. I am also an ordained rabbi and teach for ALEPH – Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

In both settings, I teach a range of courses focused on gender, power, class, and race. These fall, broadly, into two categories. As a historian of Jewish history, I teach the history of European antisemitism and the marketing of the Holocaust. As a biblical scholar, I teach a wide range of courses that focus on gender, power, and violence in the Hebrew Bible. I am currently writing a full-length monograph entitled Male Friendship, Homosociality and Women in the Hebrew Bible. I am also working on a volume for the Routledge series “Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible” entitled Rape in the House of David: A Company of Men.

Writing about causes I support has been a significant part of my activism in public realms, too. For some twenty years I wrote for a regional section of The Charlotte Observer as well as for the Observer’s Viewpoint page as a community editorial columnist. Here, I was able to address a range of issues, from domestic violence and sexual assault to antisemitism and racism. Likewise, my blog, Adrenalinedrash, includes writing on sexual violence, racism, and antisemitism from a rabbinic perspective.

From my earliest days at UNC Charlotte, when I created the first women’s group for addressing eating disorders, to my campus involvement today in our annual Sex Week, addressing the very real concerns of my students has been one of my primary goals. One in every four of my female students will be the victim of sexual assault during their undergraduate careers. While teachers of Religious Studies regularly engage with class, gender, race, sexuality, and ability, classroom conversations are often detached from the rape culture that surrounds them. But the rape culture of the Hebrew Bible is familiar to my students for a reason; like today’s rape cultures, it relies on a web of male friendships, alliances, and social relationships that are essential to its preservation. In the classroom we can analyze how hegemonic masculinity that supports rape culture works both in ancient texts and in contemporary settings. And we can talk about what must be done to change the statistics and make college campuses safe for women.

Though I am involved with efforts to combat racism and gun violence as a speaker and rabbi, much of my activism has centered on working with local church and civic groups. For almost two decades, I have regularly addressed sexual violence and hegemonic masculinity in the Hebrew Bible in a wide range of denominational settings. Because biblical authors present sexual violence against women as permissible, we need to interrogate the texts we hold sacred.

I participate in marches and rallies and speak for a host of causes I support – from protecting voting rights to winning citizenship for undocumented immigrants to saving our broken planet. And I have found that my greatest impact takes place in classroom, faith, and community education. There, I can develop relationships, open doors, unpack a conversation, and empower those I am working with – from the eighteen-year-old college students to eighty-year-old grandmothers. We are all needed in the struggle against rape culture.

Between now and the 16 days I will be helping students at UNCC with the organization of this year’s Sex Week (sexual violence is a key topic), writing a piece for my blog on the male alliances that support rape culture in both the Hebrew Bible and our own time, and working with a full class of students who are writing their final papers – almost all of which center on sexual violence in Hebrew Bible. Teaching in two different academic settings, spending many Sunday mornings with faith groups, and writing offer me opportunities to address and confront the rape cultures we must combat and eradicate. And in our time.

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Religion and Gender Journal: Call for Manuscripts for Special Issue on Religion, Gender and Violence

Religion and Gender Journal

Call for Manuscripts for Special Issue on Religion, Gender and Violence

The journal Religion and Gender invites article proposals for a special issue on Religion, Gender and Violence. The relationship between religion and violence is highly contested and has come under considerable scrutiny by scholars of religion.  Less understood is the relationship between gender, religion and violence and this special issue aims to contribute to understandings of the ways in which religion intersects with institutional, familial and public gendered violence as explored through current research via an interdisciplinary lens.

With the current roll out of public inquiries into institutional child sexual abuse across Ireland, England and Wales, Scotland, Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it is clear that at a global level, it is religious organizations that have had the most widespread and highest levels of abuse against children with characteristically poor institutional responses to victims and their families. Public inquires have clearly established that religious organizations made strategic decisions to limit reputational damage at the cost of child safety and the implications of this for religious institutions is yet to be fully understood.

Violence against women and children in domestic settings where religion is a significant factor has also been the subject of ongoing and recent research indicating that there are specific issues at play for women and children in experiencing and reporting abuse and how it is managed by faith traditions. In important public debates on the status of gender diversity and difference, for example the marriage equality issue, there have been forceful responses to vulnerable cohorts from religious leaders, in social media and religious publications.

At the same time, there has been an important counter discourse articulated by religious groups around building religious and social capital that contributes to a pluralist understanding of the value of multi-religious societies and gender diversity. These discourses, most often articulated by more liberal religious groups but also increasingly by mainstream faith traditions, utilize the language of social justice and theological interpretation to construct narratives of gender inclusion and equity. This brings faith traditions into conflict within themselves over the framing of gender relations for the new century.

For this special issue, we invite manuscripts that address this convergence from a variety of perspectives on the function and meaning of gender, religion and violence and its counter-discourses.

The editors are particularly interested in receiving manuscripts that showcase empirical research that address, but are not limited to, the following areas and/or questions:

o What role does gendered violence play in mainstream religious groups re maintenance of the faith tradition?
o How are the impacts and experiences of gendered violence managed by religious organisations with regard to pastoral care and processes of remediation?
o Who are the victims of gendered violence in religious organisations?
o In what ways can feminist theory and theology contribute to and expand understandings of religion, gender and violence?
o What role does non-religion and/or secularity play in relation to responding to and managing the disclosure of violence in religious organisations.
o How well do public inquiries address gendered religious violence and what are the impacts on religious organisations with respect to particular case studies?

Submissions should be between 5000 and 8000 words in length (including abstract, footnotes and references). See Brill’s page for further information on submitting an article https://brill.com/view/journals/rag/rag-overview.xml Affiliation and email address should be supplied in the first submission. In order to guarantee a blind review process, all submissions should be anonymized with the name of and references to the author removed from the text. We are happy to receive inquiries about prospective submissions.

Please send all queries to the special issues editors:

Kathleen McPhillips, University of Newcastle, Australia

Email: Kathleen.mcphillips@newcastle.edu.au

Sarah-Jane Page, Aston University, Birmingham, UK

Email: s.page1@aston.ac.uk

SUBMISSION DATES

15 January 2020: Abstract Submission

15 August 2020: Full manuscript submission

 

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Shiloh Project Research Day Report

Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) is a womanist biblical scholar and project partner for an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant entitled ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice ThroughActivism with Bible Texts and Images’.

Her recent research visit brought her to Yorkshire, where both the project’s principal investigator (Johanna Stiebert, University of Leeds) and co-investigator (Katie Edwards, University of Sheffield) are based. All three, together with co-lead of the Shiloh Project Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), who is spending part of her sabbatical at the University of Leeds, organized a research day at the University of Leeds.

The aim of the day was to bring together a diverse group of researchers and practitioners who all engage with some aspect of confronting, understanding and reducing the prevalence of gender-based and/or sexual violence. All share experience of working on or with victims and survivors of gender-based violence; all share a commitment to and drive for facilitating information, practical help or healing; all are open to opportunities for effective collaboration and networking between academic and public sectors.

The Shiloh Project is a collaboration of scholars and activists and was launched in early 2017. It seeks to explore and promote ways for better understanding the dynamics and intersections between religion, the Bible, gender-based violence and rape culture. This is in acknowledgement that matters of religion and faith have diverse and profound impact on human interactions the world over – including when it comes to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Such impact was amply borne out by all participants in the research day on 25 March 2019, which was attended by 20 active participants. The research day was co-sponsored by the AHRC and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. It represents one of several Shiloh Project initiatives.

Here is a quick summary of participants and organizations. Each participant, or participant pair, gave a summary and introduction to their work and expertise.

Angela Connor and Esther Nield represented the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) team of the Hazlehurst Centre in West Yorkshire. Angela is the Hazlehurst Centre manager and Esther works in the Centre as a crisis worker. SARC provides acute service (for up to seven days post incident). The SARC is commissioned by the National Health Service (NHS) and Police to provide forensic healthcare, alongside free support and practical help to anyone in West Yorkshire who has experienced sexual violence or abuse. The majority of victims (around 80%) are referred by the Police. The majority are white women under the age of forty but the service is available to anyone, for no charge, irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or immigration status. The Centre strives to become more accessible to diverse demographics and nurses take pride in providing sensitive expert care.

Misbah Ali (Legal Assistance and Senior Development Worker) and Michelle O’Neill (Senior Capacity Builder and Recovery Worker) together represented Staying Put, a charity providing gender-sensitive services for men and women in the wider Bradford area of Yorkshire who experience abuse from a family member or intimate partner in a domestic setting. The charity attends to about 1200 to 1400 users per year. They work with situations in the area of domestic violence, intimate partner violence and forced marriage and assist in reducing victimization, preventing domestic homicide and facilitating domestic safety and security. The organization fulfills diverse services – including providing information about female genital mutilation (FGM), conducting family interventions, issuing legal advice, evidence gathering, support for attending court, as well as practical and emotional support. Their Freedom Programme operates in several languages (Urdu, English and Polish). Misbah and Michelle reported on the relative frequency of ‘spiritual abuse’ – that is, abuse attributed to possession, witchcraft and djinns, for instance. The told the group that they come across such matters more and more often but do not always feel adequately trained to address some religious justifications of violence.

Ziona Handler is the Manchester keyworker for Jewish Women’s Aid (JWA), working for and with victims of abuse in Jewish communities across all of the North of England. JWA is a registered charity and Ziona is emphatic that Jewish communities are as affected as other communities when it comes to the spectrum of domestic violence, which encompasses physical, sexual, psychological, economic, spiritual and cultural abuse. In terms of recognizing and addressing such abuse and supporting victims, many of the strategies detailed by representatives of Staying Put resonated with Ziona. But she also pointed out that some matters are bespoke to Jewish communities and best supported by a Jewish practitioner. (The SARC representatives mentioned that they had never, knowingly, assisted a Jewish victim of sexual assault, in spite of West Yorkshire having a sizable Jewish community. This might indicate that Jewish women have preference for groups such as JWA.) Ziona reported that the average period of suffering prior to reporting is a shocking 11.5 years in Jewish communities. JWA offers a variety of core services – including a helpline, client support, counseling, therapy, the Dina Project (a response to #MeToo), children’s therapy and an educational outreach programme that visits schools, synagogues and universities. JWA has launched a Safer Dating campaign in universities and training to address Lad Culture. The charity also has a toilet door campaign (placing stickers bearing information about accessing help from JWA on toilet doors) and provides input and training for non-Jewish groups working with victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris is a former congregational rabbi and university chaplain and is now Principal of Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical seminary and centre for training of teachers in Jewish education. Leo Baeck College represents primarily members of Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism and the institution also trains and ordains women and members of the Jewish LGBT+community. Deborah facilitates training from JWA and stresses that even in progressive communities – where the expectation might be that topics such as ‘consent’ are widely discussed and understood – such training remains essential. Deborah pointed out that low-level microagressions persist – often very publicly – and that biblical and rabbinic texts, which continue to be plumbed and interpreted, have the potential to propel abusive ideas and actions. In a tradition with ancient roots, where ancient texts continue to be given authority, the possibility of internalizing damaging attitudes is considerable. But, as Deborah pointed out, Jewish tradition also offers tremendous scope for critical thinking, debate and resistance. In response to a question from Angela Connor about Jewish attitudes to emergency contraception, Deborah was able to demonstrate this versatility, with recourse to a range of Jewish texts reflecting multiple viewpoints.

Sam Ross is a WRoCAH (White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities) funded PhD candidate in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (University of Leeds). His provisional thesis title is ‘Queering the Ketuvim: Queer Readings of Representations of Pain and Trauma in Biblical Hebrew Poetry’. Sam has particular interest in trauma research – not least, because the LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable to discrimination, abuse and prejudice. Sam is using the Bible both because of its persistent influence in faith and secular contexts and because it offers stories that address pain and trauma head-on. His plan is to fuse biblical criticism and autoethnography to explore queer individual suffering (through the book of Job), and queer communal suffering (through the book of Lamentations). Sam also highlighted the particular vulnerability of the trans community and the abusiveness of the so-called ‘trans debate’ in targeting trans persons as aggressors and predators when they are, in actuality, far more often victims of violence, including sexual violence. Representatives from Staying Put confirmed Sam’s point by stating that even professionals are sometimes abusive towards trans persons, citing instances where trans women have been denied access to women’s refuges, with no offer of any alternative help, even when they were at acute risk.

David Smith is Victims Services Commissioning and Third Sector Adviser at the West Yorkshire’s Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner. David has worked in third sector and local government for several decades and has expertise in the area of strategy, planning and policy development. That is, he has expertise in making actions effective. David’s role is to commission support services around domestic abuse and sexual violence. These are usually funded at (increasingly cash-strapped) local and regional levels. David’s work is focused on policy and he has an informed interest also in the language of his subject – such as the language of the victim’s code and witness charter. He agrees that the terminology around sexual violence – of ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’ and ‘complainants’ –is problematic. He is supportive of the position statement being more inclusive now in its language of violence against men. Male victims, he stresses, are a significant part of the agenda – something which should not take away from the very serious issues facing women and girls. David’s policy-focused perspective was a fascinating one.

Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds) is Director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life and an academic working in the areas of religion and public life, gender and sexuality, especially in contemporary Christian contexts of countries in southern and eastern Africa (predominantly, Zambia and Kenya). He is about to embark on a project working closely and collaboratively with Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya through using story telling and life stories as a tool for creative and liberating self-expression as well as a research strategy. As Adriaan points out, violence is central in the lives of LGBT people, as well as in the lives of refugees. This violence, moreover, is multi-dimensional and can include religious violence, political violence and police violence.

Sarah-Jane Page (Aston University) is a sociologist of religion. She researches, among other topics, attitudes and practices around sexuality and how these are negotiated in relation to religious tradition. She spoke about two current projects. The first – in the very early stages – examines the Church of England inquiry into child sex abuse. She is focused especially on how organizational and institutional structures serve to enable abuse, as well as in the hierarchies and class dimensions at work in this. Her second project is ethnographic and partly funded by the British Academy. This project looks at varieties of activism, ranging from silent prayer to displays of graphic imagery, outside of abortion clinics. She is especially interested in the reactions and responses to these forms of activism, both from religious and secular sources.

Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) has conducted long-term research and public engagement activities on the history of UK child migration programmes. These programmes, responsible for sending some 100,000 children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, resulted in extensive and sustained abuse, which only came to light much later. He has also served as expert witness under instruction to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Gordon’s work has served to raisepublic awareness about historic abuse. He has, for instance,contributed to and organized museum exhibitions, musical performances, and TrueTube films, alongside his many academic publications. Gordon highlighted the dysfunctional relationships between government offices and organizations, including the competing interests, fragmentations and difficulties in terms of challenging groups involved in the networks facilitating migration at the various stages. All of these enabled the abuse to go on for very many years. Moreover, regarding organizations overseen by the Catholic Church, monitoring was minimal,due to assumed ‘bonds of trust’. Gordon asked what it is about religious organizations that exempted them from scrutiny. What permitted the religious exceptionalism that saw the suspension of so many otherwise widely adopted recommendations? When the usual recommendation was to advise that children be adopted, fostered, or raised in small-scale residential units, why were exceptions made by national policy makers to permit religious institutions to run large, understaffed orphanages where abuse was able to thrive?

Sema Khan represented Barnardos, a long-established charity that protects and supports above all vulnerable children and young people, as well as parents and carers. She is based in Bradford where Barnardo’s has a family support and a child sexual exploitation (CSE) team. Semareports that more children on the autistic spectrum and more boys and young men are seeking help to address emotional needs, including the help of recovery groups following sexual exploitation. Sema explained, too, that Barnardo’s is less pronouncedly Christian in focus than it has been historically. It has a diverse staff and works for a diverse community, including many Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

Saima Afzal has worked in all of research, consultancy, local government and community development, particularly in matters to do with religion, gender and South Asian communities of Lancashire and Yorkshire. She is an elected councillor for Blackburn. Saima has conducted research on child sexual exploitation in South Asian communities of the UK, on sexuality in Islam, and on police stop and search powers against minority ethnic communities. Saima has founded her own community interest group called SASRIGHTS CIC (see also Saima Afzal Solutions). She works as a freelance criminologist and has served as expert witness for cases involving domestic abuse, forced marriage and so-called “honour”-based killing. She has received an MBE for her services to policing and community relations.

Bob Balfour is founder of Survivors West Yorkshire(SWY), formerly called One In Four (North). SWY is action-oriented and works in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. Prominently included in this support are male survivors of sexual abuse. Bob was also instrumental in the creation of Ben’s Place, a West Yorkshire support service for male survivors of sexual abuse, named after Ben, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who took his own life soon after his twenty-third birthday. The mission of Ben’s Place is to deliver specialist support and advice to adult male survivors (i.e. aged 16+) who are ready to disclose experiences of sexual crimes committed against them and who want to access support to explore options for understanding and integrating what was done to them. SWY and Ben’s Place work in partnership with Rape Crisis and challenge the silencing and alienation of survivors. One of Bob’s campaigns is ‘Challenge the Silence’ and he has written for ‘A View From Inside the Box’. Bob has been vigorous in his resistance to denial. He has not only founded support groups and actions, he has published on the topic, devised practical strategies for post-traumatic growth, collaborated with universities as ‘expert by experience’ and in the role of Teacher at Liverpool (paid for by the NHS), and is currently supervising four Clinical Psychology students.

Jo Sadgrove has considerable expertise in the area of faith-based international development – both as an academic researcher and a practitioner. She works part-time as research and learning advisor to the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG), an Anglican mission agency engaging in community development and theological education around the world. Jo discussed the imperialist echoes and tendencies of some of the work of USPG but also the ways that being part of such an organization can give access to networks and opportunities for making a difference. Jo’s particular interests are in intersections of religion and health and in Christianity and sexuality in cross-cultural perspectives. Jo talked about workshops she has conducted with perpetrators of gender-based violence, which bring men together to talk about being men and about violence in their lives. She sees great value in working with perpetrators as well as victims of gender-based violence.

Jo has direct experience of We Will Speak Out, a global coalition of churches and Christian NGO’s challenging prevailing patterns of violence.

After presentations from all participants, we had an open discussion to begin to explore ways of collaboration and support. During the coffee and lunch breaks already, representatives from different institutions and organizations had begun to chat in small groups and exchange information, advice, and ask questions.

The following arose in discussion:

There is little available in the way of accessible, succinct and helpful information on the topic of spiritual abuse. More discussion and more research on the topic are required. This would be invaluable for a range of practitioners encountering perpetrators and victims of gender-based violence. (Representatives of Staying Put reported that a defense of spiritual abuse – blaming demons, possession, djinns, or witchcraft for inciting violence, including sexual abuse – comes out with some regularity in one-on-one conversations with both perpetrators and victims.)

More emphasis on prevention is necessary. Often crisis support is the preserve of highly trained effective individuals. But more expertise needs to be invested in recognizing the signs before the tipping point.

Not infrequently – and this is sometimes due to the sheer strain on service providers (something that received repeated mention) – professionals become part of the problem for already vulnerable groups. Sometimes, for instance, there will be insistence (by social welfare or by NGO or charity staff) that service users take a particular training course, with the threat that otherwise their children will be removed. The effect of this can be to alienate already vulnerable people and to deter them from continuing to seek professional help.

Practitioners welcomed the opportunity to meet others working in related areas. They would very much like more work between groups. SARC, for instance, would appreciate information about JWA, to make bespoke help available in their networks targeting vulnerable people in the community at risk of sexual violence.

There was acknowledgement that communities are diverse and that multi-faceted expertise is needed (e.g. from all of police, social services, consultants, charities, etc.) to address gender-based and sexual violence. Again, better communication between different groups is recognized as important.

There was an expression of need for more religious and cultural literacy – and for academics who could providethis in accessible ways.

Practical micro-level and macro-level strategies are required to address the structural problems that facilitate much of the violence on the ground.

David Smith mentioned that he is often looking for research pieces towards capacity building. He recommends that we all register with and join Blue Light Services, to let emergency services know what we can provide.

There was widespread acknowledgement that religious leaders are often obstructive when it comes to addressing domestic situations of violence and abuse. More needs to be done to train religious leaders in gender-sensitive strategies, as well as in encouraging them to facilitate professional advice for their community members – as opposed to attempting to handle delicate and complex matters themselves when they lack the necessary training and expertise.

The Sex and Relationships Education curriculum, to be rolled out September 2020, is likely to lead to a deluge of referrals. Help will be needed urgently to manage these.

Some practitioners predict a backlash to the extent of safeguarding training – a backlash that will include alsotheological and ethical questions. Again, collaboration between practitioners and researchers will be important in addressing these.

All in all, it was a stimulating, thought-provoking and fruitful day. We will take the conversations forward in our ongoing work in Project Shiloh. This was just the start of the conversation, and we hope to sustain it through ongoing collaborations.

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ANNOUNCEMENT: Routledge Focus Book Series on ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’

We are delighted to announce our new Routledge Focus book series ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’, edited by The Shiloh Project co-directors Caroline Blyth, Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert.

Titles are peer-reviewed, short form publications between 20,000-50,000 words, published within 12 weeks of submission.

If you would like to discuss a potential proposal, contact the series editors at shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

Look out for exciting titles coming later this year!

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 14: Deborah Kahn-Harris

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? 
a. Name: Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris
b. Job: Principal, Leo Baeck College, London, UK (www.lbc.ac.uk)
c. As Principal of Leo Baeck College (LBC), I run the only institution training rabbis for progressive (non-Orthodox) rabbis in the UK and one of only two such seminariesin Europe. I have overall responsibility for the institution, which includes everything from budgets to teaching to managing staff and most points in between. I teach a yearlong course on the megillot – Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther – with a particular emphasis on contemporary methodological and hermeneutical approaches. My personal academic research is focused on feminist interpretations of biblical texts, finding ways of incorporating classical rabbinic hermeneutics with feminist hermeneutics and reader-response theory to create modern midrash. In my teaching practice I am particularly keen that students should draw connections between the ways we read the biblical text and the impact these readings have on our communities. In the context of the Bible and sexual violence, I aim to help students discover and uncover the ways in which biblical depictions of sexual violence might shape both our personal and communal attitudes and approaches to dealing with this issue in the lives of real people.
In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  
a. During the coming year on the academic front I hope to continue to be able to write about issues relating to the Bible and sexual violence. On the vocational front, I am committed to continuing to ensure that LBC students have training on sexual violence, how to support congregants dealing with sexual violence, and, in particular, to run further workshops (a workshop was already run in the 2017/18 academic year) on the MeToo movement. From a personal perspective, I have recently become a member of Jewish Women’s Aid and hope to find more ways of working with JWA to support their work in the Jewish community.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 10: Miryam Sivan

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Dr. Miryam Sivan and I am a fiction writer and lecturer in literature at the University of Haifa in Israel. I am originally from New York City and it was growing up on the ‘tough’ city streets that caused my feminist consciousness and inevitable recognition of male predation to be formed. For decades I was involved in Holocaust stories and the silence around sexual violence inflicted on Jewish women during the war always seemed ‘off’ to me. I am not a historian so I did not research primary archival sources to unearth the violence that did occur, but as a literary critic I focused on the threads of this violence as seen in testimonial literature and fiction. My article on the Polish-Israeli writer, Yehiel Dinur, whose early novels were concerned with sexual predation in the concentration camps, was included in Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. Published in 2010, decades after the war ended! it was the first scholarly volume that dealt with the topic. For many years I have been an Advisory Board member of Remember the Women Institute, dedicated to “including women in history since 1997,” including the exposure and dissection of gender based violence. In 2014 I published a short story collection, SNAFU and Other Stories in which one story, “Traffic,” deals explicitly with this kind of violence. In 14 short vignettes I ‘expose’ scenarios in the various religious and ethnic communities of Israel where women’s bodies are violated not in exceptional ways but in socially ‘common’ ways.  In Israel where there is no separation of religion and state, outdated and misogynistic religious laws still govern women’s lives to a frightening degree.

How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

I think the Shiloh Project is engaged in important and wonderful work. I think your range of articles is extensive and highly informative.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?

In April 2019 my novel, Make it Concrete, will be published in New York. It is a story about a woman who ghostwrites Holocaust memoirs while her own mother, a Holocaust survivor, will not talk about her war time experiences. To avoid ‘spoilers’ I won’t give any more details, but I can say that sexual violence and its repercussions play a critical role in the unfolding narrative drama.

I will continue to include in my curriculum, particularly in my Literature of the Holocaust course, literary texts that deal openly with sexual violence. In my Israel Stories course (both these courses are in the International School of the University of Haifa – with students from many countries) we read texts and watch films that directly show how religious Jewish law blatantly and unapologetically discriminates against women.

In addition, I am working on a screenplay about a sexual predator and the atmosphere of male privilege which is part and parcel of patriarchal religions and the societies they are a part of will be highlighted and critiqued.  

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