Ari S. Lorge | November 18, 2016
While we continue to watch vigilantly the transition in our nation, there is a story that faded too quickly in the wake of the election coverage. In January of 2016, Sara Kabakov wrote an Op-Ed in the Jewish Forward detailing the sexual abuse she endured at age 13 perpetrated by Marc Gafni. At the time this op-ed was published, Gafni, a onetime orthodox rabbi now self-proclaimed spiritual leader was beginning a new venture after having been embroiled in sexual scandals. Worried about Ganfi’s new leadership role, Kabakov shared her story openly under her name for the first time. Then, days before the presidential election, the Jewish Forward published a response from Gafni. Why the paper felt the need to publish this response is a question for another time. But in publishing it they amplified his voice, and to this we must respond. We must respond because it is what Judaism calls us to do. We must respond, because having worked on the issues of violence against women and intimate partner violence on a communal and national level for 8 years I know the importance of faith communities speaking with a clear and loud voice and standing with survivors.
In his response Gafni claimed this sexual encounter with Kabakov was a mutual one despite their age difference. He said, and I am quoting him, “I hadn’t any awareness that her being a minor was an issue. We were 14 and 19 – teenagers, who had no knowledge of such things in New York, when, culturally, such topics were far less discussed than they are today.” He said, “There are two opposing narratives, and there is no easy way to directly establish the veracity of either.” And here Gafni is incorrect. Not just incorrect, misguided and dangerous.
Ignorance of the law excuses not. This is not simply a cornerstone of our American legal tradition. This idea is imbedded in Jewish law and discourse. In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham and Sarah, travel to the South. While in a town called Gerar Abraham worries that locals will try to take Sarah forcibly from him. A plan is concocted to say she is his unwed sister. This way, should local men try to seize her, they will not murder Abraham too. The King of Gerar, Avimelech learns of Sarah and, as they feared, takes her. Thinking she is unwed he prepares to sleep with her. God becomes incensed and threatens to kill Avimelech. Avimelech says to God, Abraham said Sarah was his sister. You cannot find fault in my deeds. “In the innocence of my mind and in the purity of my hands have I done this.”
Our sages take issues with this phrase. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an orthodox scholar of the 19th century, writes, “Avimelech thinks – and many people agree with him – that if one does something betom levav (with innocence of mind), then he automatically is also naki kapayim (his hands are clean); as though the worthiness of a deed depends solely on the purity of the intention. The Torah rejects this view…Good intentions do not transform a bad deed into a good deed.” Avimelech angers God. His actions are not righteous. His ignorance of that does not excuse him. The fact that he believed himself to be innocent is no comfort to Sarah whose body he is going to force himself upon. This is an important concept for all sin or law breaking, but especially for sexual assault. A perpetrator’s intention is not what defines this act. It is the act itself. Gafni, like Avimelech, argues a similar case. He claims he didn’t know anything about statutory rape laws. He acted betom levav, with innocence of mind. He didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. Therefore, how could the act be unlawful or sinful? His hands are clean he claims. But that is not so. The law makes clear that this physical encounter was not mutual. It was rape. Our sages, and our American judicial system, declare he is guilty. And while the Torah does not give our matriarch Sarah a voice in this week’s parashah, Kabakov has not been silent. A survivor has spoken in our community. Her abuser does not deny their age differential or the relationship. We have an obligation to speak out.
Because we know these are not lone cases. We know from all the research and all the anecdotes that there are men walking around who think their hands are clean when they are not. Who, like Gafni, feel that a sexual encounter between a 19-year-old freshman in college and a 14 or 13-year-old is just teenagers being teenagers. Those, like Shavit, who feel that because they perceive a flirtation they are allowed to attempt to force a woman to kiss them. Those who feel they can touch a woman anywhere until she says no rather than ask for consent. Those who feel that because a woman said yes once that their consent has no expiration date. Those who feel that when a woman says she is not interested in them it is code for wanting to be pursued more doggedly. Those who feel that because of their wealth or status or power they can treat women however they please. The fact that they believe themselves to be innocent of mind does not make their hands clean. It wasn’t the case for King Avimelech and its not the case for Gafni, or Shavit, or any other man who somehow feels their belief of innocence makes their actions permitted. It does not. These are sins. There is no other word for them. They cry out to God.
Rabbi Hirsch concludes, “Even were Sarah merely the unmarried sister of Avraham, must every unmarried woman who enters the territory of a foreign king be prepared to gratify the king’s lust? And if that is the local custom and way of behavior, is it proper behavior? Is it not the king’s duty to set a good example for his people, to show and teach them upright and moral ways of behavior?” We may not live in Ancient Gerar but modern America has too much of that world wound up in it. Yet, Torah declares there is a higher standard. And our job as people of faith, even if it goes against local custom, is to educate the girls and boys in our society to expect a different custom. We live in a nation that knows too much sexual violence. And we know too many women who are holding personal stories of rape, harassing comments, uncomfortably long hugs or caresses, supposedly innocuous jokes, unwanted groping, demeaning words, cat calling, and more. We must work toward a world where these stories are the exception or non-existent rather than routine. As Rabbi Hirsch wrote in the 1800’s it is the duty of a King or a leader to set a better example – to show the world a different way to be and to act. To stand up and say that none of this is going to be tolerated. To call out these acts as sins. Our Torah declares a true leader would do so. Our Torah declares a good man would do so. So we will say it plainly in this community and from this bimah. It is wrong. And until we teach that more explicitly, until we change what has become woefully customary, none of us, not one of us, is naki kapayim. Our hands are not clean. There is work to do. It begins by standing up, with and for the survivors who have been silenced. Because we can build a better world; a world built from love. We can start right here in this community. But we must do it together. We must resolve to act together.
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