From the nudity of Noah to the rape of Dinah to the attempted seduction of Joseph in this week’s Torah reading, the first book of the Bible is replete with instances of people who try to use power or violence to coerce sex from the unwilling. Daniel Ross Goodman finds an important and timely message in the thread that connects these stories:
Abraham diagnoses the problem [during his sojourn] in Philistia, after [its king], Avimelekh, abducts Sarah and [a] miracle occurs preventing Avimelekh from molesting her: Avimelekh confronts Abraham, asking him why he lied and called Sarah his sister. Abraham tells Avimelekh, “I said to myself ‘there is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife’” (Genesis 20:11). . . .
The message of [this and other] stories is clear: where there is no fear of God, . . . primal instincts go unchecked and powerless people are at risk of having sexual violence perpetrated upon them by powerful, unrestrained potentates. . . .
“Good manners must come prior to the Torah,” the rabbis of the Talmud teach. Because if there is a lack of basic decency, then what good is law? The book of Genesis is the first book of the Bible in order to teach us that if we cannot manage to act with basic decency—for instance, if we cannot understand something as basic as not forcing people into sexual activity against their will—then the rest of the Bible, and the rest of our endeavors, are essentially worthless.
We have a difficult time nowadays talking about concepts like “holiness,” “humility,” and “fear of God” (or “fear of Heaven,” as it is often called in rabbinic literature). We are much more comfortable talking about “tolerance,” “equality,” or “rights.” But if there’s anything that today’s stories about sexual harassment can teach us, . . . it’s that without a fear of Heaven—without the fear that there is a higher power who will hold those with earthly power accountable for their misdeeds—then it is very, very difficult to prevent people from exploiting others.
Without the fear of heaven, you must rely on earthly laws alone for justice. As Harvey Weinstein and the rest have demonstrated, that’s not much of a shield. When you untether the law from belief, you rob it of its power.
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