Why Don’t We See Strong Reactions To Sexual Violence In Tanach?

Dear Jew in the City,

Why didn’t King David deal more harshly with his son who raped his daughter? Why didn’t Yaakov react more strongly to Dinah being raped?

– Jason

Dear Jason-

Thanks for your question, Jason. I understand where you’re coming from, but I think you’re making a lot of assumptions about what did and didn’t happen that aren’t supported by the text.

First, let’s discuss the crime and penalties of rape in Jewish law. Rape is not defined as a “sex crime” in Jewish law. Sexual offenses are based on relations that are inherently prohibited. Relations between a man and his aunt, for example, are inherently prohibited. Therefore, even if consensual, they constitute an offense of a sexual nature. Rape is not a sex crime per se, though it is unambiguously prohibited by the Torah. Assuming that the act would be permitted if consensual (i.e., it is not incestuous or adulterous), then it is form of assault. (We would call it a sexual assault but that’s not really a halachic category. We will see, however, that there is a unique penalty that is imposed in cases of rape.)

Some people are bothered that the Torah doesn’t consider rape to be a “sex crime,” as if that somehow means that we don’t take it seriously. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s just that people envision the world as a jigsaw puzzle, with the assumption that every language and culture simply renames the same pieces. Rather, the world is like the picture from which the puzzle is made and every language and culture cuts it into its own unique puzzle. For example, we view animals as mammals, birds, fish, etc., but the Torah categorizes them as beasts, flying things, sea creatures, creeping things, etc. So an elephant, a bat, a whale and a mouse are in the same secular category but in four different Torah categories. Similarly, “sex crimes” in halacha refers to inherently impermissible relationships (basically incest and adultery); rape is a “violent crime” (which is also how the US Department of Justice defines it).

Now keep in mind that there was no prison in Biblical times. Some offenses, like murder, were capital crimes. Other violations were punished with lashes. Interpersonal offenses were generally settled with fines. The penalty for rape was three such fines, compensating the victim for pain, shame and loss (Kesubos 39a-b). On top of all this, the Torah imposes a hefty fine of fifty shekels on a rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28–29). [I know that some readers will respond that the money from the fine is paid to the victim’s father, but this is only the case when the victim is a minor. When the victim is an adult, she receives the money herself.]

Now let’s examine the situations with Yaakov and David.

We had occasion to discuss the rape of Dina just last week, so I’ll copy here how I described the incident there:

In the city of Shechem, Yaakov’s daughter Dina was raped and abducted by the person Shechem, son of the city’s ruler, Chamor. Shechem wanted to marry Dina so Chamor brokered a deal with Yaakov’s sons: the men of the city would be circumcised, after which they would intermarry with Yaakov’s children and be one big, happy family. When the men were all in pain from their circumcisions, Shimon and Levi massacred them and rescued their sister. Yaakov criticized them for their actions, saying that such behavior would make them a target for the other people who inhabit the land. Shimon and Levi responded, “Should we let our sister be treated like a whore?”

Normally, the question I’m called upon to answer is how to justify Shimon and Levi’s actions. (See last week’s Q&A for that discussion.) Your complaint is that Yaakov didn’t react strongly enough. But here’s what we know about Yaakov’s reaction: he didn’t agree with wiping out the city of Shechem because, by doing so, Shimon and Levi had made their family a target. That’s all. Yaakov’s sons brokered the intermarriage deal and Shimon and Levi carried out the attack; we have no way of knowing how Yaakov would have handled things had his sons not beaten him to the punch.

Now let’s discuss the situation with David. In II Samuel 13, David’s son Amnon rapes David’s daughter Tamar. (The exact relationship between Amnon and Tamar is unclear; they were either half-siblings or step-siblings.) We are told that David was greatly upset with Amnon, but then the text flash-forwards two years, to Tamar’s brother Avshalom murdering Amnon in revenge. The Malbim takes the approach that David failed to rebuke Amnon, though most of the commentators are silent on the matter. 

The penalty for rape is a series of fines; how are we to know that Amnon didn’t pay them? (I always say, the Torah never tells us that Avraham used the facilities, but I assume that that he did. Failure to mention something is not proof that it didn’t happen.) Since the specifics of the relationship between Amnon and Tamar are not provided, we don’t know whether or not Amnon committed a capital offense. It’s clear that David didn’t publicize the matter, but who would? Even if one weren’t concerned about a royal scandal, this is the kind of thing that most families would keep to themselves.

In between receiving this question and writing this response, I happened to stumble across the following in Drashos HaRan (9:15): One of the ways in which God’s punishing the Jews resembles a father punishing his son is that a father doesn’t punish his son as much as he deserves. For example, a father doesn’t kill his son even if he deserves the death penalty because of his love and compassion for him.

This is intended as a metaphor for the way God treats us but here it’s important that we examine the mashal (the “fable”) rather than the nimshal (the “moral”). 

Imagine a 12-year-old boy (we’ll call him Tommy) sneaking up behind a 9-year-old (we’ll call him Bobby). Tommy whacks Bobby in the back of the head, requiring 30 stitches. While Bobby’s on the ground, Tommy kicks him in the ribs and breaks Bobby’s nose. It probably wouldn’t surprise you if Bobby’s parents call the police and Tommy ends up in family court, followed by six months in juvie.

Let’s add a detail now. Tommy and Bobby are brothers. Do you still expect the situation to result in police, family court and juvie? More likely, Tommy’s parents will send him for therapy or, in extreme cases, hospitalization. The reality is that one is going to react differently when the perpetrator is their own kid.

So we don’t know for sure how David might have punished Amnon. Maybe he was fined according to the law; maybe he got off scot-free. (Yes, kings had the authority to execute in cases where the courts couldn’t, but you can’t expect David to have used this extra-legal authority on his own son, as we have said.) For all we know, Tamar might have asked her father to drop it in order to avoid publicizing the incident; that happens even today when there’s a lot less stigma attached than there was 3,000 years ago. We just don’t know. All we do know is that Avshalom wasn’t satisfied and took matters into his own hands.

Bottom line, we can’t draw any legal implications from Yaakov or David’s seeming inaction. Yaakov was preceded by his sons, so we have no idea what he would have done. The Nach is silent on how David did or didn’t react, but we have to expect that a person will act differently when both the victim and the perpetrator are his own kids. Neither of these stories sends a message to treat rape lightly. If anything, please note that both Shechem and Amnon do end up dead for their crimes! It’s just not Yaakov and David who “pull the trigger.”

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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