Violence Against Women

Parashat Vayera offers many instances of abuse towards female biblical characters.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

This extraordinarily rich parashah filled with violence--not just the obvious and dramatic violence of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the incipient violence of the binding of Isaac, but also various, more ordinary, forms of violence against women. Half-buried in the vivid description of the people of Sodom gathering around Lot's house and demanding the strangers staying with him is Lot's reply, "Look--I have two daughters who have never been intimate with a man; let me bring them out for you, and do to them as you please.
torah women's commentary
But do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof" (19:8). While a later midrash will see Lot's offer as evidence that he was infected by the wickedness of Sodom and picture him as having been punished (Tanchuma Vayera 12), the biblical text offers no explicit judgment on his behavior. The violence of the people of Sodom merits the destruction of the city, but the willingness of Lot to see his daughters assaulted and raped is apparently unworthy of comment.

Abraham & Sarah

At the beginning of Genesis 20, we have another form of violence: the second of two stories (or two versions of the same story; see 12:10-20) in which Abraham seeks to pass off his wife Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself. In this passage, Abimelech, king of Gerar, seizes Sarah, but her potential rape is averted when God keeps Abimelech from touching her. The similar tale will be repeated once again in relation to Isaac and Rebekah (26:6-11).

The three-fold reiteration of the narrative suggests that it might serve as a paradigm of the situation of Jewish women. The first two male ancestors of the Jews, perceiving themselves as "other" and therefore endangered in foreign lands, use their wives as buffers between themselves and the larger culture. The women become the "others' other," the ones whose safety and well-being can be sacrificed in order to save the patriarchs' skins.

The story names a pattern that becomes a recurring part of Jewish history: male Jews, subordinated by the dominant culture, in turn subordinate women within their own cultures, doubling the otherness that partly mirrors their own. As in the case of Lot's offering his daughters to the people of Sodom, the biblical text offers no comment on or protest against this situation. Unlike when God appears to Abimelech in a dream and threatens him with death unless he releases Sarah (Genesis 12), God does not explicitly chastise Abraham or Lot.

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Judith Plaskow

Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is the author of the landmark work Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, and has written and edited a number of other volumes on the topics of contemporary religious thought and feminist theology.