Still Screaming - Is Anyone Listening?

[This important and powerful article was published in The Jewish Star, and an excerpt is published here with their kind permission.]

By Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, Rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic, NJ.

In 1893, Edvard Munch a Norwegian painter, created the iconic painting The Scream. It has been seen by millions of people and elicited much praise and emotion. Who is the person in The Scream and what is he screaming about?

Obviously, the greatness and the appeal of the painting is that it says something to everyone. Everyone in their own way is able to have The Scream speak to them on their level and in their personal emotional state.

Who is pictured in The Scream, according to me? Who is this unidentified individual whose impassioned scream is still being heard all over the world, according to Rabbi Eisenman?

Welcome to my world and to a lesson in art appreciation by an Orthodox rabbi.

The Daf Yomi is now learning Masechta Sanhedrin. I cannot properly describe in words the wonderful merit Hashem has blessed me with. Early every morning I have the incomparable zechus to learn a daf Gemara together with a group of committed men. Sanhedrin is especially fascinating as it deals with the laws of government, the kingdom, and various kings of the Jewish people.

Last Friday, March 5, the entire Daf Yomi learned Sanhedrin, daf 21. Toward the end of the first amud, the Gemara discusses a very unfortunate incident of molestation and abuse that occurred in King David’s very own palace!

Let us take a look at the verses, exactly as they appear in our Holy Tanach, in the book of Shmuel 2 (13:6-13).

“6. And Amnon lay down and feigned sickness; and the king (David) came to see him, and Amnon said to the king, ‘Let my sister Tamar come now, and make two dumplings before my eyes; that I may eat from her hand.’”

“7. And David sent home to Tamar saying, ‘Go now to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare the food for him. 8. And Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house and he was lying down. And she took the dough, and kneaded it, and she prepared the dumplings before his eyes, and she cooked the dumplings.”

“9. And she took the pan and poured [them out] before him: but he refused to eat. And Amnon said, ‘Take everyone out from me.’ And everyone went out from him. 10. And Amnon said to Tamar, ‘Bring the food into the chamber that I may eat from your hand.’ And Tamar took the dumplings that she had made and brought them to Amnon her brother into the chamber. 11. And she brought them near to him to eat and he took hold of her and said to her, ‘Come lay with me, my sister.’”

“12. And she said to him, ‘No, my brother, do not force me, for it is not done so in Israel; do not do this wanton deed. 13. And I, where shall I lead my shame? And [as for] you, you shall be like one of the profligate men in Israel. And now I beg of you to speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you.’ 14. But he would not heed her and he overpowered her, and forced her, and lay with her.”

This incident is certainly not one that brought pride or honor to King David and the Jewish people; however, the Torah tells it as it was and it is for us to learn the lessons.

The verses themselves are powerful enough to tell of the dangers of molestation; however, I would like to focus on the next few verses — the focal point of the Gemara’s discussion.

How did Tamar react to her molestation? How did she react to her abuse and to her abuser? Let’s read further in the chapter:

“18. Now she had on a striped tunic, for in this manner the king’s virgin daughters dressed, in robes. And his servant brought her outside, and locked the door after her. 19. And Tamar put ashes on her head, and she went about, crying aloud as she went.

What did Tamar do? Did she “cover up”her shame? Did she attempt to deal with the issue (as one so-called ‘prominent’ person once told me that these things have to be dealt with) shtiller hait — in silence and privately?

No! Tamar went out publicly, as the Holy Torah says: and she went about, crying aloud as she went! She made a public display of her abuse and of her molestation. She could not cover it up! She did not deal with it privately and in the secretive chamber of a rabbinic refectory.

No, Tamar went public and screamed and cried until all the women of the Jewish world knew about her molestation and her abuse.

How did the rabbis of the Gemara react to her public shaming of the respected and noble son of the king? Did they publicly shame and chastise her for her chutzpah of discussing these things in the court of public opinion? Did they censure her by attempting to cover her up the incident? No, not at all! Let’s take a look at what Chazal (our teachers, whose teachings we must emulate and live by) have taught us:

“Sanhedrin 21a-b: R. Yehoshua ben Korchah taught: ‘And Tamar put ashes on her head, and she went about, crying aloud as she went….’ — this taught a great lesson to Bnos Yisrael: [The Jewish women said] (As they observed her crying and screaming; Rashi) — ‘If such a great disgrace can occur even to the king’s daughter, all the more so to regular women; if it can occur even to modest women, and all the more so to immodest women!’”

The exact wording of the Gemara here is crucial to analyze. The Gemara says:

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah taught: geder Gadol gadra Tamar B’oso shaha — this literally means, ‘Tamar built a great and big fence (meaning: proper precautions were instituted among the Jewish people) at that hour.’”

Rashi, our teacher and upon whose understanding of Gemara we all rely, answers a very obvious question in concise, yet revealing words: How could Tamar, a woman with no official legal authority, ‘build a fence’ (meaning legislate new precautionary practices)?

To this the Holy Rashi answers that she was able to legislate these reforms about proper conduct between men and women “through her tears and her scream.”

“Other women said, ‘if this could occur in the house of the King, certainly it can happen in ‘regular’ homes of the simple commoner’. (And the women on their own began to be more cautious and precautionary in their behavior).”

Meaning, initially, and through grass root channels, women-based on the public display of Tamar — began to be more careful and prudent about where they were and who they were with. They realized it could happen to anyone and at any time.

How did the rabbis of the time react to the new vigilant behavior on the part of the women? The rabbis were supportive, as the Gemara states: “Says Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav: At that time, they decreed against seclusion.”

Meaning, Chazal understood that certain more vigilant and more cautious steps had to be instituted as far as private contact, even between members of the king’s family, and certainly in any other setting!

Friends, the Torah, Tamar, the rabbis of the Talmud, and Chazal were not afraid and or hesitant to go public if that what was needed at the time. The Torah, Tamar, the rabbis of the Talmud, Chazal, all realized that by keeping these issues under the rug and by dealing with them in a hush-hush manner — even when done by well meaning individuals — you are playing right into the hands of the molesters who thrive on the realization that their crimes will be kept quiet by the general public.

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