Biblical Slut-shaming and Botched Femicide: A Jewish Lesson for the #MeToo Age

This old Hebrew tale, which traces its roots to Oriental folklore, tells the story of a virtuous heroine who is repeatedly forced to pay the price for being violently sexualized by men, and offers a timely lesson

Actor and activist Alyssa Milano listening as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 27, 2018.
Saul Loeb,AP

On the Friday evening before the Senate approved the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, the rabbi of an egalitarian Jerusalem synagogue chose to use her weekly dvar Torah to address events of the day.

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum of the Kehilat Zion synagogue brought up a relatively unknown medieval Hebrew text that deals with what we now call “slut-shaming” and attempted femicide – a story with uncanny timeliness in a week when so many congregants were thinking about sexual harassment and its victims, and the issues of credibility and forgiveness.

The story, which takes place in the ancient Land of Israel, involves a woman whose merchant husband leaves home on business. Before his departure, he asks his brother to watch over his wife in his absence. The brother agrees, but once the husband is gone begins making sexual advances toward her. Day after day, he entreaties her to submit, and day after day she explains how she is forbidden to him. After a failed rape attempt, the brother-in-law hires two men to testify in court that they witnessed the wife sleeping with a servant.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem hear the case and, on the say-so of the witnesses alone, convict the woman and sentence her to death by stoning, as stipulated in the Bible. She is placed in a pit and pummeled to death – or so it seems – by her neighbors.

After three days, a father bringing his son to Jerusalem stops by the pile of stones and announces they will spend the night there. Once he puts his head down to sleep, the man begins hearing cries coming from under the stones. He carefully excavates the pile and finds the woman still alive. She recounts her ordeal, and warns the father against leaving her son in the care of the rabbis of Jerusalem. Instead, she suggests he take her back to his home, where she will teach his son Torah, Prophets and the Writings.

The teaching goes fine, but one of her employer’s servants begins accosting her sexually. When she rejects him, he attacks her with a knife. They scuffle, and the servant ends up stabbing and killing the boy. Though the father does not blame the woman for his son’s death, he asks her to leave his home, since “every time I see you, my heart is tormented over my son.”

The woman heads down to the sea, where she is kidnapped by pirates. After they sail, their vessel is caught in a terrible storm and the frightened sailors draw lots to discover who has brought this misfortune upon them. The lots point to the woman, but after she tells them she is a God-fearing Hebrew, they decide not to throw her overboard but instead bring her to dry land and build her a residence. She becomes a great healer whose fame spreads far and wide.

One day, her husband returns from his business and learns that his wife is dead. In the meantime, his brother and the false witnesses are stricken with leprosy, and they all decide to journey to the great healer for relief, unaware of her true identity.

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum speaking at an event in 2009.
\ Alon Ron

She tells them she cannot make them well until they confess their sins to her. Though at first they hold back, eventually they own up to their worst transgressions, “right in front of her husband.” She then reveals who she is and tells them that, despite their confession, she will not make them well, since “you are evildoers.” The brother-in-law and the two witnesses fall dead and the woman is reunited with her husband – “and they were happy and gladdened of heart.”

What is the provenance of this dumbfounding story with its biblical allusions, and its multitalented, virtuous and long-suffering heroine, and her refusal to forgive in the end?

Brent Chaim Spodek, writing in the Times of Israel earlier this fall, lamented what he calls a “toxic” blend of aggressive masculinity that has characterized males since as early as King David.

Spodek, a Conservative congregational rabbi from Beacon, New York, wrote how his empathy for what women endure at the hands of men had been assisted by a “remarkable 13th-century midrash” he had studied over the summer, in a class led by Elana Stein Hain at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. It was Dr. Stein Hain, director of faculty at the Hartman Institute in New York, who had translated the version of the text that appears in Otzar Hamidrashim into English, titling it “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”

Enthusiastic and generous, Stein Hain, who heads a team at Hartman that prepares learning materials for a program called “Judaism, #MeToo and Ethical Leadership,” was happy to share what she knew about the text, which she said left her “completely blown away.” She had been especially struck by its intertextuality – that is, elements in the story that allude to other literary texts, some from other cultures or religions.

When she taught “Nevertheless, She Persisted” over the summer in Jerusalem, she recalled by phone, “we gave the rabbis two hours of hevruta [study in pairs]. I said, ‘Call out which biblical figures she reminds you of.’ They came up with 20 names, 20 references. It was unreal. References I hadn’t thought about: She’s Ruth, but she doesn’t have to marry the Boaz character. They spend the night together, but they don’t spend the night together. And what’s with the three-day resurrection? She’s God? Is this a polemic against Jesus?”

Stein Hain pointed out that when the men come to the heroine at the end for medical relief, they call her “Adonateinu,” basically the feminine form of “Our Lord.”

“When I first read that word, I cried,” she recalled. “I’m a Torah learner, that’s where my fear of heaven comes from. That’s my life. To think that that word would be anywhere in the Jewish corpus – and yet there it was. It kind of felt, like, Wow, thank you.”

Elana Stein Hain speaking at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Boaz Perelstein

‘Crescentia’

Stein Hain also revealed that a story almost identical to “Nevertheless, She Persisted” can be found in many versions of “The Arabian Nights,” in a chapter called “The Tale of the Pious Man and His Chaste Wife.” (In “Arabian Nights,” the woman ends up forgiving the men who hurt her.)

It turns out, I soon learned, that the story line fits into a basic type that scholars of comparative literature call the “Crescentia” tale (type 712 in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales), per the name of the righteous woman in a version that appears in the 12th-century German epic poem “Kaiserchronik.”

According to Rella Kushelevsky, a professor of Hebrew literature at Bar-Ilan University, in Ramat Gan, there are many stories of the “Crescentia” type, “all of which share the same motif – the archetype of the defamed woman, Crescentia. It was known among both Jews and non-Jews, and both in Europe and in the East. There’s also an Indian version, although that’s a little different.”

Kushelevsky studied the story in the course of writing her 2017 book “Tales in Context: Sefer Ha-ma’asim in Medieval Northern France,” an examination of a 13th-century collection of 69 Hebrew tales, many of which have antecedents from other times and places. Kushelevsky’s particular interest is the way the versions that appear in “Sefer Ha-ma’asim” weave European themes and elements into stories that can be found in different forms in earlier Oriental versions.

One can get a sense of just how much flow there was between ancient cultures in the work of Ulrich Marzolph, who has written about the history of several variants of the “Crescentia” tale as they appear in different versions of “The Arabian Nights.” In a 2008 article called “Crescentia’s Oriental Relatives,” Marzolph, a professor of Islamic Studies at Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany, cites Persian and Arabic versions of the story that predate the German “Crescentia” tale by as much as two centuries. These, says Marzolph, “now prove the tale’s Near Eastern origin beyond reasonable doubt.”

But Marzolph goes further. He cites a book of Shi’ite theology called “Al-Kafi,” which dates to 940-941 and centers around “a certain king of the Israelites, his qadi and the qadi’s brother,” writes the contemporary scholar. “Al-Kafi” offers something of a pedigree for the story, he adds: “A chain of transmitters who go back to a certain ‘Abu Abdullah.’ This Abu Abdullah is none other than the sixth imam venerated by the Shi’ite creed, generally known as Jafar al-Sadiq, who died on … Sept. 6, 765.” Marzolph believes that the sourcing of the story to an oral version told in the eighth century is credible, and then goes on to suggest that the Jewish context given to that telling “might prove quite significant for the ultimate origin of the tale.”

The ‘missing link’

Marzolph suggests that such an early Jewish version, “whether written or oral, might well be supposed to supply the ‘missing link’ between the tale’s Oriental and Western versions.”

That missing link could be the collection of Hebrew tales and accompanying commentary known as “Aseret Hadibrot” (the 10 Commandments), which is incorporated into the “Sefer Ha-ma’asim” collection studied by Kushelevsky. Kushelevsky says the earliest known written version of this “Aseret Hadibrot” emerged, “probably from Persia, or maybe Babylonia,” in the 10th century.

However remote its provenance, what some are now referring to as the “#MeToo Midrash” continues to resonate powerfully today.

“The midrash really puts at its center a woman who is buried under a pile of stones in Jerusalem,” said Elad-Appelbaum, explaining what led her to devote a weekly talk to the subject. “It’s not just a physical expression of what happened to her, there in Jerusalem. And, of course, it was especially important to me because the whole midrash takes place in Jerusalem, and we [in Kehilat Zion] are a community in Jerusalem – which is supposed to be a city of justice, and yet it could bury the cry of that woman. And the people who do that are members of the Sanhedrin.”

The midrash, said Elad-Appelbaum, “is doing what the father and son are doing: It takes off the stones and it says, ‘I am listening and I want to hear your story. And another one, and another one. And you, the woman, or the boy or the girl, you will be the healers of this world by telling your story.'”

In her rabbinical work, Elad-Appelbaum is focused on building a community with her congregants: The word “kehila” means “community” in Hebrew. She wonders aloud if it is the community that can serve as the vehicle for societies to contend with and overcome the difficulties of the #MeToo moment.

Her conclusion is that teshuvah – return or repentance through faith – might be possible in the community setting, despite the fact that “We are going through a period now, after the Haskala [the Enlightenment] ... of secularism.

“The same way you need a whole village to raise a child, you need a whole village to make teshuvah. You need to be able to bring the midrash not only to a private person, but to bring it to the kehila. … There needs to be a place where people are able to voice the terrible deeds that have been done to them.

“I expect society to be able to support teshuvah, at least to say to people, ‘This is what we expect of you: We expect you, in the middle of your life, to stand up and confess, and find your way to do teshuvah.’

“We are witnessing the tragedy between men and women. Are we going to say there’s nothing we can do about it? Or, what can we do about the people who have been through it? I don’t think the legal system [alone] can give an answer to those people who have been hurt. It can’t heal the world that is already hurt. And the injured world is an inseparable part of the world we live in. And it isn’t willing to be quiet anymore. And the question it faces today is: What tools does it have at its disposal to effect healing? The tools it has are emotional, they are spiritual. The spiritual world has something to offer us. That’s what she is telling us, the woman in the midrash.”