Public Responsibility: From Biblical Consent To Planned Parenthood
When I first read my assigned Bat Mitzvah parsha (Torah portion), Ki Teitzei, my response was one of shock and disgust. The parsha discusses the guidelines for punishing an engaged virgin who lies with another man, outlining different punishments depending upon where the activity occurs–in a town or in the open country. According to the Torah, if the act occurs in a town, the woman involved shall be stoned to death along with the man because she didn't scream for help, thus implying consent. The Torah lists a different punishment, and assumes rape instead of a consensual decision, in the countryside: “But if the man comes upon the engaged girl in the open country, and the man lies with her by force, only the man who lay with her shall die, but you shall do nothing to the girl. The girl did not incur the death penalty...He came upon her in the open; though the engaged girl cried for help, there was no one to save her." Although jarring to read from a modern perspective, this excerpt provides a meaningful lesson on public responsibility.
I was aware that the gender roles in the Torah are very different from those that I take for granted today, yet I was still shocked when I read this parsha for the first time. It seemed to me that the Torah outlined a very clear system of victim-blaming. What rationale could there possibly be for punishing a rape victim under any circumstances, regardless of the location of her rape?
The more I mulled over the troubling lines, the more I wondered about their underlying message. I hoped to find an alternate interpretation, one that didn't make me feel so upset and disconnected from our core religious text. Maybe the harsh punishment outlined in the Torah wasn't blaming the victim, but rather expecting public responsibility from the townspeople. In the case of a rape occurring in a town, it’s assumed that the victim didn’t cry for help. This assumption places a lot of trust in the townspeople–they’re expected to help a woman if they hear her screaming. Because this public responsibility is taken as a given, it’s implied that the girl raped in town must not have called for help, and therefore that the sexual act was consensual. This interpretation also explains the lack of punishment for a girl raped out in the country. If she were to scream, nobody would hear her and come to her aid. Although I remain unnerved by the gender dynamics of this example, I appreciate the expectation of public responsibility that these commandments assume.
Four years after my Bat Mitzvah, I still remember the conclusions about public responsibility that I drew from Ki Teitzei. I believe that this parsha shows a clear expectation that we take public responsibility for all members of our society. This responsibility is certainly present in situations of rape, but also has many other applications.
Given the results of our recent presidential election, the Torah’s expectation of public responsibility is more important than ever. Our newly elected President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have pledged to defund Planned Parenthood because of the abortion services that the organization provides. However, 2014 data show that abortions make up only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s medical services. 45% of its services concern testing for sexually transmitted infections, and 31% of its services provide contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Not only does Planned Parenthood provide birth control, but its employees also administer cancer screenings, give HPV vaccinations, and provide numerous other health care services. Planned Parenthood clinics throughout the country receive 2.5 million visitors annually and serve as many clients’ only family planning resource. By pledging to defund this organization, President-Elect Trump disregards his public responsibility as an elected official to serve the American people. By limiting access to safe and affordable health care, especially concerning women’s reproductive health, he fails as a public servant. Today, the Torah’s expectation of public responsibility clearly cannot be assumed.
Although I was horrified when I read Ki Teitzei for the first time, I believe that this parsha reveals the Torah’s expectation of public responsibility. The issues that our society faces today can’t be addressed as easily as listening to an actual scream for help, but public responsibility is still crucial. To meet the Torah’s expectation of public responsibility within our community, we need to use our votes, our voices, and our donations to advocate for issues that we care about, from the continued funding of Planned Parenthood to civil rights for the LGBT+ community to addressing homelessness or mass incarceration. During the next four years of a Trump presidency, we need to uphold public responsibility where the administration might fail.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Kirsch, Isabel. "Public Responsibility: From Biblical Consent To Planned Parenthood." 11 January 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/public-responsibility-from-biblical-consent-to-planned-parenthood>.