Sunday, December 14, 2008

Feminist critique of the legend of Sodom and Gomorrah

I read the book Shekhinah: She Who Dwells Within some years back. The author Lynn Gottlieb is a rabbi and a feminist. The book is a manifesto where a revised, contemporary, re-envisioned expression of Judaism is presented from her perspective.

The main thing that this book did for me was it opened my eyes to the long history of dissent that exists in the Jewish tradition, out of which the Americanized Jewish Reform movement was born. This westernized Jewish tradition is a brilliant, progressive, liberal expression of Judaism. It is what Judaism should have been from the beginning.

This admirable tradition where old ideas are challenged constantly in order to produce more intelligent expressions of religion has unfortunately not yet taken root in the Islamic world, although some Christian traditions have taken part of this same process.

Conservatives generally take for granted (in error) that scriptures were written for all eternity to remain unchanged, that they are set in stone and are not changeable. Gottlieb presents us with a challenge to this notion which not only makes sense, but is a much more dynamic insight than it seems and it carries the possibility of forever transforming Biblical patriarchal presumptions.

One of the most revolutionary (and commonsense) ideas that Gottlieb's book presents is the fact that the Bible was written by men, from men's perspective, and that if it had been written by the women, from the women's perspective, it would have been a completely different document.

She cites the laws in Deuteronomy 22 concerning the stoning of women, even if they were raped, and the fact that women were to be sold to their sexual predators and the Bible even sets a price for them. She asked: How would the women of Biblical times have related their experience of these laws, if they had not been silenced and made invisible? What version of this paradigm would they have presented in scripture? It was a brillant argument.

Jewish women found a voice during the Middle Ages in the midrashic tradition. The midrash were Jewish legends which were passed down orally, usually by the women.

Gottlieb produced several midrash in her book where she envisioned the women of the Bible telling their own stories for the first time. She emphasized the importance and the need for women to speak up and tell their own stories from their own perspective. I think members of the gay community should also do the same within their churches or synagogues, so that our sacred history will not continue to be told by our oppressors as it was in the past.

This takes me to the subject that I originally wanted to address: the women in the Sodom and Gomorrah legend. The problem of how this legend is used to legitimize attacks on gay monogamous relations, besides being demoralizing and comparing a relationship between two consenting adults to gang rape, presents us with another, equally obscene problem: Lot, who is presented by the authors of the Bible as a model of hospitality, offers his own daughters to his neighbors to be raped ... and then gets drunk and he himself rapes them.

The daughters of Lot were children. According to the story that is told in the Bible, THEY were the ones who got him drunk and tempted him. Lot was apparently not expected to abstain from drinking and having sex with his daughters. It really seems as if the commandment to breed and multiply was more important than the universal taboo against incest.

The moral dilemma is, in the end, comparable to what we find in Deuteronomy 22: fundamentalists who attribute moral authority to the authors of this legend apparently fail to be disgusted at the fact that the aggressor is praised and the victims of the aggression are blamed for being raped, and they fail to observe the twisted effects that this legend has had in our culture. The same dynamic was seen in the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal in recent years, where the victims were minors who were manipulated through guilt by the religious authorities.

In these passages the women were raped, abused, murdered, sold to sexual predators by their own fathers, victimized and silenced while the men made the laws and wrote the scriptures. No one thought of asking them what they wanted or what they thought, and no one allowed them to articulate their ideas.

Here, it would be wise to apply Lynn Gottlieb's technique of telling the stories from the perspective of the women. What if Lot's daughters had written the legend of Sodom and Gomorrah from their perspectives? What would it sound like, using today's verbiage?

"Strangers came to our city and our neighbors tried to rape them. Dad wanted to hand us over to our neighbors to be raped. Then dad waited for mom to die and then dad used to get drunk and rape us, and that is how we came to have dad's children."

Is this an ideal father? Is this how a revered patriarch should act? Is this a healthy model for family values? It is justifiable to attribute moral authority to the authors of the Bible, in view of the fact that they wrote this legend in defence of Lot? Is it fair to focus on the very real problem of gang rape when we read this legend, and to ignore the other very real problem of how a man can offer his own daughters to be raped, and how a man can drink himself into such a stupor that he forgets that he is having sex with his own daughters?

If we can learn something from this legend, it's that the authors of the Bible had a profound hatred of women and that this is evidence of an absolute lack of human values, in particular when it comes to how women are perceived, especially when they are victimized. This is just one of the many reasons why I believe that the Bible should be amended, re-written, edited, or updated.

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