There is so much kid-friendly content in this week’s parsha, and such an abbreviated week for studying it, that we often just gloss over this nasty incident. The verse tells us that “the sons of leaders/judges/celestial emissaries saw the daughters of humans,” and that they were “good” and they “took for themselves whomever they chose.” Rashi elaborates: These were people of status and authority, and they would snatch brides out from before their weddings to be the “firsts” to “own” them sexually.
It sounds eerily familiar, and as we read last week: “There is nothing new under the sun.” The reality and concern that men in power can and do take advantage of women is literally as old as humankind. It has always been morally reprehensible, to the point where it precedes the incredible statements that: G-d didn’t want to “deal with judging the flesh of man”… and had “regrets/reconsiderations over having created him.” Harsh and shocking words- if it were not right there in the text, it would be hard to believe. (And in fact, there is much commentary on this.)
Given the long and ugly history humanity has with the overall treatment of women globally, it’s understandable that many good men and women’s instinct is to emphatically rally behind every woman who comes forward, and to immediately demonize any man who is even accused of misconduct.
Yet there is another Torah principle that is germane to these hot button current events: Respect and Suspect.
In general, when we view other human beings, we are enjoined to approach them with both respect and suspicion. That means I can look at an unknown person and simultaneously think: “S/he is probably a good, honest person with noble intentions. And at the same time, all humans are flawed and temptable, and it would be foolhardy to give them the passwords to all my private accounts.” I treat people with kindness and assume the best in them, but I also recognize that I need to self-protect in the space of question. Respect and trust are not the same thing.
I may sincerely deem my neighbor to be a perfect gentleman, but I still wouldn’t go off to a dark, secluded location with him (even without the brilliant laws of yichud). Respect and suspect.
When a woman says she has been hurt by a man, that she is a victim- she deserves our empathy, our listening ear, our protection, our support in seeking treatment, truth, and justice. When a man says he is innocent, the victim of libel, he likewise, deserves our respect, our ear, our protection from premature or potential false vilification, and our support in seeking out truth and justice. Truth and justice are necessarily “the best we can do” ideals when it comes to human limitation. We look at evidence, testimony, witnesses, and the presumption of innocent until proven guilty, notwithstanding politics and the intense emotions triggered.
There are many cases when, due to lack of evidence, it will be up to G-d alone to make the final judgement call, since He is the only one who knows what really happened. Attempted sexual assault can wreak havoc on a life. False or mistaken accusations of sexual assault can wreak havoc on a life. We hope and pray for a time when everyone is safe from any sort of attack- body or character, and none of this occurs anymore. But for now, it does- too often. Yet as far as we are concerned, all humans of any gender who have not been proven guilty of violent crimes or of malicious slander deserve our basic respect and their human rights.