Updated: Aug 17
It seems that every time we click on a newsfeed, there are more accusations of sexual assault against high profile personalities. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #metoo movement, it can begin to feel that we have entered an epidemic of sexual corruption. Yet “There is nothing new under the sun,” teaches King Shlomo, wisest of men.
In this week’s Parsha, we have several examples of sexual transgression. Yehuda’s sons Er and Onan exploit their wife Tamar for the purpose of their own pleasure, and withholding conjugal consummation and conception from her. Later, after the loss of his wife and two sons, Yehuda engages the services of a woman he believes to be a prostitute (Tamar, incognito), and then tries to have Tamar executed for the ensuing out-of-wedlock pregnancy. (Your teacher may have glossed over these verses in fourth grade Chumash class.)
But the story I want to focus on is the one between Potifar’s wife and Yosef. The verse tells us that Yosef was particularly good looking and charismatic. His boss’s wife made daily advances trying to seduce him, yet he resisted temptation, and explained that he was morally uncomfortable with the idea of an affair- vis-à-vis loyalty to his boss, as well as to G-d. Finally, she set up a situation whereby they were alone in the house, and tried to take him by force. As she was attempting to disrobe him, he bolted from the house. When Potifar and the others returned from worship, she accused Yosef of raping her, and then running out because she had screamed, leaving his garment behind. While some of the commentators suggest that Potifar had some idea that his wife was lying, according to the actual verses, it seems that her testimony was believed, and Yosef was incarcerated for this crime.
What a horrific trauma for Yosef- first to be pressured and then attacked by his superior, and then accused of the very crime she tried to do to him. This after last week’s parsha, his sister, Dina, suffered an actual rape, at the hands of a Shchem ben Chamor, a powerful leader, whose father then tried to sweet talk and buy his way out of culpability, and make a political alliance with her family.
These ancient, tragic stories sound like they could easily be headlines from 2017. There are many lessons that are culled from these narratives, but I’d like to highlight a particular, current idea. Potifar’s wife was behaving as a sexual predator, in two ways: First by pressuring and eventually trying to force Yosef to engage with her physically, and against his will. And secondly, by subsequently falsely accusing him of sexual assault. It is widely recognized that abusing someone sexually is indescribably evil. Because of this, when someone reports being sexually abused, our compassion is immediately triggered, and our instinct is generally to believe the accuser. Disbelieving a victim is quite traumatic for them, and is considered a form of revictimization. On the other hand, when someone, like Potifar’s wife, falsely accuses another individual of sexual assault, that is another way to potentially ruin someone’s life. We can find ourselves in a dilemma, where we never want to compound the pain of a survivor by impugning his story, but even so, the accused has the status of “innocent until proven guilty.” One possible attempt at resolving the quandary is: If someone comes forward and says she was abused, we could choose to believe that what happened to her did happen to her, and to support her.
But then also try not to immediately accept as fact, the guilt of the person accused, assuming this is a previously innocent person, since the allegation is, at the end of the day, hearsay. And unfortunately, just as there are people out there evil enough to perpetrate crimes of sexual aggression, there are also people out there evil enough to confabulate stories of sexual aggression. It is my hope that the perpetrator can and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, if found guilty. Emotionally, our instincts tend to be to empathize immediately with the accuser (like Potifar’s wife). This is because one of the worst, or possibly the worst thing one person can inflict on another person is sexual violence. Yet it’s worth noting as well, that perhaps the second-to-worst thing one person can do to another is to falsely accuse them of sexual assault. In either case, a human being has been egregiously violated.
Yosef’s post-traumatic treatment was two years in prison, where, by the grace of G-d, he developed a gift for dream analysis that eventually catapulted him to fame and fortune. He earned superlative appellations such as “man who succeeds” “revealer of secrets” and “one to whom we bow/ young wise father-figure”. He achieved the greatest position possible his country, saved countless lives, and reunited with his family. May it be G-d’s will that all survivors of sexual abuse and/or false accusation are able to heal, overcome, and rise to success, vindication, good health, and prosperity.