Progressively Speaking: Sexual assault survivors must not be made to feel shame

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Progressively Speaking: Sexual assault survivors must not be made to feel shame

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein takes a topic issue and looks at Liberal Jewish perspective

Sarah Everard
Sarah Everard

There are many conversations happening in schools, synagogues, social media and society in general about endemic violence against women, sparked by the murder of Sarah Everard.

According to the Office of National Statistics, at least one- in-five women is a survivor of sexual assault – myself included. What helped me survive my assault without significant emotional scars was the fact I had been brought up in such a way I did not feel shame even for a second. I was never made to feel embarrassed about being attacked.

It seems so obvious. And yet, from Biblical times until today, society has suggested to women and LGBTQI+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] individuals they should feel shame about their own sexuality and when they experience violence.

The list of the arayot, the sexual prohibitions in our Torah (Leviticus 18), equate sexual relations with a menstruating woman and same-sex relations with incest and bestiality and yet it is silent on the crime of rape. The sacred nature of our sacred texts is indeed often overshadowed by misogyny, homophobia and transphobia fuelled by toxic masculinity, documenting what women and LGBTQI+ individuals endured at the hands of men throughout time.

We must examine how we, our faith tradition, the Jewish community, our synagogue and as individuals have perpetuated the harm our sacred texts have caused. It doesn’t mean we should turn our back on our tradition; rather, we must make an extra effort to challenge harmful texts and instead teach those texts that can be inspiration for change.

We must provide an environment to hear, to listen and to learn. We must see the survivors, hear their words and stand with them. We must reckon with ourselves. We must be uncompromising in holding perpetrators and enablers to account – providing them with opportunities to seek teshuvah (repentance) and, at the same time, respect the rights of those harmed not to forgive. But most of all, we must eradicate shame from our emotional dictionary.

When the road seems to curve too steeply uphill, may Margaret Mead’s wise words be a source of strength: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Lea Mühlstein is senior rabbi at The Ark Synagogue

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