The Prohibition of Rape in the Talmud [Talmud Tuesday]
With discussions of consensuality regarding sex and rape being quite common in news media these days, last week’s story in the JTA by Julie Wiener about Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s a statement of hers that the Talmud condones not fully consensual sex brought Talmud into the conversation. Interestingly, all three rabbis interviewed for the article – Danya Ruttenberg, Shmuley Boteach, and Dov Linzer – found her read of the Talmud to be incorrect. It turns out that it was likely a Yiddish phrase that Dr. Westheimer had in mind, rather than a Talmudic statement. Fortunately, Rabbi Ruttenberg also wrote a follow-up response about rape in the Talmud in the Forward.
Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to check out what the Talmud has to say about rape, starting with the clearest prohibition in the third century (bEruvin 100b):
אמר רמי בר חמא אמר רב אסי אסור לאדם שיכוף אשתו לדבר מצוה שנאמר ואץ ברגלים חוטא
Rami, son of Hama, said: “Rav Ossi said: ‘It is forbidden for a person to force his woman/wife for the matter of a commandment, as it is said, it is said in Scripture: “And he that makes haste with his feet sins” (Prov. 19.2).'”
Curiously, דבר מצוה, matter of a commandment, is being used euphemistically to mean sex, but the idea is that despite even the language of מצוה, commandment, it is forbidden for a man to force his woman to have sex (and even uses a Scriptural verse to back him up!). Apparently, this verse is also found in a related beraita which does not look kindly upon those who men who force their women to have sex with them (bEruvin 100b), using the first part of the same verse referenced above: “גם בלא דעת נפש לא טוב” – “Also without knowledge is not good for the body(/soul) is not good” (Prov. 19.2) is considered as “- זה הכופה אשתו לדבר מצוה” – “this is one who forces his woman/wife for the matter of a commandment.”
In a typical instance of Talmudic sages engaging in considering how various sexual activities produce children with different characteristics (for instance, Rabbi Eliezer), we see that rape is one of them (bEruvin 100b):
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי כל הכופה אשתו לדבר מצוה הויין לו בנים שאינן מהוגנין
Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, said: “Whosoever forces his woman/wife for the matter of a commandment will have children who are not fitting.”
Additionally, Rabbi Levi also includes children born of rape as those who are rebellious and those that transgress God, referring to Ezekiel 20:38 (bNedarim 20b):
אמר רבי לוי אלו בני תשע מדות בני אסנ”ת משגע”ח בני אימה בני אנוסה בני שנואה בני נידוי בני תמורה בני מריבה בני שכרות בני גרושת הלב בני ערבוביא בני חצופה
Rabbi Levi said: “This refers to children belonging to the following nine categories: children of intimidation, of rape, of a hated wife, one under a ban, of a woman mistaken for another, of strife, of intoxication [during intercourse], of a mentally divorced wife, of promiscuity, and of a brazen woman.”
While this latter text deserves its own separate discussion (stay tuned for a future post…), both Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, and Rabbi Levi both describe children as having been born of coerced sexual intercourse as containing undesirable characteristics. It would seem that both of them are trying to discourage people from having forced sex, with the ultimate outcome of that sexual intercourse being children who are not good.
These very strong and unswerving statements regarding rape from the sages of the Talmud should make it clear that the rabbis of the Talmud are not for coerced sex.
I should also make mention that owing to the cases discussed towards the end of chapter 22 in Deuteronomy 22, there results discussions of rape and the accompanying parameters regarding those cases in the Talmud in tractate Ketubot (see, for instance one such discussion by Adam Kirsch).