A Jewish take on the Brock Turner case
By Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, Kveller.com
Just when we thought the Stanford rape case couldn’t get any worse, it did. In addition to the judge handing down a lenient sentence to a man convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault because of the way it might impact his future, Brock Turner’s father wrote a letter to the judge, claiming that his son should not have to face prison for what he called “20 minutes of action.” In a powerful statement, the victim explained just what those 20 minutes did to her and how it robbed her of so much.
Judaism teaches that anyone who destroys a single life, it is as though he has destroyed a world. In those 20 minutes, Oakwood High School graduate Brock Turner not only destroyed his victim’s life, but her world as well. She wrote, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
It is remarkable that out of that destruction, the destruction of an entire world, she found her voice. Although her world was destroyed, she is attempting to bring some tikun, some repair, to her life and the lives of those around her.
I am outraged that a father would choose, in attempting to protect his son, to discount the real and lasting impact his son’s actions had on this woman. But outrage does nothing without action, and this is a chance for us as parents to join this woman in making a tikun. So I commit to teaching my children to respect boundaries, to understand that their bodies and the bodies of those around them are created in the image of God.
This starts young, by not forcing them to hug or touch people they don’t want to, by teaching them the proper names and proper uses for their body parts (even if it leads to lots of shouting of “penis!” every bath time), and that everyone deserves to be looked in the eye and spoken to respectfully.
It also means teaching them that the lines of communication are open, and that they should come to me if they have a question about how they, or another person, has acted. It means teaching them to accept reasonable consequences, like an early bedtime if they can’t get up for school in the morning. It means starting small, and building on their knowledge and experience until they are able to make these, and more difficult choices, on their own.
In the Talmud, the rabbis lay out the obligations that a parent has toward their child. In addition to the ones you would expect, like teaching your child a trade and teaching them Torah, the rabbis say that parents should teach a child to swim. Rabbi David Hartman, in his commentary on this verse, says that swimming is a metaphor for teaching a child to cope with unpredictable circumstances and events. You give your child the strokes and the kicks, but you can’t control every wave and current.
Eventually, in the course of teaching your child to swim, you must let go and let them swim alone. Eventually, we must teach our children that they need to make their own choices in a changing and unpredictable world, knowing that we gave them the tools for success.
You can argue that once a child becomes an adult, a parent is no longer responsible for their actions. But what we teach our children when they are young shapes who they are. In Proverbs, we learn to educate a child in the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from it. If we all commit to teaching our children to respect others, to care for others, and to do tikun olam when they are young, they will grow up with this imprinted on their minds and hearts.
And we all know, that as much as Judaism might say we are done when our kids hit 13, we will always be their parents. Our guidance and teachings will impact how they act in the world. Our obligation to continue teaching our children does not stop just because they also have responsibility for their actions.
But it is not enough to teach our children not to destroy a world. You see, Judaism also tells us that if you save one life, you have saved a world. Two men on bikes saw what was happening and intervened. They stopped Turner from continuing his rape and from sending his victim’s world further into a spiral of destruction.
And so, as a parent, I want my children to grow up to be the two men on bikes. The way we respond to this tragedy and miscarriage of justice is to actively work to save the world, to respect those around us and intervene. After all, saving one life is no small thing.
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal is the director of youth and family education at Central Synagogue in New York.