How parashat mishpatim led me to learn more about sex-trafficking than I ever wanted to know

This blog post is posted as a response to a piece written by my deal colleague Rabbi Morey Schwartz both here and on his blog site.  His post is entitled (click here to read it) focuses on these verses from parashat mishpatim:

If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not be freed as male servants are released. Her master should take her as his bride, and if she is not pleasing to him, he must let her be redeemed….If the master designates her as a bride for his son, she must be treated exactly the same as any other girl. (Exodus 20:16,18)

Dear Rabbi Schwartz,

As a woman rabbi, I have to say that my first and every reading of the passage in our parasha about the amah has focused on the experience of the girl/ woman.  This reminds me how important it is that we have both men's and women's voices contributing to Torah scholarship.  While people usually focus on the way men overlook women's issues in the Torah, I've rarely reflected on how my own gender bias narrows my own reading as well.  Thank you for writing this post and helping me reflect on my own limited viewpoint.  Nonetheless, I feel compelled to round out your own reading of the passage about the amah.  

It never occurred to me, as it did to you, that her forced marriage (and likely rape) would ever possibly bring her "some small measure of happiness."  It never occurred to me to think about the passage from the perspective of the father, or of the slave owner. Nor have I ever felt the need to engage in apologetics, as you have in the past, as when you write that you "would applaud the revolutionary teachings that seek to look out for her personal well-being..."  

I agree that the Torah is revolutionary in its concern for the woman in this passage; nonetheless, it's not something I've ever focused on as a particularly celebratory teaching.  When you close your post by saying "I am ... hoping that paying her a little attention will make her smile – even just a little bit – as Torah scholars once again step right over her – indifferent to her plight" I want to be sure you know that not all Torah scholars step right over her.  The Torah scholars I have learned from and learned with have mourned together with the young woman.

So to start, you and I are coming from very different backgrounds and approaches to text study as well as different gender biases.  But ultimately were are looking at the same text, wondering how to make sense of it; and I will speak for myself here- wondering if it has any relevancy for us today.  Your last sentence is cryptic:  "Perhaps you know such a maiden?" I believe you are referring to any person suffering to whom we turn a blind eye. any person male or female, who we step over or ignore in the pursuit of another agenda, without even noticing.

Let me suggest that we do not need to look far to find your "maiden."  I am reminded of two recent news stories, one in which an Uber driver saves a 16 year old girl from sex-trafficking in Sacramento, CA, and another, in which a young married mother out jogging in Northern CA was branded and abused by abductors before  being thrown out of a car onto the road after three-weeks in captivity.  Having never heard of "branding" before the story of the CA mom, I did some research and was horrified to read about how branding is an old mark of slavery being used on sex-trafficking victims.  

If you are like me, you want the gory details, so I will save you the trouble of reading the articles.  Pimps tattoo the girls and women they control, showing their "ownership" over them. Sometimes the name of the pimp is tattooed across the girl's/woman's chest; sometimes dollar signs or money bags are tattooed on their neck, or even a bar code on their arm, all symbolizing that men need to pay the pimp for access to the girl's body.  Once again, as back in the time when slavery was commonplace, one man is selling the rights to a woman's body to another man for financial reasons.  

Today, teenage girls who have run away from home or very young women living a destitute life due to situations such as illegal immigration, drug addiction, or simply having grown up in the wrong neighborhood, are lured into the promise of glamour and money.  They may initially think they know what they are choosing, but they soon realize that they have been manipulated into a life of violence and crime, and are no longer free agents.  These girls and young women, I believe, are today's "maidens," not really having a small measure of happiness from their "owners" and not having the ability to be free.

In the Torah, we are imagining a distraught Israelite father, bereft and mournful in having to sell his daughter into slavery, hoping to find a way she can at least eat and live, and be supported.  I feel blasphemous imagining the Israelite father of yesterday as the pimp of today.  But we do not know, truly, how the deals used to go down.  We don't know if fathers saw their daughters as a source of potential income, if they looked at them more favorably if they thought they would attract a better market price, if they waited anxiously for the day their daughter was blooming just enough to attract a man and they could unburden themselves of the responsibility of feeding her.  Maybe they were forced into selling their daughters; maybe they chose to.  One thing we know for sure--we will never know how the daughters felt about the situation.

Ultimately, the Torah is here to provide moral guidance for us, to be relevant to us today, and to inspire us to be the best we can be.  Had I not read your blog, I never would have chosen to write about this passage.  I have conveniently ignored it, because I despise the approach that I have just taken in these previous paragraphs- the approach of many of my colleagues, and now myself, that promises moral relevancy only inasmuch as we work to right the wrongs we see used to be perpetrated in Biblical society.  

This approach does not celebrate the Torah; it does not look to the Torah for guidance.  I am not particularly proud of this now exceedingly long and ranting response.  But I also could not simply read and remain silent as you ponder your "poor young maiden, deprived of ever knowing true-love, of ever drifting into the arms of the man of her dreams – destined instead to make due with her lot."  This passage, as I read it, is not about a young woman who ever imagined a life of romantic love or ever expected to find the man of her dreams (assuming she wished to to have relations with a man at all).  It is not, despite the lovely Cinderella profile clip-art you chose, about a girl who lived in a world with lovely ballroom dancing.  She probably knew her whole life that her destiny would be a "plight paved with indescribable sorrow," as you put it. But sorrow is simply not a strong enough word. 

Rabbi Schwartz, you spend the first half of your blog post making us, the reader, see you as a newly awakened man who has come out of a rabbinic ivory tower, endearingly admitting your prior sins of ignoring the underlying suffering in the Biblical text while addressing the halachic implications.  I applaud you for your awakening.  But I would like to see you go further; you do not get off that easy.  Help me- Rabbi Schwartz-- show me how the "sacred time-tested codes remain relevant in even the most dire of circumstances."  I truly want to know.  I truly do.  Because I do not have any answers, and my response, which I despise, only helps keep the Torah relevant, but does not in anyway emphasize "sacred time-tested codes."

And perhaps, while you are at it, explain what you mean by "Perhaps you know such a maiden too?"  I do know such a maiden, and she is every girl and woman in the past until this very day who has been forced and coerced into having relations with men.  Men who more likely than not are physically unclean, virus ridden, degrading, violent, objectifying and are twice or more their age, and who if they return to her for more, are returning to further satiate their own ta'avah with no concern for the well being of the girl/ woman.  

I await your response.  
Yours in emunah and Torah,
Rabbi Leah Richman