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How can victims of sexual violence find healing and reconciliation through sacred texts?

On March 2, 2018, Camille Henderson-Edwards, Graduate Assistant for the Human Rights Program, moderated the roundtable “Sexual Violence and Sacred Texts.” Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky, Rabbi Sarra Lev, Ph.D, and Dr. Ayesha Chaudhry participated in the discussion.

Dr. Kalmanofsky began by identifying a three-stage process for using holy texts as a means of assuming agency amidst violent scriptures. The first stage involves individuals interacting with sacred texts that discuss sexual violence and acknowledging that they exist. The second stage is a close reading, one that allows the individuals to understand the patriarchal strategies that shape the text. The third stage is filling in the gaps and giving voice to the characters that lack a voice in the text, which gives them a great deal of agency.

In discussing her contribution to the book, Rabbi Lev noted that her starting point was asking how can we heal from the violence that these texts perpetrate on victims/survivors of abuse. While religious texts are traditionally read to give insight on what ought to be, these texts can also give direction in molding what is into the shape of holiness – “to draw out our holy wisdom.” Rabbi Lev identifies this as reading the sacred text as a genre of “summons.” This last form of interpretation gives the reader power, “When we read a text, we get to direct that text.”

Dr. Chaudhry commented on the importance of naming, “If you can’t name a problem, you can’t resist it.” Naming is something that should be able to capture the diversity and complexity of humanity. Concepts like feminism, Islam, and the West are often given static identities that are defined in opposition to the other terms; in reality, these are all dynamic entities. 

We begin our discussion with two questions for reflection:

- What have you struggled with in reading sacred text prior to this discussion?
- Given this discussion, in what ways do you now interact with sacred text differently?

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