Friday, June 12, 2015

Parashat Shelach - What our Haftarah has to teach us about sex work

      As you all should know by now, I have had the pleasure and privilege of holding a Global Justice Fellowship with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) this year. AJWS works on several facets of social, economic, and environmental justice, but this year chose to focus on a campaign to promote the rights of women, girls, and LGBTI folks around the world. One of the organizations that AJWS supports that I had the opportunity to meet during my trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua was called Flor de Piedra, an association for sex workers. As you can imagine, these women have been looked down upon by their communities, not only face discrimination and abuse from local business owners, clients, and find themselves unprotected by the police, they often face the discrimination and abuse from the police.
            In this week’s Haftarah, we meet Rahav, “the prostitute”. Today we say “sex worker” instead of “prostitute” for a few reasons. One reason is simply stigma: when people hear “prostitute,” too often a specific image comes to mind that is derogatory and so we change the language to help move the ideas behind it forward. Another reason, which is sort of two-fold, is an attempt to emphasize that sex work is work and sex workers are whole people with lives outside of their work. There would be no industry if there were no clients and so stigmatizing the providers of this service and limiting their identity to the way they pay their bills is unfair and dehumanizing. But most translations of Joshua chapter 2 will say “Rahav the prostitute.”
            In Women in the Hebrew Bible, Phyllis Bird explores the question of who Rahav really was and why she gets to play a heroine’s role in the fall of Jericho. “Why would the Israelites consort with a prostitute, who is portrayed as a heroine, without apparent censure of her profession or role?” she asks. The stigma of prostitution that continues to this day already existed in the Biblical world, and yet we see none of this in our Haftarah this week. Rahav’s profession is mentioned in passing, and then the focus of the story is on her role in helping the Israelites invade Jericho, in which she takes control of her own situation and makes alliances with strange men to protect herself and her family. Bird suggests that this is no mere accident, and neither are we meant to understand Rahav as some sort of high level cultic prostitute of the ancient Canaanite religion (as some have suggested). Rather, Rahav’s position as a lowly harlot is “essential to the story.” Bird explains how in the story, we learn that in order for her family to be protected through her deal with the Israelite spies, they must come into “her house,” i.e. the house the Israelites come upon is not the family home but clearly her brothel. The brothel, also possibly an inn or tavern as some translators will have you believe, offers a good cover for the strange travelers, and a good place to pick up the seedy information that may help the Israelite spies in their plan to overthrow Jericho. Whether this is historical document or literary technique, it was no accident that the Israelites happened upon the house of a harlot. Further, Bird explains, the whole story hinges on Rahav’s marginal status as a sex worker. It is because she is an outcast to respectable society that the strange men (Israelites) have access to her at all, and it is presumably at least partially because of her outcast status that she is so willing and eager to throw her current society under the bus (though our narrative tells us it is because she has heard of the wonders of our God and knows that God’s people will win either way and just wants to protect herself and her family).
            Bird pauses here to describe the “low status and despised state” of the prostitute, saying how neither “unfortunate circumstance [n]or personal fault … would elicit much sympathy or charity from an ancient audience,” and here I would like to pause to say that unfortunate circumstances and personal autonomy (for “fault” has such a negative meaning) are not mutually exclusive. Often, in sex-positive feminism, while we seek to end human trafficking and raise up the autonomy and rights of sex workers, we forget to acknowledge the potential link. While some women absolutely go into sex work with full autonomy, most of the women we met at Flor de Piedra were forced into it at a young age. Now, as adult women with children, they find that it is the only job that affords them the flexible hours and decent pay to help keep their homes afloat. In some cases, they actively seek out other work but find no one will hire them because of their history in sex work. They come together at Flor de Piedra to seek support, to learn their rights, to fight for more, to learn where they can find proper health care without stigmatization, to reach out to and educate others. The focus for the work now is on building and understanding autonomy, but we would be remiss to think that trafficked women and the empowered women who self-identify as “sex workers” are necessarily different.
            Rahav was a heroine, and so are many of the women we overlook every day. Just as the Israelites repaid Rahav’s kindness and bravery by sparing her and her whole family when they conquered Jericho, so too should we today honor the humanity in those society has looked down upon by promoting the right to safety, healthcare, and protection from harm for sex workers worldwide. Whatever your thoughts on the morality or legality of the work, the truth is a person’s profession should have no effect on how they are treated. Every human deserves the same access to healthcare and police protection, the same right to be treated with basic respect. For more information, check out AJWS’s resources here: or feel free to ask me more about Flor de Piedra! May we all look toward a future in which every person’s life is valued for its inherent worth, and no longer judge others by the work they engage in. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.