Uniting Against Sex Trafficking

On April 22 I attended the "We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites against Sex Trafficking" conference at the UJA Federation of New York offices. Those in attendance heard from a girl who used the pseudonym Sarah. Sarah is a young 20-something, herself a Jewish victim of sex trafficking.

After Sarah's testimony, we were left with a face and a voice of an urban girl who was used in the sex industry. Sarah said that at times she would play mind games with herself and pretend that she liked it, or that it was a game -- but then her pimp would beat her and she would remember that in fact, her life was not a game. What stayed with me from her testimony -- to a room full of, rabbis, educators, therapists, government workers and students -- was that she said she did not ask to be raped and beaten. She did not know she was a victim of sex trafficking or that she could get out.

Susan Stern, who chaired the President's Advisory on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships reminded us that being trafficked happens to you -- it is not who you are. She also said that behind every victim there is a person with hopes and dreams.

The survivor we met concluded her remarks with "now that I am out of prostitution I set the boundaries for my body" and "no one is born a prostitute." Becoming a prostitute is rarely a choice. When a prostitute is "working" someone else owns or rents her for the hour that she is "working." Listen to the language. That is human trafficking and human slavery.

A sex worker's pimp does own her, taking away all of her liberties and power. Unless they are born into it, being raised in a shanty town, most girls are lured or seduced into the life because of a serious vulnerability, or because they were raised with abuse and have negligible self worth or self esteem.

With that in mind, I have so much trouble with the text of this week's Torah portion, especially looking at it with 2013 eyes. Emor's target audience is the priests and their families, but I still am left troubled by the ramification and the thought behind it.

According to Leviticus 21:9, when the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire. All of the translations that I read seem to imply that if a woman makes herself a whore or a harlot, then she cannot marry a priest. In addition, she defiles her father in the process. From everything I learned on Monday, it is very rare that a woman makes herself a whore or a harlot. Something happens or someone lures her into it.

In the Holiness Code of Leviticus we read "Do not degrade your daughter and make her a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry." Our Torah clearly states that fathers are prohibited from using their daughters as prostitutes. Yet, Rashi writes that it is the daughters who shame the father. What about the shame and fear they face every day when they get up due to powerlessness and abuse?

Further, in Leviticus 25:55 God says "The children of Israel are My servants." Human beings are not designed to be chattel or slaves, or even the unwilling servants, of other human beings. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "man's sin is in his failure to live what he is. Being the master of the earth, man forgets that he is the servant of God." All of humanity is created in the image of God. There are no exceptions to that rule.

Yet, today, approximately 27 million people around the globe are forced into slavery-two thirds into sex slavery. And as I learned from Sarah, Jews are not exempt from this.

According to the President's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships April 2013, which was shared with us on Monday:

There are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in human history... Every 30 seconds another person becomes a victim of human trafficking. Trafficking in persons, or modern-day slavery, mars every corner of the globe and manifests itself in a debasement of our common humanity that is completely at odds with religious and ethical teachings alike. This heinous crime robs tens of millions of people of their basic freedom and dignity. Victims of modern-day slavery include U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, children and adults, who are trapped in forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation, with little hope of escape.

Trafficking in persons is estimated to be one of the top-grossing criminal industries in the world, with traffickers profiting an estimated $32 billion every year.

Monday's conference had a purpose. It was to raise awareness of this $32 billion annual problem. The ultimate goal is to of course get rid of sex trafficking completely, but that, I am afraid is some ways off.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin is the spiritual leader of the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY, and a supporter of T'ruah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights.