My Grandpa Max of blessed memory had a cutting, sarcastic wit. When my Dad proudly showed him the elevated running track in the renovated field house at the University of Iowa, Grandpa Max sniffed and said, “What are they running from?”
I gave a few of you all tonight – those who bring younger kids to Temple on Friday nights – a heads up that tonight’s sermon would be intense, and covering a pretty adult topic. So I begin with this children’s book Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People To Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford. We don’t have time to read the whole thing but it’s one of my favorites because of the drama, the artwork, and the fact that God is a main character.
In 2005, while living in Jerusalem as a rabbinical student, I found out about a different kind of fugitive slave women. I found out about Human trafficking for forced prostitution, or sex trafficking. Sex Trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age. Sex trafficking is modern-day slavery where people profit from the control and exploitation of others.
At that time, significant numbers of women from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were being kidnapped and dragged on a harrowing journey through Egypt to Israel to be sold on the auction block into sexual slavery. Israel was listed on the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report as a country that did not comply with minimum standards to prevent such crimes. Given the centrality of the liberation from slavery in our Torah – Not to mention the hope we place in the State of Israel to be a newly re-kindled beacon light to the nations of the world of hope, freedom, justice, and Jewish vitality — I could not believe what I was reading. I found such sex slavery to be a nauseating betrayal of the values of the State of Israel and of the teachings of Judaism. All rabbis-in-training at the Hebrew Union College give formal sermons in their fourth and fifth years. So my fourth year sermon was about sex trafficking in Israel. I felt as if Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Prophet Ezekiel were quietly congratulating me on speaking truth to power.
This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot/K’doshim, which takes up four chapters of the book of Leviticus, chapters 16-20. Tonight, we read chapter 18, verses 17-20 and 26. We learn that an extensive list of sexual relationships – those associated with the Canaanite nations and their cultic practices - are out of bounds.
Judaism is a sex-positive religion. We have no tradition that sexuality is an original sin. In fact, the first commandment in the Torah is p’ru u’r’vu: be fruitful and multiply. Judaism values healthy sexual relationships, especially, but not only, for new life.
But Judaism is also a religion of modesty, of boundaries, of setting and keeping limits, of holiness in the sense of k’dushah, which means setting something apart for a special purpose.
Over and over, Leviticus 18 declares eirvah lo t’galeh – you shall not “uncover the nakedness” of people related by kinship or marriage. Uncovering someone else’s nakedness is a euphemism for sex. Torah speaks clearly but modestly, and leaves no doubt that sexual transgressions are depraved, abhorrent.
Notice Lev. 18:21 the verse prohibiting offerings to Molech. The Canaanites would offer children to Molech by passing them through fire. Just by the placement of this verse next to those about uncovering nakedness, the Torah implies that one who treats a child immodestly engages in human sacrifice of children.
The prophet Ezekiel displays a thorough knowledge of these priestly laws as he includes a wide variety of these sexual transgressions that cross the boundaries of modesty and decency with other kinds of gross sins. Notice how he includes ritual violations like profaning the Sabbath, ethical violations like slander (which he compares to shedding blood) and even moral violations like taking bribes to commit murder. Ezekiel implies that those who commit indecent sexual acts are capable of anything.
You can probably guess how I reacted when I learned this week that the FBI has identified St. Louis as one of about 13 cities in the United States that are centers of domestic sex trafficking.
I will say that human trafficking of girls under the age of 18 is the real abhorrence of our time. The depraved sexual activity that is truly worthy of our concern and attention – especially as Jewish St. Louisans – is sex trafficking.
There are about 300,000 child prostitutes in the United States today. They are not foreign but American girls who are tricked by phony promises of glamorous job opportunities, or kidnapped, or who are offered up to a modern Molech by their own parents who sell them into slavery for money.
Each one of these girls can earn her pimp $150 -$200,000 per year.
The average age of a girl entering “the life” --as it’s known – is 13. 13!
The average victim might be forced to have sex as many as 20 times – 20 times! -- a day.
So it doesn’t come as quite such a surprise to learn that her average life expectancy once she’s in “the life” is 7 years.
Girls in the control of traffickers and pimps are held in captivity by force. Sometimes traffickers deliberately addict girls to heroin so that escape means the immediate onset of withdrawal symptoms – as if the threat of severe violence or even death were not enough to keep the victims in line. We might guess that girls would be taken to the seamy strip clubs across the river in East St. Louis. But we’d be wrong. (Even though nearly all the girls working in strip clubs are underage or started out that way.)
Underage girls forced to work as prostitutes are found in the western suburbs of St. Louis as often as the city. They are advertised boldly online. The classified ad website www.backpage.com was recently the subject of a scathing expose by New York Times columnist and activist Nicholas Kristof. Trafficked girls frequently meet their clients in hotels. Not seedy fleabags and flophouses but the kinds of hotels that host business travelers, conventions and events. The kinds of places we all stay when we’re away from home.
All this was brought to my attention this week with an e-mail from the Covering House in my inbox. The Covering House seeks to be a place of refuge and restoration for girls from age 6 to 18 who have experienced sexual exploitation or trafficking in St. Louis. With appropriate raising of funds, The Covering House aims to be open in 2012. When it does, it will join just three programs offering residential therapy for girls rescued from the sex trade in our country. Right now, for these child victims fortunate enough to be rescued, fewer than 100 beds are available in the entire United States.
The Covering House is holding a quilting blitz on Saturday, May 19 from noon to 7:00 pm. They are looking for 18 teams of four volunteers each to make 18 quilts for the girls at the Covering House.
The organization’s logo is a log cabin quilt, once used as a secret symbol of safe refuge on the Underground Railroad such as Harriet Tubman might have seen. Now, as different kind of fugitive slave seeks safety, dignity, and freedom the log cabin quilt is also a sign of safe haven.
Our Temple has a bit of a quilting hobby. We’ve just dedicated our 50th anniversary quilt. The quilt frame we own is waiting quietly for a new project. Some of our members are already planning to be among those taking part in the quilting blitz. Maybe some of you who are here tonight will join in it as well.
Besides, our values of community and civic engagement seem implicated here. We aspire to be a Temple that takes leadership in our community on the vital issues of our time. Now here’s an opportunity for leadership on an issue of life and death, an issue that affects every St. Louisan, every Missourian.
On Saturday, September 1, The Covering House will hold the Race for Refuge in Tower Grove Park. Maybe we can field a TE team to take part in the 10K, 5K or 5K walk events. I’ve been feeling like I need more exercise lately anyway.
But the Torah says we should run, not walk, to do a mitzvah. So if September is too long to wait– Tread on Trafficking has already begun. From May 1st through June 30th, Treaders ask sponsors to support them for the number of miles or hours they spend running, swimming, cycling or working out with all the money raised going directly to Love146.org, an international organization working to end child sex slavery and exploitation. Maybe it’s not too late to field a TE team. Who couldn’t use a few more hours working up a sweat?
Our Torah forbids uncovering the nakedness of our kin and adjures us not to offer children up to Molech. Sex trafficking of girls is precisely such uncovering. It is the real abhorrence of our age, a disgrace to the abolitionist struggle in the 19th century that culminated with the Civil War. It is also an affront to the sacred Jewish narrative of the liberation from slavery. It is happening right here, right now. The God we believe in frees captives, opens the eyes of the blind, humbles the arrogant, lifts up the lowly, clothes the naked. Our God is just and merciful, protecting the powerless and the weak from those who would oppress and dominate them – and just a little later on in this week’s portion, Our God commands us to do the same.
I just spoke up about uncovering.
I intend to lace up my running shoes and do something about covering. This May and June, and September, I’m going to break a sweat to raise money and awareness.
No, Grandpa Max, there’s nobody chasing me. But there might be somebody chasing these new Harriet Tubmans, these modern fugitive slaves.
You wanna run?
Editors note: A sermon preached at Temple Emanuel in St. Louis, MO.