Double Mitzvah – Vayishlach

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Maya B. Alma. Maya B. Alma is Jewrotica’s new Double Mitzvah columnist!

Check out last week’s column, Double Mitzvah – Vayetzei.


Rated PG-13Vayishlach is perhaps best known as the portion in which Jacob becomes Israel. “Yisrael,” the Godwrestler, as the man who wrestled with him all night long tells him (Genesis 32:29), “for you have wrestled with beings divine and human, and you have prevailed.” It’s worth noting that this verse provides Rabbi Steven Greenberg with the title for his book, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. Greenberg’s choice of title would make this an excellent parashah to explore LGBTQ issues within the framework of Jewish life, and it’s tempting to go there…particularly during a week in which I celebrate with so many of my friends the arrival of marriage equality in yet another state (Yay Hawaii!).

But to go there this week is to ignore an episode, and a character, who gets ignored far too often when the parashah rolls around: Dinah bat Leah, Leah’s daughter Dinah. If the descendants of Jacob are “Godwrestlers,” we are also “Textwrestlers;” and yet one text that we wrestle with insufficiently is the one that follows almost immediately upon Jacob’s name change. Here is what we read in chapter 34 of Genesis:

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force. Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly. So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife.” Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home. Then Shechem’s father Hamor came out to Jacob to speak to him. Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter — a thing not to be done.

It’s interesting to note that Torah tells us nothing of Dinah’s feelings. After she is “laid with by force” (i.e., raped), we learn that her rapist is strongly drawn to her (indeed, in love with her!). Jacob is upset (but speechless). Dinah’s brothers are distressed and angry. But of Dinah’s feelings, we learn nothing. (Anita Diamant’s novel, The Red Tent, is a modern midrash that seeks to give voice to the voiceless Dinah, as do other, less famous feminist midrashists; those who wish to explore in further depth can read on, here.)

Into the biblical silence step the Rabbis of old…and some of what they have to say is not very helpful. On that score, it’s interesting to note that the great modern compendium of Rabbinic legends about the Bible, Bialik and Ravnitzky’s Book of Legends, glosses right over the Rape of Dinah. In preparing this column I was at first shocked to discover this…and then, I understood. I mean, who wants to talk about this stuff? Particularly when the Rabbinic take on the story includes the sort of reasoning one is likely to hear from (for example) a particularly dense politician talking about a woman’s right to medical privacy: “‘Now Dinah…went out.’ She ‘went out’ in a outgoing way, dressed up to impress the people who saw her, and in doing so, brought the rape upon herself” (Bereishit Rabbah 80:1).

I’m not willing to grade on a curve, to give the Rabbis of the Midrash a pass for their cultural conditioning or for having lived 1500 or so years ago. They were husbands, and they were fathers, and they should have known better. Midrashim like the one cited above made for bad teaching then, as they do now.

Thank goodness we live in a time when such attitudes are at least recognized by many people (though clearly not all of them, to our continuing sorrow!) as thoughtless, insensitive, and damn near criminal. Thank goodness we live in an age when “consent” is understood to be a requirement of all parties to any sexual encounter. Consent, which is not simply implied because a person is dressed a certain way, or choose to be in a certain place at a certain time (say, a frat party, or a club at 3 am), or even in a certain relationship (for much of history, “rape” was considered a legal impossibility in the context of marriage, since the wedding itself was considered a lifelong granting of consent; this is no longer the case).

Consent, which requires having reached a certain stage of emotional and intellectual maturity. Thank goodness we live in a time when boneheaded politicians talking about what constitutes “legitimate” rape (as opposed to the other kind) are drummed out of office by women and men with a voice, and a vote. As our society (including the more liberal religious streams within it) embraces a more open and free sexual ethic, let us never forget that certain lines are inviolable, and chief among them is consent.

Not our usual light-hearted look at love and relationships this week, and next week will bring more of the same, I’m afraid. But if we’re going to explore human sexuality through our sacred texts, we must not perpetuate the sinful practice of glossing over Dinah’s rape. Dinah, silent in the text, distorted by the Rabbis, being re-imagined by (mostly) women in our own day, must be heard.

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