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by Liza Bernstein
PERHAPS THE MOST FAMOUS story from last week’s parsha, or Torah portion, is Jacob’s struggle with the angel. The parsha’s end, wherein Shechem, a leader of a nearby people, forcefully takes Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, and precipitates the eventual slaughter of Shechem and his entire people, is often quietly left out of sermons and Hebrew school lessons. Our society and culture find it easier to discuss Jacob’s other-worldly wrestling match with an angel than to address sexual assault and murder. We are drawn to the mystical and shy away from the very acts that are present and constant within our culture. But Dinah’s rape is real; her story is intense and painful, and it cannot be ignored.
When the Torah discusses Dinah’s rape, it uses the word יענה which stems from the root ענה, meaning to afflict or oppress. The Torah tells us that Shechem, “the head of his people, saw Dinah, took her, laid with her, and inflicted pain upon her” - וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ. The language used here is forceful and unavoidable. As we read of Shechem’s actions, we shiver at the crudeness and vulgarity of his behavior. The Torah’s words are uncomfortably raw, direct and violent. The language is very old, but the notions it contains are all too familiar: the power imbalance, the absence of Dinah’s agency, a man who believes that what he sees he can take. We all know stories of victims like Dinah; many of us see ourselves in Dinah. And yet, year after year, too many of us skip over her story. We avert our eyes. In today’s world, we must stop silencing Dinah.
Dinah does not say a single word throughout the entire parsha. When her father Jacob hears what Shechem did, he is silent. His sons, on the other hand, are enraged. They are so incensed that they leave their work to meet Shechem. When they confront him, Shechem begs to marry Dinah. Dinah’s brothers make a bizarre bargain with Shechem – he can have Dinah as long as he and his entire people circumcise themselves. Even the most charitable reader is forced to do a double take at this. Did they assume that their request is so preposterous that Shechem would never consent to it? If so, their plan fails. Shechem readily agrees to the deal, and through her brothers’ bargain Dinah is given to him.
Throughout all of this, Dinah’s voice remains absent. While Shechem and her brothers bargain over her, Dinah is ignored. Her brothers never ask her if she wants to marry Shechem, and neither is she consulted three days later when they decide to murder Shechem and his entire people. Dinah is both married off and widowed without even a glance in her direction. The relationship between Dinah and her brothers is complicated. It could be argued that Dinah’s brothers’ decision to murder Shechem and his people is their way of standing up for her. They are fighting for her, defending her, and avenging her rape.
But what was Dinah thinking? What did she want? We don’t know. There is an inherent danger in her brothers’ assumptions, something hazardous and desperate in their decision not to inquire about their sister’s feelings and needs. Later we learn that their father Jacob is enraged when he discovers his sons’ decision to murder Shechem and his people – so angry that he remains so until he dies. So why do Dinah’s brothers assume they know what’s best for her? Why do they act without asking? The Torah doesn’t offer us any answers, so we can only speculate. It’s possible that for Dinah’s brothers, asking how she feels is, in many ways, more difficult than assuming what she thinks and wants. Asking Dinah about her assault makes it real and thereby that much more difficult to cope. Dinah’s brothers transform her from a thinking, emotional subject to an object that must be fought over and won. Objectifying her is easier than recognizing her as a person in pain.
EVEN IF MUCH HAS CHANGED, it’s too easy to draw parallels between this story and our own society. Despite the fact that women are no longer the literal property of our male relatives, many men still behave as if this is so. The last two months have been filled with such stories. On our social media feeds, we read through stories of #metoo – from the many assaults of Hollywood Executive Harvey Weinstein to the misdeeds of Senator Al Franken, and so many more. But we still remain distant. Mediated through the news and social media, these people and stories can often not feel real. The fact is that we carefully construct protective barriers between ourselves and what we know is repeatedly happening within society. It’s far easier than facing the truth. And perhaps this is why we so often avoid the story of Dinah when we read this parsha. We look away from Dinah and her brothers’ act of revenge because these parts of the Torah are too real, too tangible for us to come close to. And yet when we silence Dinah, when we shift our eyes away from this story, we not only write out her pain, but we also give ourselves an excuse to avert our eyes from the flaws within our own society.
It is not a coincidence that the root of the verb used to describe Shechem’s rape is ענה which can also mean to answer. In this translation then, Shechem answers Dinah - but we know that Dinah never says anything to begin with. In fact, the entire parsha can be read as different people answering Dinah by inserting their own words into her silence. Shechem answers her physical presence, Dinah’s brothers answer her rape, but no one waits long enough to hear Dinah speak. The same can be said about our own society. As we hear about different stories of sexual assault, we jump to tangible conversations about punishment and law. We consistently respond without listening, rarely hearing the stories of those who are suffering. It’s easy to find ourselves using these stories, rather than listening to them. Conversations about law and punishment must be happening, but when we focus only on these ends, we silence the stories themselves.
It will always be painful to know that we will never hear Dinah speak, but we have an obligation to ensure that her story is heard. While Dinah’s voice will remain silent throughout the Torah, we are commanded to use our own language to give power back to her silenced voice.
Liza Bernstein is a Lishma Fellow at the Conservative Yeshiva. She received her B.A. in political philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and is planning to begin her rabbinical studies in the fall. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org