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On the “Red Tent” Phenomenon

Elliot Gertel
February 9, 2015

by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

20141128_redtentEARLY IN THE CURRENT TV season, the most read “underground novel” in American Jewish life, Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent (1997), was made into a movie on the Lifetime Network. It tells the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, who is briefly mentioned in the Bible as having been raped by the prince of Shechem. The miniseries sparked an entire new literature on what remains a “Red Tent phenomenon.”

The Book of Genesis relates that Jacob’s sons requested that the men of Shechem be circumcised after the royal family had arrogantly stated their intention to appropriate Dinah, and that, led by Shimon and Levi, they exploited the recuperation period to slaughter the Shechem males. Jacob rebuked his sons (mildly?) for their act of vengeance. The Torah does not tell us what happened to Dinah.

In Diamant’s version, Dinah willingly goes to Shechem to help her aunt Rachel, a respected midwife. The beautifully-produced and finely-acted film preserves Diamant’s reverence for the wisdom and skills of women and for mother-daughter, sisterly, and friendship bonds, but it fails to carry over the novel’s well-stated psychological insights into family and friendship, suffering, and personality types.

In the miniseries, Dinah (Rebecca Ferguson) falls in love with the prince and marries him by the rites of that tribe. Her brothers abhor certain breaches in (their) custom, and conspire to kill the males of Shechem, including Dinah’s husband, who, according to this retelling, had always acted in good faith.

After the slaughter, Dinah blames Jacob (Iain Glen) and declares that he is no longer her father. She curses Jacob and her brothers and heads back to her grieving mother-in-law, a widow, now without a son, who hails from a royal Egyptian family, and whom Dinah accompanies back to Egypt. The mother-in-law does everything possible to keep an ailing Dinah alive, despite the vicious slaughter perpetrated by Jacob’s family, because Dinah is with child. Once the child, a son, is born in Egypt, the mother-in-law claims maternity over him and relegates Dinah to nursemaid and then to slave. In time Dinah is expelled from the house, and struggles to make a living, first by growing herbal medicines and then by returning to her vocation of midwifery. She marries an Egyptian carpenter who is a loving and supportive second husband.

Throughout her life, whatever trials she faces, Dinah is encouraged by fond memories of the red tent (Diamant’s addendum to the Bible) in which the wives of Jacob and their daughters gathered at menstrual cycles, new moons, and other special occasions to light candles and incense, to laugh and gossip, to tell stories, to preserve family history, to celebrate the gift of the “secret blood,” and also to worship goddesses. On at least one occasion Jacob and his sons raided the red tent, violently, in order to destroy idols. The implication in more than one place is that violent acts on their part are not unrelated to their religion.

THE WOMEN ARE DEFINITELY more “pluralistic” in their faith. Early on, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel tells him, “I am trying to defend the ways of our mothers and their mothers, wise women all of them, believing in something that is more a threat to your God than I am.” Leah elaborates, “There are things we hold sacred, Jacob, that you can’t understand as no man could.” Rachel comments: “I love Jacob with all my heart, but this is who we are. He has his ways, we have ours.”

These lines from the film suggest, as does the novel, that the God of the fathers must ipso facto be a God for men, while the mothers must have gods and rituals of their own. But why would a novel and film designed to advocate for feminism within the Bible go to such lengths to suggest that women are somehow not cut out for monotheism?

Like the novel, the film strips the biblical matriarchs of the virtues ascribed to them. Rebecca (Debra Winger), who demonstrated such kindness at the well (Genesis 24), is depicted as a bitter crone — “the greatest oracle [that is, fortune teller] in all of Canaan” — who is cold to her family, cruel to her slaves (marking them with knife cuts) and exploitative of those who seek her counsel. The only one who shows kindness to Rebecca’s clients is Dinah, during her only visit to her rather nasty (as depicted here) grandmother. In a crack about his mother Rebecca, Jacob says, “I listened to someone I shouldn’t have, someone who convinced me that I deserved my father’s blessing more than my older brother did.” Never mind that the Bible credits Rebecca with the courage to ensure the proper succession of the Covenant as the result of special Divine communication with her.

Laban is not presented as the conniver of the Bible, but as an insecure wife-beater who ineptly manages family and flocks, and is duped by his daughters and by Jacob. Here, he does not trick Jacob into marrying Leah (Minnie Driver) first. It is Rachel (Morena Baccarin), fearing the marital bed, who begs Leah stand in for her at the wedding. So the tradition’s emphasis on Rachel’s great compassion for her sister is turned into a cop-out. When Jacob first meets Rachel, it is she who does the kissing, in marked contrast with the biblical account, which emphasizes her modesty. The novel alters the tradition’s emphasis on Joseph as a man of virtue, rooted in the biblical account of his going to prison because he refused the advances of his boss’s wife, while the film is neutral on this.

At the very best, The Red Tent, film and novel alike, may be regarded as worst-case-scenario midrash — textual interpretation to “search out” (the meaning of the term, midrash) the nuances of biblical language and the implications of biblical stories and teachings. Diamant has denied in many interviews that the novel is midrash. But she does make midrash by countering the rabbinic midrash that Leah’s eyesight was ruined when she wept over the prospect of marrying Esau, suggesting instead that Leah’s “eyes made others weak and most people looked away rather than face them — one blue as lapis, the other green as Egyptian grass” (p. 11).

The bottom line is that in the Bible, Dinah’s “going out” to see the “daughters of Shechem does result in Prince Shechem “humbling” her sexually with a violent attack (Genesis 34:2), condemned as “a thing which ought not to be done.” Then the prince’s father, King Hamor (whose name, “donkey,” cannot be a biblical compliment), in a passage not quoted by most reviewers, adds insult to injury by suggesting that this breach of intergroup respect is for the best, if both groups allow it to lead to trade and further marriages and thus in further possessions for Jacob’s family. The entire episode has the feel of a king bullying a small clan. In an astute essay in Commentary magazine (April 1992), Dr. Leon Kass noted biblical support for Dinah’s brothers' defense of both her honor and of the sacred covenant, which requires strong family bonds and standards. Diamant brands those brothers, Simon and Levi, as slave traders.

Diamant’s view is that everything bad that happens to Jacob is due to what the brothers did at Shechem. She even has Dinah say that Jacob took the name Israel “so that people would not remember him as the butcher of Shechem” (p. 208). Still, forgiveness is a key theme in the book, even though Jacob is the one who forgives least. Dinah does return with Joseph, who needs to forgive Jacob on his deathbed. But in the book, Dinah does not go to see her father Jacob.

DOES DIAMANT SUGGEST that the family is dysfunctional because there are too many gods, and that one is too many? The patriarchal god is described in the novel as a “warlord,” and the suggestion is made that Jacob invokes God as a ruse to get what he wants out of his father-in-law Laban. Jacob himself sometimes backslides into idolatry, crying out when ill, and when Rachel is ill, to God and to other gods. Jacob is tolerant of his wives’ idols except when he's very frustrated with his sons and with servants. Leah, Dinah’s mother, is altogether skeptical about faith in gods, advising trust in what human hands can do (p. 89), and both Dinah and Leah are depicted as advocates of euthanasia for the elderly (p. 210). Diamant even pauses in the novel to describe the Nile as self-rouging, as if to foreshadow the plague in Exodus as no miracle (p. 216).

Interestingly, the movie diverges from the novel precisely on the themes of God and forgiveness. Teleplay writers Elizabeth Chandler and Anne Meredith changed parts of Daimant's ending and of the God-talk. In the miniseries, Dinah does go to see her father and to forgive him. And though she attributes the murder of the “righteous men” of Shechem to her father’s “arrogant, God-fearing pride,” Joseph speaks unabashedly of God’s purpose at the end, telling Dinah that “God’s will does not lie in words, it’s in what we become. Of course... [God] spoke to you, he made you a mother.” Agree or not with the theology, it’s there — though in both book and miniseries, Joseph’s dreams are the most reliable oracle. (Diamant emphasizes in the novel that prophecy does not work, no matter which deity.)

Why did Diamant, who has also written outreach books on Judaism and Jewish life, have Dinah leave the community and foreswear all belief in God? In writing about “misotheism” or Hating God, Bernard Schweizer empathizes with the revolt against God of Elie Wiesel (and other Holocaust survivors), presenting Wiesel as embracing and then returning from that posture. Does The Red Tent blame a lot of world sufferings, including the Holocaust, on a god in the image of power-hungry men? Or was it intended as some kind of entry point to biblical literature, providing a neutral, even neutralizing, approach to God, in order to inspire secular as well as religious seekers to appreciate biblical literature?

In an interview by Aaron Katersky at the 92nd Street Y, Diamant and the audience giggled when she described her book, The Last Days of Dogtown, as having “zero Jews in it.” Is Dinah’s odyssey in The Red Tent an escapist fantasy for Jewish professionals and for all Jews, whether religious or secular?

Her Dinah never returns to Jewish life, to a covenant, however defined, of the fathers and mothers that needs to be upheld even if one is in conflict with the fathers and mothers. Would Dinah’s staying, or at least returning, and holding her ground within the red tent and outside it, have led to a more compelling narrative about feminism, covenant, and Jewish communal burnout?

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.