Parashat Vayishlach 5778

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 1 December 2017

‘Dinah, Leah’s daughter whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land…’ (Genesis 34:1)

The story of Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah is rarely chosen as a public Torah reading on Shabbat morning. Her story comes almost immediately after Jacob and his family have arrived in the city of Shechem after twenty years away from home. Jacob has purchased a plot of land where he pitches his tent, from the local chieftain, Hamor, and sets up an altar, naming it El-Elohey-Yisrael, a rite that appears to declare his ownership of the land.

The story begins with the Hebrew words: Va-tetzé Dinah‘Dinah went out to see the women of the locality’. My colleague, Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah comments on the fact that Jacob and Dinah’s stories both begin with the same Hebrew verb, one in the masculine and one in the feminine form. Jacob’s ‘going out’ represents the beginning of the hero’s adventure – a journey, a dream, falling in love, marriage, children, the struggles of human existence and prosperity. Dinah’s ‘going out’ ends with the total eclipse of her voice and existence – she does not appear again in the Torah.

Her outing to see the women of the locality, an act of independence and intrepid courage, is cut short by the fact that she is raped by Hamor’s son, Shechem. There is some disagreement over whether the Hebrew word that is used for her violation should be translated as ‘rape’. There is no doubt that Shechem (who confusingly has the same name as the town in which he lives – a bit like calling your child Brooklyn) humiliates her – he ‘takes her, lies with her and violates her’ (34:2). The Hebrew term inah certainly suggests, to our contemporary ears, that it is rape.

In the context of the Hebrew Bible, however, her humiliation and affliction and the violence Shechem does to Dinah is a statement about weakening her (and her family) and wanting to take ownership of her. It’s as though he is saying to Jacob – never mind that you bought the land from my father and consummated the deal on your side by setting up an altar to your God, I’m going to declare ownership of your daughter and consummate my possession of her by lying with her and declaring my love for her.

As distasteful as it may seem to us today, in the Bible, rape is a judicial matter. The emotional and psychological consequences are not considered within the ancient context of either legal or narrative texts about rape. A virgin violated is a woman who is no longer eligible for marriage except to her abuser.

In the case of Tamar, who is raped by her half-brother Amnon, the problem is not how Tamar feels, but the fact that Amnon refuses to take her as his wife. It is this that damages her the most. Similarly, it is the fact that Jacob is equivocal about Dinah’s marriage to Shechem – he remains silent until he chastises his sons for having made trouble for him in his new land – and that her brothers, firstly demand that Shechem and his fellow citizens are circumcised and then take revenge on all the males by killing them. It is this that reduces her social status and effaces her completely from the patriarchal stories of power and control.

Dinah’s public humiliation and silencing – she utters not a word in the whole of this account – is painfully appropriate in our own time. This is the story of how women are effectively silenced, are not allowed to use their voices and have no right to be heard. Mary Beard, in her newly published essay Women and Power: A Manifesto, a brilliant analysis of the cultural underpinning of misogyny, would undoubtedly see this story as a religious and cultural template for power. It is male, it is aggressive and it excludes women completely from knowledge, power and authority.

Dinah’s ‘going out’ to see the local women suggests, for a brief moment, the possibility of female empowerment – their solidarity might have effected some kind of control over their own destiny. However, the consequences are what Mary Beard calls, ‘male mastery over the destructive danger of the possibility of female power.’ Her analysis of the classic myth reveals how the dominance of the male is violently reasserted against the illegitimate power of women and she invokes the murder of Jo Cox, the former Labour MP for Batley and Spen, as what she calls ‘the normalisation of gender violence.’

I wonder if our failure to read, translate and talk about Dinah’s story in our synagogues on a Shabbat morning is a failure to address the gross imbalances of power that exist between men and women. When we have addressed the violations of women by powerful men – whether in Hollywood or Parliament and elsewhere – then we need to evaluate those opening verses of Genesis 34 which suggest a challenge to the very structure of our society. Dinah’s ‘going out’ is her own attempt to change the very structure of our social ‘norms’, to break into the places where there is power, knowledge and authority. And the fact that she does this with other women discloses her desire for collaboration, for seeing power, not as a possession, something that should be ‘taken’, but as the ability to make a difference in the world.

Mary Beard’s point that the ancient world is preoccupied with itself because patriarchy is never ‘at ease with itself’ and because it is constantly having to reassert its power and authority, is evidence that ‘male’ power and all its cultural and misogynistic underpinnings, has not made a difference in the world and isn’t going to create that difference. Dinah’s attempt to challenge that structural model was valiant. That it did not succeed should not deter future generations from subverting the deeply entrenched and often destructive template and creating a different, collaborative, peaceful model for human existence.

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