Parashat Va-yishlah

Genesis 32:4–36:43

November 20, 2010 / 13 Kislev 5771

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Andy Shugerman, Rabbinic Fellow, Development Department, JTS.

Commonly found in coroner's offices across North America is the following motto: "We speak for the dead to protect the living." Ancient and modern biblical commentators have taken a similar stance toward the rape of Dinah and its aftermath. A close examination of Genesis 34 and contemporary responses to its narrative will show how one of the Torah's most troubling passages can inspire us to take action. We must, in the words of Proverbs 31:8, "speak for those who cannot speak for themselves." We must address similar injustices in today's society in order to protect the living.

Chapter 34 of Genesis laconically opens with the rape. Verse one tells how Jacob's and Leah's only daughter "went out to visit the daughters of the land." The next verse immediately reports that Shechem, a Canaanite man, "saw her, and took her and lay with her by force." The next fifteen verses describe how Shechem, infatuated with Dinah, enlists his powerful father Hamor to "get me this girl" by brokering a deal with a speechless Jacob and his enraged sons. The brothers assent to Shechem marrying their sister only if he and his clan circumcise themselves; otherwise, they "will take our daughter and go" (34:17).

As shown above, among the various motifs in Genesis 34 is the repeated use of the Hebrew verb root LaKaCH for "get" or "take," and three of its eight appearances figure prominently in the narrative's closing verses. Three days following the mass circumcision, Dinah's brothers Shimon and Levi "took each his sword" (34:25) to slay the townsmen and then "took Dinah out of Shechem's house and went away" (34:26). After the other brothers "seized . . . all that was inside the town and outside" (34:28), the action concludes with Jacob's furious reaction to his sons' rampage, to which they reply, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" (34:31).

In fact, that rhetorical question in the passage's final verse encapsulates the concerns of the male personalities in this story. After Shechem inexplicably ravishes Dinah, he seeks to acquire her in a way that would dignify the coerced intercourse of their initial encounter. Her brothers, on the other hand, desire retribution for this "outrage . . . a thing not to be done" (34:7) that has turned their sister into a sex object. In Shechem's eyes, Dinah is an item for negotiation; for her brothers, she represents a defilement and a cause for revenge.

According to this literary analysis, one can see how Genesis 34 presents its violent narrative of the loss and repossession of power, property, and honor. Amidst all the explicit atrocities, though, perhaps the most subtle tragedy is the way in which both Dinah's virginity and her voice are stolen from her. Not once does she speak in the entire chapter, nor do any of the men ever address her directly. Unfortunately, many ancient and medieval rabbis add insult to her injury, as they place the onus for the rape on Dinah and/or her mother Leah. For example, Genesis Rabbah 80:1 assigns moral responsibility to both Dinah and Leah, for "a woman is not immoral until her daughter is immoral," as Leah herself "went out to meet (Jacob) like a harlot." This type of moralistic comment may have been intended to protect women from exposing themselves to danger, but it unfairly assumes that either Dinah or Leah could have prevented what occurred.

Instead of blaming the victim, the action-oriented divrei Torah of two female colleagues have articulated a fresh approach that has affected me deeply. Rabbis Arielle Hanien and Sharon Brous have both spoken about the rape of Dinah, in particular, and the difficult passages in the Torah, in general, as requiring a visceral reaction from contemporary audiences. We are meant to feel disgust and horror in reading these verses; indeed, those emotions make this difficult text sacred if we pay attention to our discomfort and act upon it. According to my colleagues, we are uncomfortable precisely because we know that these kinds of violence persist in our world today. We can neither ignore the plain meaning of the text or its striking context in our broken world. Instead, Rabbis Hanien and Brous would exhort us to hear God's voice calling us to action through this and other challenging narratives that disturb.

To place this perspective in dialogue with current events and advocacy efforts, consider the following passage from Randy Gener's article "In Defense of 'Ruined'" in this past month's American Theater magazine about one of the most produced and most troubling plays on stage this season:

This tradition of objectifying women during conflicts . . . has stepped up to new levels: Fighters have systematically used rape and murder in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda in the 1990s, and currently in Darfur with the intent to eliminate ethnic groups and to induce forced displacement. The prevalence of rape and other sexual violations in Eastern Congo has been described as the worst in the world. Women, children and even some men are being attacked by multiple assailants, often in public and in front of their neighbors. Even the United Nations' peacekeeping forces have been accused of rape. Sexual violence wasn't recognized as a war crime until June 2008 when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1820, a small step toward ending what Jan Egeland, the former humanitarian affairs chief, described as "one of the biggest conspiracies of silence in history."

As Gener describes, Lynn Nottage's play Ruined has received critical acclaim and large national audiences even though—or perhaps because—its pervasive subject matter, sexual violence, is such a taboo for conversation, let alone performance. Nonetheless, the fact that the play won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama attests to the public's need and desire to hear these stories. Will we similarly examine cases of rape among male inmates in American prisons or cases of American servicemen sexually assaulting their female colleagues on military bases and in combat zones? What of the ever-expanding problem of human trafficking in industrialized countries, including the United States and Israel?

This Shabbat, let us follow the example of these women rabbis and artists who have spoken for Dinah and for others who could not speak for themselves. We must unravel other "conspiracies of silence" by bringing new attention to bear upon the persistence of sexual violence in all forms in the twenty-first century. Let us passionately question and courageously embrace the parts of our tradition and our world that challenge us the most. May we thus realize the full message of that passage from Proverbs 31: "Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy . . . for the rights of all the unfortunate."

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.