Sunday, November 26, 2017

Dinah speaks! (Portion Vayishlach)

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the region. When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region, saw her, he seized her and lay with her by force. And his soul was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, “Get me this girl to be my wife.”

After three thousand years of enduring in silence, perhaps Dinah’s day is dawning at last.

Her story—or, more accurately, her male relatives’ version of her story—sits squarely at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.  When Dinah goes out to visit the women of the land, Shechem, the son of a local chieftain, rapes her and then asks his father, Hamor, to acquire her for him as a wife.  Jacob’s sons consent to the request—but only on the condition that Hamor and Shechem and their entire tribe agree to circumcise themselves.  The men of Shechem keep up their end of the bargain, but while they are still weak from their wounds, Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi attack the town, slaughter all of the men and plunder the women and children.  When Jacob condemns his sons for their violence, they respond, “Shall he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”

Over the years, most of our traditional (male) commentators have criticized Dinah, some even going so far as to suggest that she brings the tragic consequences on herself by “going out” in an inappropriate manner.  Tellingly, Dinah—whose name means “judgment”—does not say a word in the entire episode.  Torah tells us nothing of her feelings, her words, her reactions to everything that happens to her.  In The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, author Ellen Frankel conjures Dinah’s voice: “Because from the moment of my birth, I was fated to remain silent.  When I was born, my name, unlike my brothers’, was announced without interpretation.  When I was raped, my cries went unrecorded.  When my brothers negotiated with Hamor for my hand, my wishes were not considered.  And when my father, Jacob, bestowed his blessings upon his children, I received none.  That was why I visited the Canaanite women.  Utterly invisible at home, I craved attention and went out looking for it.  Only too late did I learn that neglect is not the only injury a woman can suffer.”

Since Dinah, of course, countless myriads of women have suffered sexual harassment and violence at the hands of men.  Indeed, as the #metoo movement has illustrated, virtually no women have escaped the experience to some degree or another.  And like Dinah, most have kept silent, understandably fearing the reprisal and shaming that have typically dogged those with the courage to come forward. 

But today, at least in America, for the moment, that fear finally seems to be diminishing.  As Seattle Times writer Mindy Cameron notes in a recent op-ed: “All this could be a watershed moment. . . a reckoning and a clear warning to all men who presume they have the privilege and power to harass and abuse.”

This is, of course, just a beginning.  We men must take responsibility for our actions and speak—and act—out against all kinds of denigration and exploitation of women.  The rules of the past no longer apply—nor should they.  This is the time for us to listen.  Dinah and her sisters have been waiting a long time to have their say.