Monday, November 19, 2018

Vayishlach (Quiet)

This week’s portion, Vayishlach, describes one of the most tragic and troubling stories in the Torah.  In Genesis 34, we read:

Dinah—the daughter of Leah, who she bore to Jacob—went out to see the women of the locality, and Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the local prince saw her; he took her and lay her down and raped her.

As the sad narrative unfolds, almost everyone acts badly.  Shechem’s father approaches Jacob and asks that he offer Dinah to her attacker as a wife.  Jacob says nothing; instead he lets his sons—who are far more outraged for the family’s honor than concerned about their sister—respond for him.  The sons devise a plot, telling Hamor and Shechem that Dinah can marry into their family on one condition: every male in their clan must be circumcised.  Hamor agrees—and on the third day after the mass circumcision, while all the Hivites are still healing from the procedure, Jacob’s sons slaughter every male in the city.  Then, and only then, does Jacob speak: “You have made trouble for me by making me odious to the land’s inhabitants.”  To which the sons respond: “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”

If ever there was a Torah tale of toxic masculinity, this is it.  Male violence and spiteful speech run amuck, while the only woman in the story—Dinah—is not granted a single word.  Later rabbinic commentary compounds this sin, castigating the victim for her mistreatment, as the Rabbis infer that that in “going out” on her own, Dinah invites the trouble that befalls her.  Midrash Genesis Rabbah is typical: “God took care to create a woman from a rib, which is a concealed, modest place; notwithstanding this, women like to go out to public places.”  Alas, this misogynistic attitude remains common; all too often, we still blame female victims of male assault, for their own misfortune, and then silence them. 

Thankfully, contemporary women are making important inroads in breaking the silence.  At the Women’s March in Washington, DC in January 2016, Los Angeles singer-songwriter MILCK performed a song that would become a kind of unofficial anthem for the #MeToo movement.  That piece—Quiet—speaks of the critical important of speaking up and being heard.  She sings with passion, and ever-increasing urgency:

Put on your face
Know your place
Shut up and smile
Don’t spread your legs
I could do that

But no one knows me—no one ever will
If I don’t say something, if I just lie still
Would I be that monster, scare them all away
If I let them hear what I have to say

I can’t keep quiet, no oh oh oh
I can’t keep quiet, no oh oh oh
A one woman riot, oh oh oh

I can’t keep quiet
For anyone

We—Jewish women and men alike—can learn a great deal from the Dinah story—and empowering anthems like “Quiet.”  The time for silence in the face of misogyny is over—it is incumbent upon us, as both Jacob’s and Dinah’s heirs—to do better.  For all of the problems it presents with the Dinah narrative (and others), Torah also points the way to a better, more egalitarian world with its very first ethical teaching: “God created all of humanity in the divine image, male and female God created them.”

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Rabbi Laura Geller notes: “Dinah’s silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations.  What happens to her in the aftermath of her ordeal?  We do not know.  We never hear from her, just as we may never hear from the women and girls in our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard.  But the legacy of Jacob as Israel, the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world—and not passively ignore these facts.  The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to ‘hear each other into speech.’  Dinah’s story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.”

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