It is much easier to speak from the pulpit about Jacob’s tense encounter with his brother Esau, or his struggle with the angel than about the story of Dina’s abduction and assault. For many of us, the Dina story in this week’s Torah portion is one that we have skipped over or wish that we could. Dina’s story is hard. Sexual assault, inappropriate responses, violent vengeance. No one wants to start off their Shabbat sermon with a content warning.
But there are those among us who cannot look away from Dina’s story. Because they are Dina. They live her story every single day. When we neglect to address the Dina story — and the experiences of survivors of sexual assault — these individuals feel unseen. As Dr. Guila Benchimol, a prominent researcher of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Jewish spaces notes, the community often chooses to avert their eyes rather than deal appropriately with the crime. “When cases of abuse happen in community, community members struggle to make sense of this terrible thing that happened. We don’t allow ourselves to look at them too closely. We don’t want to be them, so we don’t want to see them. “But,” Dr. Benchimol asks, “how does this “not seeing” survivors among us impact us as a community?”
We need to learn the story of Dina. We need to keep our eyes (and hearts) wide open and watch her become invisible and be silenced in her own story. We need to examine the responses of her father Jacob, the women in her life, her brothers, Shimon and Levi, and their violent vengeance. We need to remember that — as Dr. Benchimol’s research shows — “survivors are often more upset by the communal response than the initial harm. The communal harm is more traumatic.” In a recent HerTorah gathering, Dr. Guila Benchimol and Rabbi Mira Wasserman taught this challenging text and highlighted the double trauma that a survivor can endure — first, from the sexual assault itself, and then from the responses of her family and community. Communal involvement impacts the experience of the survivors in deep ways — communal speech can silence a victim, and communal silence can speak volumes about how survivors are valued.
The Jewish community can do much more to validate and honor the experiences of survivors, and we can certainly do better at addressing abuses of power and gender-based violence. Learning this Dina text may be a way for us to honor the survivors among us. We have a responsibility as a community to talk about these hard things, to acknowledge them, to see them. The Jewish community has a responsibility to its survivors and a role to play in their healing, and this role deserves much more attention and care.
Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, the architect of #MeToo Torah, reminds us: “You have to talk about the bad things or else they become tolerable. The intolerable becomes tolerable.” In the same way that we grapple with the Binding of Isaac or debate what it meant to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, we must think deeply about this terrible episode of sexual assault and its implications for our behavior today. Instead of only worrying about avoiding lashon hara, gossip, we must engage in lashon hatov, proactive and courageous speech to squarely face what happens in our communities, lift up survivors, and create change.
As we read through Bereishit, chapter 34, we notice that Dina seems to get erased from the story. After the first pasuk/verse, once Dina is abducted, she disappears. The men get involved and decide what to do about her, without giving her agency or a voice. The Torah text itself is mimicking how so many survivors often feel about their own experiences of abuse in community. And we can all feel how wrong this is — how additionally traumatic and violating it is to have everyone around Dina, everyone but Dina, decide what happens as a result of her abuse. In her analysis of the text, Dr. Benchimol asked, “We need to ask ourselves how this story could have been different. What would Dina have wanted? What could we have said to Dina?”
This text invites us to think deeply about what we can say to Dina, and how we can respond appropriately to survivors of sexual violence. In a powerful closing to an evening spent learning this text in the company of survivors and community members alike, everyone was asked to give Dina a blessing. Here are some of their responses:
“I want to tell Dina she is loved and seen as a brave and gracious woman.”
“We will never leave you standing alone again.”
“God loves you, Dina. You are valuable no matter what happened.”
“I’m so sorry sweet girl…. We hear you and we believe you and we are holding you.”
“May Dina be blessed with peace and may her voice live on in Jewish women.”
“Sweet Dina, we will cradle you along with your story. You will be our teacher, and the teacher of our daughters. In seeking out your voice, we will find ours.”
“Dina, thank you for being a mother in Israel. Your memory gives us strength.”
“May you always be heard and seen. We are here for you.”
“Dina, I bless that you will find the strength to heal and love.”
“People now are getting justice, even when you did not. Dina, you are heard.”
“You will have Justice like your name which means judgment — and Justice will be healing.”
“We will teach your Torah to find a better way.”
“We name our daughters after you.”
“May you find one person to hold you each night, to wake you when you cry in your sleep, to bring you back to yourself, and to shepherd you in your days so your testimony rings through the generations and worlds to come.”
“Dina — you have more companions than you know. Do not be afraid…. blessings to all the Dinas and all their supporters on their journeys.”
This Shabbat, give your own blessing to Dina — and those in our community who have endured sexual assault. Tell them that you believe them, and that they are important to you, that you are sorry for their suffering, and that you will take action. Dina’s story happened long ago, but we can make it up to her by responding compassionately and thoughtfully to her descendants.
The above was coauthored by Ariele Mortkowitz, the founding director of SVIVAH, dedicated to revolutionizing how Jewish women come together in community, and finding new ways to use community as a tool for women’s empowerment as changemakers in their own lives and the world. This HerTorah gathering was offered in partnership with the SRE Network.