A lot happens in today’s parsha, Vayishlach. Jacob continues on his journey back to Canaan. He encounters his brother Esau, and they appear to come to terms with their past and then go their separate ways. Jacob has another son, and his beloved, Rachel, dies.
And Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, is raped.
We learn in the parsha that once Jacob and his now large entourage come to Canaan, his daughter, Dinah “goes out among the woman” of the land, a description tinged with a bit of judgement. It is during one of these forays that the king’s son sees her, takes her and rapes her. He then tells his father to “get me this girl as a wife.”
Hamor, the king, then attempts to do just that. He goes to Jacob and offers a considerable bride price, possibly to address the wrong that was done. Jacob is silent during the negotiation. But Dinah’s brothers are not. They insist she cannot marry an uncircumcised man. The Torah suggest they’re not bargaining in good faith by using the word b’mirmah, which is translated variously as “with cunning,” “with guile,” or “deceptively” to describe their proposal: that all the men of the city become circumcised as part of the bride price. Surprisingly, the prince and father eagerly agree to their terms. While rape is an ugly act no matter when in history it took place, the participants in Dinah’s story probably had a very different understanding of it than we do today, which doesn’t make the bartering over Dinah any less troubling. In biblical times, Dinah, now rid of her value as a virgin, can only be redeemed by marrying her rapist.
Three days after the mass circumcision, while the men of Shechem are in pain, Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers by the same mother, enter the town, kill everyone, and loot their flocks, herds, and wealth. Only then does Jacob break his silence, now upset that they have brought him trouble and “made him odious” among the other people of the land. Throughout this story, we never hear from Dinah. How did she feel? What of her brothers and their bargain? Why did she want to go out to see the women of the land? Was she simply a curious young woman, surrounded by boys, in need of female friends? We’ll never know.
Writer Anita Diamont tried to address Dinah’s silence. In her novel The Red Tent, which operates as a kind of super-midrash on the story, she attempted to give Jacob’s only daughter a voice. Diamont imagines that what happened in the town of Shechem was not rape. That Dinah had found love. And it is her brothers who violently snatch it from her when they kill not just her lover, but all the men of Shechem.
Our contemporary way of thinking about Dinah’s rape will never square with what our forebears would and could accept. Although victims of rape today continue to struggle with reporting the crime, being heard, and prosecuting it, we obviously believe it IS a crime. We find the idea of marrying a girl to her rapist repulsive. From the #MeToo Movement and other women’s organizations, we have learned to “believe all women.” We understand rape goes beyond sheer force and violence. We share outrage at men like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, who used their money and their power to subjugate and denigrate women who most often had neither.
That’s why as part of this ongoing horror that Hamas unleashed against Israel on October 7, the world’s lack of belief and sympathy surrounding the rapes of Israeli women in the border kibbutzim and at the Supernova music festival has been outrageous. We have heard testimony from witnesses. We have the evidence in videos and on the bodies of the tortured, raped women in the morgue. We have testimony from Hamas terrorists caught that day.
And what do we have from leading world women’s organizations? Nada. Silence.
There were no statements of support from anyone associated with the #MeToo movement. Did Women’s March, which galvanized nearly half a million people to march on Washington the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, suddenly lose its chutzpah, because I definitely missed their press release. And UN-Women, which has managed to issue a four-page report about the effects of the war on Gazans since all this began, finally got around to issuing a very pareve statement referencing possible gender violence by Hamas, last week — nearly 50 days after their terrible rampage. And then they deleted it.
Not a great look for the United Nations, which was promoting an awareness campaign ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25. Hypocrisy in a nutshell.
And then you have to wonder what would provoke someone like Samantha Pearson, once the director of The University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre, to sign an open letter that took issue with politicians who had dared to repeat that the rapes against Israelis had occurred. I looked up the mission statement of the Sexual Assault Centre, which is pretty clear: The “centre actively works towards creating a campus community free of sexual violence. We operate from a feminist, anti-oppressive, intersectional, trauma-informed, and client-centred framework.” Well, we have all painfully learned that Jewish trauma doesn’t intersect with anyone else’s, so I guess that explains that. Fortunately, the University of Alberta took action and fired Ms. Pearson.
Jewish women’s groups have been so dismayed by the lack of solidarity with Israeli women that they’ve taken to posting on social media using #MeToo_UNless_UR_A_Jew. And I cannot be the only person who finds UN Women’s social media handle, @unwomen, ironic. I mean when you read it all run together, it clearly says, “unwomen”.
Only NOW, the National Organization for Women, an American organization, stepped up, issuing a statement condemning Hamas’ attack on Israel. And they did it on Oct. 7, which makes the silence of other groups stand out all the more.
Sadly, none of this is new. In her memoir, Deborah, Golda and Me, a seminal work on Jewish feminism, Letty Cottin Pogrebin reprinted her 1982 essay “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement,” that ran in Ms., the magazine she helped found. Pogrebin began working on the piece in 1980 following the United Nations conference in Copenhagen where antisemitism was on full display both in its traditional anti-Jewish and more contemporary anti-Zionist forms. She wanted to explore whether what she had experienced was “peculiar to women working in an international context, or whether some comparable form of anti-Semitism existed among feminists in the United States.”
Well, she found her answer. It is not one that would surprise us today. I won’t detail all the points of the essay, but would suggest you look it up online at the Jewish Women’s Archive. The essay sounds like it could have been written yesterday. It’s that fresh. And that depressing.
Pogrebin details five broad problems the women’s movement then faced regarding Jews after conducting interviews with more than 80 women. They included a failure to see parallels between oppression toward Jews and any other group (intersectional exclusion would be my descriptor); how antisemitism is a problem of both the left and the right albeit displayed in different ways; what she referred to as “the three I’s” invisibility of Jewish reality from feminist consciousness, insult that ranges from Jew-baiting to outright persecution, and internalized oppression, which is a fancy way to say self-hatred. She also included a feminist loathing of the patriarchal aspects of Judaism and ongoing difficulties in black-Jewish relations. All of this Pogrebin viewed through her specific, second-wave feminist lens. She was clearly disappointed that the movement of which she remains such an integral part, rejected and continues to reject such a very integral part of her.
When I read Pogrebin’s essay back in the early 90s when Deborah, Golda and Me was published, I was upset by her conclusions, and this was 10 years after it had first appeared in print. At that moment, it was news to me. I remember feeling confused and angry while I read, enough so that the essay has remained lodged in my memory and has nagged at me from time to time. When I reread it for this d’var the other day, I simply felt alone.
Earlier in today’s parsha, before we read about Dinah, Jacob worries that Esau, accompanied by 400 men, is going to remember Jacob’s deception over their birthright and want revenge. The Torah tells us that Jacob takes his two wives, his two maidservants, his eleven children, and all his possessions across the Yabbok River to ensure their safety. Now, we can all do the math. With Benyamin not yet born, Jacob has 12 children. For whatever reason, patriarchal or otherwise, the Torah “forgets” to count Dinah.
A midrash exists, however, that says Jacob was so worried that Esau would want Dinah for a wife that Jacob hid her in a box. It’s kind of astonishing. Although the sages would have understood Jacob to be protecting his daughter — which he clearly failed to do later in the very same parsha — there’s probably no more powerful metaphor for silencing someone than shutting them up in a box. Writing in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Rabbi Laura Geller adds that the sages also understood Dinah’s rape to be Jacob’s punishment for withholding his daughter from Esau. “Dinah’s rape is Jacob’s punishment?” Geller asks, astonished. “But what about Dinah? What has she done?” Dinah’s story, she adds challenges us to wrestle with the “shadowy parts of ourselves and our world … and to be also the voices of all our sisters.”
And so we cannot let the women brutalized by Hamas on Oct. 7 be put in a box, which the world seems so very much to want us to do. We cannot let them be silenced if and when they finally choose to speak. We cannot let their story be forgotten, dismissed or denied. As with Dinah’s story, we must listen to their stories, believe them and if needed, be their voices, too.