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Is peace between the houses of Jacob and Shechem possible?

BACKGROUND

I set out to write my blog later this week about the rape of Dinah, but while going through my files, and after being interviewed for a podcast[1] yesterday, whose topic was “lost opportunities in the wake of Parshat Va-yishlach” I came across a piece which I wrote in 1987 and which is unfortunately still relevant today.[2] So, this week I am going to write two blogs. This is the first of two, slightly rewritten (with inserts) from 1987. The second, as we say beli neder, will be about the rape of Dinah.

The theme in 1987 was peace between Jews and Palestinians. I used the story of Dinah in Genesis 34 and had the participants relate to a character or scenario. I brought in additional texts, such as a rabid nationalistic poem by Saul Tchernichovski (d. 1943).[3]  Another text with a different perspective was 2 Samuel 13 with the rape of Tamar and David’s silence. Two additional texts considered the Dinah story as a love story (a poem by Mark Van Doren (d. 1972)[4] and the best-selling novel, by Anita Diamant (b. 1951), The Red Tent). I presented first the approach of Shechem [called Shalem in Diamant’s book], with his enthusiastic acceptance of peace and circumcision, then the counter-reaction of Simeon and Levi with their gruesome acts of violence and murder, then Jacob’s reaction which was fear of what the neighbors would think.  I suggested adding a Greek style chorus of women consigned to the sidelines like Dinah who might come up with some sort of resolution based on women’s experience as those who are always raped and always suffer the consequences of war.  Despite my knowledge then and now that it is unrealistic to rewrite our past, I thought perhaps we could learn enough from the texts and imaginary dialogue between them in order to redirect the immediate future.

I felt at the time (remember this was 1987, not today 2022 after the elections) that if we looked at the moral of the story for our time it was obvious to me that Chamor, father of the rapist Shechem, who spoke eloquently on behalf of his son in favor of peace with the house of Jacob (or Israel) could be considered a senior Arab statesman — Anwar Sadat perhaps. And Jacob, the father of the rape victim and father also of Simeon and Levi (who I pictured as Kahanists then, but take your pick today), could be considered as a reluctant peace-maker who had to be dragged to the peace table (Shimon Peres, Yitzchak Rabin, Ariel Sharon perhaps).

It bothered me when I thought what would have happened had there been a Simeon and Levi in our midst when the peace overture was made by Sadat. But then I reminded myself that the peace probably worked and was not sabotaged because it was precisely Menachem Begin, the former terrorist, the representative of Simeon and Levi, who negotiated that peace. (The optimists among us today hope that there’s a lesson in there for us as well—perhaps proponents of Jewish terrorism will behave responsibly once they are in power). However, Oslo was torpedoed by the Simeon and Levi character, Yigal Amir who assassinated the Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. The problem is that today we have no strong models for peace. There is justifiable fear on both sides. Who will make the first move? There is almost a childlike attitude which prevails: “I won’t shake hands with him until after he shakes hands with me.”  Then things are also complicated by international politics with the war over Iraq looming (today it is Iran and the war between Russia and the Ukraine). And the fact that he who is about to be the next prime minister (again) is more interested in saving his own neck, than representing the people, also complicates matters.

We had a Kissinger in the 1980s and a Clinton who managed to get a reluctant Rabin to shake Arafat’s hand in public. We need statesmen like them today. Is there anyone in the biblical story that could have played that role? An idealistic Jacob of vision perhaps could have stepped in and played that role and averted the subsequent tragedy. It was a marvelous lost opportunity for a spiritual leader. He could have made peace, lived side by side with his neighbors and gained numerous converts to Abraham’s religion. And it might have been a lasting, spiritual coup—one which would have served as a model for succeeding generations.

Instead, Jacob was silent. He wasn’t big enough to play the role of statesman. He couldn’t even play the role of father. His cop-out resulted in his sons’ coup. He allowed them to be his spokesmen and it resulted in ugly tragedy, the vicious destruction of a town and its inhabitants. I wondered then about Ariel Sharon (think Netanyahu today) trying to put his government together. Who exactly would he co-opt? Would it be the Simeon and Levi right-wingers (think Smotrich, Ben Gvir, Maoz today), or would he manage to convince the more moderate members of his own party to join him.

In failing as an educator, Jacob is more to blame than his sons. His punishments were bland and ineffectual. He cursed them in his blessing. He cut them out of his will. Big deal! It’s an old weapon——the final weapon. But from an educational point of view, Jacob missed the boat.

Every good educator knows that if it is to be effective, punishment must be administered immediately, otherwise it doesn’t do any good. Worse it encourages the perpetrators to continue in their evil path. In not playing the father role Jacob encouraged his sons to continue to behave lawlessly. They had no guide (God) lines. The sons were testing Jacob, to see how far they could go (cf. selling of Joseph; Reuben’s hopping into bed with Bilhah) and they discovered there were no limits. The sons started by killing Shechem and Chamor. Then the killing escalated. Violence and vengeance led to more violence and vengeance. It was an over-reaction. No one stepped in to douse the flames of their anger, so the violence continued unabated. The scenario sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Part of the problem (and it is Jacob’s problem and ours) is that there is no God in the story to help him. God is not mentioned at all; this “affair” is between man and man. There is no divine intervention or guidance. It is not as if God roots for either side: It is not clear if He is for peace or vengeance. This was not the case in the story about Pinchas, son of Eleazar. After his bloody act of vengeance God says in approval, “Phinchas. . .has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me” (Numbers: 25:11).

But God is conspicuously silent in the story in Genesis 34. Does that justify Jacob’s silence? Is this a case of  imitatio Dei? Not at all. God sat back and expected Jacob to make a choice. God hoped it would be the right one. Jacob was expected to react, not to imitate God’s silence. It was the people’s first attempt to cope with peace overtures and Israel flubbed it. Peace was offered to Israel, but in our pride (perhaps at our son’s awesome strength) we didn’t know what to do with these overtures. So, we did nothing. We sat back and let others do our acting for us and then too late kvetched when things got out of hand.

Is there a lesson for our time? (Besides the obvious lesson of let’s learn from the past to handle the next opportunity–if it comes–a little better.) I think the lesson is that it’s our turn to make the overtures. And when we do, we should take all the precautions and not allow the Simeons or Levis among us to sabotage this effort. When I was a little kid, we used to say ‘two wrongs do not make a right’. But the reverse is not true. Two rights do unfortunately make a wrong. When there are conflicting claims, both of which are right, there is no solution. In a situation like that, what is needed is someone to make a leap for peace.

Whoever makes this leap will be as much a hero as Nachson ben Aminadav, who jumped into the Reed Sea before the waters quieted down. His was both an act of physical bravery and an act of faith in God. For us to make a leap towards peace requires as much faith as does any act of physical bravery. It is a leap of faith in man, faith that man is really created in God’s image.

In light of what we know about man in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it is admittedly both a heroic leap of faith and a foolish one to believe in the goodness of man’s intentions. The person who makes this leap of faith in man’s ultimate goodness will be praised and/or castigated, assassinated and/or deified.

I’ve heard many people say over the years (myself included), “Sure, we want peace, but…” And top of the list of “buts”, is that it would be committing national suicide to make peace. But unless someone does jump in first to try and fight for peace, there is no end in sight (except war).

Perhaps we should introduce the term ‘peace-monger’.[5] The Shoah today is used in the rhetoric against peace. “Never again” we say with clenched fists. I know of no greater tragedy than that of someone who survived the shoah only to be killed in Israel. Sure, there’s a difference—don’t we say “It is good to die for the cause of our country” (tov lamut be’ad artzenu). 

Clearly it is in our interest to foster familial and group loyalty. It is known as patriotism. It is in society’s interest to teach us that there is a difference in “losing” your life for no reason and “giving” it freely for a cause. Jacob could have been a gibor, a statesman. He could have consulted with his sons and daughter; and been prepared with a counter-offer to the overtures for peace. Once the bargaining was over, it was his obligation to see that neither side did not abrogate the terms of the treaty. One cannot sit on the side hoping for the best, pretending that what is happening around us is not really as bad as it is.

The problem with putting on the blinders and continuing to canter as if the reins are taut, is that when the blinders are removed, the problem hasn’t gone away. Life is pleasant when all the decisions are made for us. But we are not horses. If we allow the wrong person to hold the reins and make decisions for society, we may find that when the blinders are removed, and we can see again, that not only have the problems not gone away but they have been exacerbated.

With this in mind (remember, I wrote this in 1987), I thought we should take with us from this gathering of minds and confrontation with the sources two things:

  • a sense of faith that it is possible to start grappling actively with the issues and
  • that our tradition obliges us to do so.

Shavua tov!

[1] https://jewishquest.org/ The podcast will be available on Wednesday,

[2] This is a work still in progress which was first given at a Masorti Movement Camp in the summer of 1987 at Nes Harim and then as a workshop in August, 1988 at the Thirteenth Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE), Jerusalem. Over the years, I fiddled with it, but never published it. which unfortunately is still relevant today. The entire piece is available in my book, Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew in Israel available at https://www.academia.edu/38276403/CONSOLIDATED_FEM_JEWx_pdf

[3] https://benyehuda.org/read/5401

[4] https://www.commentary.org/articles/mark-doren/the-people-of-the-word-seventeen-poems/

[5] It is interesting that in 2016 a new movement was formed is called “Women Wage Peace” at http://womenwagepeace.org.il/en/ instead of pacifist to make the concept of “fighting” for peace more respectable.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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