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Naomi Graetz

The Personal is the Political and Biblical

THE PERSONAL

Forty years ago, in 1983, after having taught English at Ben Gurion University for 10 years, I was up for tenure. From 1983 to 1986 there was a freeze on tenure at all universities for budgetary reasons. I was told “it wasn’t personal”. BUT, since my contract was up, I received 3 letters in one package. The first letter was a letter firing me; the second letter was a letter in which I was to ask to be rehired and the third letter was a letter rehiring me for ONE year. For three years, I received this little package. In 1985, the then President and Rector of the university, who was a close friend and neighbor, advised me to take the Sabbatical that I was entitled to, since the future was not clear. So that is what I did. I left my family for five months and went to NYC and Teaneck, New Jersey where my mother and sister lived. I did the research that I was supposed to do there, but also discovered feminism and modern midrash. I spent a summer in a Ramah camp, where I was the oldest staff member at age 43, and out of loneliness discovered the computer room and in the evenings started to write. Thus began my career with a very long letter critiquing the policy of prayer in the camp. It was later published as a letter, “Praying as a Foreign Language”.

When I returned nothing had changed, and a friend suggested that I begin writing something. Since I was a torah reader and very familiar with the bible, I began writing stories or retellings of the bible immediately after Simchat Torah. These stories were very personal, I put myself, my complaints and feelings into the biblical characters. They came alive. When I got to the story of Dinah (Genesis 34, which is in this week’s parsha), I went to town. I saw Dinah’s rape, as my being “screwed” by the university. I was expected to take this injustice silently, and just wait and see. Fortunately, in my case, when the freeze was over, my tenure was in the pipeline and pretty soon after I had job security. The upside of all this, was that I was now in the process of becoming a serious writer and student of bible and midrash—combining my interests in feminism and women’s rights in Judaism.

THE POLITICAL

Most of us, know that the “personal is the political”, a rallying slogan of the feminist movement in the late 60’s. We saw this around us since October 7th when the whole country viscerally felt the suffering of the slaughtered, the evacuated and the wounded, both civilians and soldiers. The Dinah story has been used this week by so many commentators. Some use it as a call for revenge, some for reflection. Some for a movement to stop silencing women; some to accuse the UN for not stepping up to castigate the Hamas rapists, who committed heinous crimes against innocent women, as well as other people.

THE BIBLICAL

In my Modern Midrash class last night, I did a close reading of the story and also referred to my own writings. My usual read of the story focuses on the ending.

On the third day, when they were in pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and asses, all that was inside the town and outside; all their wealth, all their children, and their wives, all that was in the houses, they took as captives and booty.

I was teaching on zoom: I looked at all the squares of faces in the class—they looked like they were in shock. I asked one of them, what does this remind you of? One of them said, it sounds like what the chamas just did to us. Another said in defense, at least it doesn’t say that they raped the women. Another asked, relating to the earlier part of the story, what would have happened if the family had accepted Shechem into the family, especially after he and the whole town circumcised themselves in good faith? Maybe we would have peace today she added. Since I’ve written about this, I was particularly pleased with her question. Too all, as “naive” readers, without any interpretations, it was clear to us all that the brothers over-reacted.

But what was Jacob’s reaction to this? Until now, he had been silent and said nothing about his daughter’s rape and abduction.

Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” But they answered, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis 34:25-31)

Again, I asked the class, what they thought. They pointed out that he was not saying what they did was “morally” wrong. What they did was wrong because of the familiar refrain of “what will the goyim think of us?” Jacob’s major fear was that the Canaanites and Perizzites might retaliate. Did Jacob object to the possibility of peace and intermarriage with the people of Shechem? We will never know, because the hotheads Simeon and Levi jumped in too quickly. Only at the end of the book of Genesis when Jacob “blesses” his children, does he strike out at his sons and imply they had reacted in the wrong way.

Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness כלי חמס—klei chamas.

Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay a man,
And when pleased they maim an ox.

Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel (Genesis 49: 5-7).

So it is Jacob who likens them to tools of chamas (lawlessness).

BACK TO THE POLITICAL

I don’t want to make too much of the parallels, BUT the sensitive reader cannot avoid seeing that Jacob accuses his sons of being lawless (chamas) tools. So what do we do with this text. Without going into the rabbinic sources, which are absolutely divided on whether this was a good action or not, i.e. whether the brothers engaged in overkill, or whether they had a right to this revengeful act, I would like to point out that today in Israel we are engaged exactly in the same quandary. Many have likened our situation to Sophie’s choice. I usually describe it in terms of damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. There are those who would take a chance on allowing the chamas to continue to pursue the destruction of Israel and get all the hostages back. Then there are those who feel that the greater “good” today is that we have to stop the cease fire and get back to the business of destroying chamas forever, despite the rest of the world’s objection to the collateral losses of human life that will inevitably occur, no matter how moral or careful our army is.

BACK TO THE PERSONAL

I have no answers. I am as confused as the government and the rest of the country. I have two grandsons on the front; I have a stake in this war; my husband was in the hevra kadisha in the Yom Kippur War and our whole family has an understanding of loss. Yet I shed tears, literally, thinking about all the hostages, left behind. Will their families ever see their loved ones? Will they ever have closure? Again, no one knows and anyone who is sure of anything today, is lying. So with these sad thoughts, I end this blog for Shabbat and hope that I have not disturbed anyone too much with my thoughts.

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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