The Presence and Absence of Women: Reflections Upon The Rape of Dinah

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Posted on December 3rd, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Featured, Intra-Faith, Learning, Social Issues, Theology
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In this week’s parsha, Parashat Vayishlach, we read one of the Torah’s most difficult and upsetting narratives—the rape of Dinah, the only daughter born to Jacob and Leah, by Shechem, the son of Hamor, the local Hivite chieftain. We know very little of Dinah’s life aside from this heart wrenching account. Our Midrash, as it so often does, seeks to fill in these narrative and biographical gaps.

Dinah was the only daughter of Jacob and Leah, and the only daughter born to Jacob. There are two extant Midrashic traditions regarding her birth. One states that when Rachel saw that Leah was about to bear her seventh child, she prayed that the child not be another son; and thus, Dinah’s gender was changed on account of her plea.

According to a second Midrash, Leah prayed not to have a seventh son. Seeing that both Bilha and Zilpa had borne two sons and she six, she did not want Rachel to be Jacob’s sole wife without a son, showing a remarkable amount of sensitivity, particularly because Rachel was the favored wife.

Every year as I read this parsha, I am struck by Dinah’s total silence. The narrative surrounding her rape by Shechem is told strictly through the perspective of her father and brothers, Shimon and Levi who, upon receiving word of Dinah’s rape, exact violent revenge against all of the male inhabitants of the city.

The text tells us that Shechem falls in love with Dinah and asks to marry her. It is important to note here that Shechem and Hamor’s larger goal with this marital union is to become one people with Jacob’s family, allowing for the marriages of more of the locals with Jacob’s children in the future. They also hope to benefit economically.

Her brothers consent to the marriage only if all of the men agree to become circumcised, a tall order but nonetheless a condition which Shechem readily agrees to. Shechem wastes no time in ensuring that the whole of the male population complies with Shimon and Levi’s conditions. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men were still recovering, Shimon and Levi ransack the city, killing all of the male inhabitants.

I believe it is critical to note here that Jacob does chastise Shimon and Levi for their violence because it has brought tremendous hardship upon him, as his men are few in number, but nowhere do we see Jacob’s explicit anguish over his daughter’s violation—instead, he keeps silent until his sons return from the field. Was his silence a form of tormented anguish? Perhaps. Or, was Jacob’s silence more apathetic? Dinah then is removed from the city and we hear nothing further from her.

Dinah’s complete absence and lack of human agency in this narrative I find deeply troubling. Far too frequently, women and their experiences are rendered completely invisible in our sacred texts. We hear of Shimon and Levi’s violent anguish, but what of Dinah’s?

We read that Shechem fell in love with Dinah and spoke tenderly to her (Gen. 34:3) but what is meant by this? Did Dinah in fact have a romantic relationship with Shechem and, due to their complete disapproval of such a union, Shimon and Levi depicted it as a wholly non-consensual sexual encounter for their own reasons?

In her wildly successful novel, The Red Tent, Anita Diamant suggests just that. Many have seen her novel as a modern Midrash, seeking to give Dinah a voice and life all her own, while placing her within a long tradition of sacred women’s spirituality. Indeed, the opening verse of the thirty-fourth chapter of Genesis tells us that Dinah went out to visit the daughters of the land, but we do not learn why (Gen. 34:1).

Putting these admittedly speculative notions aside, what I find all the more troubling is the fact that if Dinah was indeed raped, as the pshat--or simple meaning of the text clearly conveys, her experience is invisible, and the only thing that seems to matter here is her familial honor. Feminist Biblical commentary has done much to give the voiceless women in our sacred texts a hearing. Although we can never know how Dinah felt, we can, through feminist hermeneutics and Midrash, seek to uncover and recover that lost strand in our tradition, making Torah all the richer.

(Imaged used with permission from WikiCommons.)

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One Response to “The Presence and Absence of Women: Reflections Upon The Rape of Dinah”

  1. [...] a bit more on that passage from a recent discussion by Lauren Tuchman at State of Formation, “The Presence and Absence of Women: Reflections Upon the Rape of Dinah“:Every year as I read this parsha, I am struck by Dinah’s total silence. The narrative [...]

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Lauren is a second year rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Lauren's interests include the intersection between religion and disability and religion and gender studies.


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