The story begins with Dinah leaving the privacy of her tent residence and going “out to see the daughters of the land”. While being out, she was seen by Shechem son of Hamor, the rulers of that land. Shechem takes Dinah, lays with her and “defiles” her – three acts that are often interpreted as rape. Shechem also finds Dinah to be the woman he would like to marry. So Shechem approaches his father and asks him to arrange the two to be married. His father then addresses Jacob, and the two strike a deal of unification of the two nations through marriage. But Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi do not like that deal. While the people of Shechem are still weak from the circumcision they just went through, Simeon and Levi bring their people upon them, storm into the city, kill all the men, take all the women and all the goods they can get, grab their sister Dinah and leave—defying their father’s word and putting their entire family’s future in danger.
What does this story tell us?
The traditional midrashim of this story often focus on the ever-so burning question of what Dinah was doing “going out”? In the Torah, the feminine version of “going out” can also mean “going out to bad culture” or even “prostitute”. Although the pshat is Dinah going to see the local girls, many midrashim interpret it as indeed going to bad culture; Midrash Tanchumah interprets Dinah’s outing as the act that corrupted her, in other words, she brought the rape upon herself. Rashi adds that indeed Dinah is surely a prostitute being the daughter of Leah, who was herself (perhaps) a prostitute— since Leah too went out, fully decorated in jewels, to meet Jacob. Some commentators found this behavior to be “slutty” as well. And so Rashi suggests that Dinah not only brought the rape upon herself, she did so because she got it from her mom. “Like mother like daughter” we often tell ourselves, convincing the terrified part within us that bad things happen to bad girls, and as long as our girls will be good, nothing bad will happen to them.
This outing, this “bad girls” behavior, can only be a sign of lack of modesty. Rabbi Dalia Marx mentions in her commentary that generations of commentators used this story as a threat over women’s head to be warned of what will happen to them if they will step out of their proper domestic world. What happened to Dinah was a punishment for going out, and it may just be the punishment for any other woman who dares to step out.
How remote this biblical threat is from our days? Well, let me put it this way: how many of us women heard the phrase “you are not going out like that”? It is too late, you show too much skin, it is not a place for a woman to walk alone, have you completely lost your mind? Moreover, how many of us – men and women- repeat that threat to our own daughters’ ears?
Dinah’s blame resides in us more than we might think.
While traditional commentators are often in agreement that Dinah’s going out was the root of what happened to her, they are split regarding what exactly happened to her, and what were the reasons she went out to begin with: Rashi claims that some of the act was rape and some was not, but Ibn Ezra claims that there is no indication that a rape indeed happened. The Ramban not only sees the entire act as a rape, he also praises Dinah for refusing to comply with Shechem. Rabbi Eliezer claims that it was Shechem who sent some girls to play near Dinah’s tent to tempt her out so that he could kidnap her.
Modern female commentators are split about this question just as much. While Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is certain that Dinah was raped, she reminds us that we know very little about Dinah: we don’t know how old she was, what she was looking for, or her intentions. Rivka Lubitz, an Orthodox Toenet Rabbanit claims that Dinah, an only daughter among sons, simply went out to seek some same-gender company, and was kidnapped by Shechem. But Rabbi Dalia Marx considers another possibility, which she finds even bolder: that there wasn’t a rape but a consensual sexual encounter. She suggests that the fact that Shechem wanted to marry Dinah, that he was so committed to being with her, indicates that the “shameful deed” was not a rape, but rather an independent sexual choice of a woman getting out of restraining conventions. Interesting to see that this debate - was there or wasn’t there a rape - exists not only in the commentary but also in literary works of fiction and non-religious debates about Dinah’s story. Anita Daimant’s book The Red Tent is a biblical fiction based entirely on the suggestion that Dinah in fact chose to go to Shechem to be with him; that she loved him; and that her brothers enacted revenge not on a rape but to re-establish a power base and to get her back into line.
Just like us, in our days, when we hear yet another rape story and find it so difficult to understand: did it happen? Who’s word against whose? Proof? Interpretations? And we seem to never know what really happened, make up our mind, choose a narrative.
Going back to Dinah’s story, I find there is something very fundamental that missing. Rape or love, a prostitute or a naïve child, we have not a shred of Dinah’s voice anywhere to be found. Dinah is voiceless.
How devastating it is to discover that the first rape story in the Bible has so much in common with today’s rape stories, as if thousands of years do not separate between today and then. From victim blaming and slut shaming, through the inability to fully interpret the story, to the absence of the survivor’s voice. And I didn’t even mention revenge.
We sit in this room and we breathe, and for every breath we take, there is a Canadian woman who is beaten, harassed, raped, sexually assaulted, stocked, trafficked or murdered. Here, in this country of ours, violence against women is as common as our everyday breaths, yet it is more silence.
Today, December 6, is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. Some of you may know it. Some of you may have noticed the flags halfway on the pole, but otherwise, this day too dwells in the outskirts of silence. But not for me, and not in City Shul.
It was more than twenty years ago when I became involved with the anti VAW movement. I began by offering women the opportunity to break their own silence. Phone call after phone call I’ve heard their stories. Abuse, rape, anguish and pain. I am able to give the statistics a human face and my own desperation some devotion. I’ve learned that sexual violence survivors do not live in the twilight of society; they are here, among us, and they are countless. They are our mothers and grandmothers, our teachers and our doctors, the model smiling from the pages of a magazine and the Olympic champion, and like Dinah – also our ancestors. They are often too weak to lift the heavy load of depression of their souls, and sometimes so brave they can change the course of history with their courage. They were abused and assaulted by their loved ones, by their brother or father, their piano teacher, their boss, their neighbor, the police officer they asked for protection, the cable technician, a fellow student at school, a stranger on the bus, a famous radio host, a member of parliament, a football player, a successful comedian.
There is no woman in this room who does not know what I am talking about. The fear, the horror, were engraved into us a long time ago. To those who ever thought it is amusing how women go to the public washrooms in groups, think again, because the reason is not funny at all.
I was asked many times how can we stop VAW from happening. And for over twenty years I reply the same: break the silence. Don’t expect the survivors to do so, it is both unfair and unrealistic. Unfair, because those who experience the violence are often weaker than us, and unrealistic because many of us make sure that it will be extremely hard for the survivors to speak. The survivors can never know if their brothers, washed with hateful agenda, will use their rape story to commit a political genocide, or how those who hear the story will interpret it. And there are also the blame, shame, gossip, and the impossible “justice system” procedures. It is not the survivors’ duty to break the silence, it is ours.
We often don’t want to speak about VAW. For many reasons we choose to keep the silence intact, although there is no other topic that affects our health, safety, human rights and future as it. We hope that pretending that VAW does not exist, or exist elsewhere, will make it go away. It was very easy to ignore Dinah’s story for this D’var Torah and talk about Esau’s and Jacob’s reunion, or Rachel’s death. But if we choose to overlook Dina’s story, if we choose to ignore our national day of remembering, how can we remember, how can we raise our voice in all other days of the year?
And thus I ask you to take Dinah’s Silence and remember it. Remember it every time you feel that a silence is taking you over, preventing you from doing the right thing, saying the right words. Remember Dinah, the daughter of our father and mother who was doomed to silence and was nearly forgotten, and make her story worthwhile. Talk to your friends, children, coworkers. Face your fears, prejudice and doubts. Redeem Dinah’s silence with making room for the words of others. Give voice to the voiceless and they shall give you justice. Ve’emru Amen.