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Learning from Dinah

Learning from Dinah

As a woman who looks to the Torah for guidance and for lessons, I very often struggle with the portrayal of women in our Biblical texts. Having been named for one of the imahot, the matriarchs, I look more carefully at the women of Genesis for clues into what it could mean to be a Jewish woman. It’s an interesting challenge, from Parashat B'reishit onwards.

Until we get to Parashat Vayishlach, this week’s Torah portion, when it comes a serious struggle. This parashah has many great teaching moments, particularly the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau (Genesis 33:1-20). However, this parsha also contains one of the most difficult moments in the Torah I can think of: the rape of Dinah.

Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, “went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force…Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home.” The parsha then continues with an angry encounter between Jacob and his sons (Dinah’s brothers) and Shechem’s father, Hamor, “because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done” (Genesis 34:1-7).

I cannot read this without frustration, confusion and a sense of deflation. Clearly the details of the encounter between Shechem and Dinah are omitted, as are how Jacob found out what happened to his daughter. But what is most striking to me is that Dinah does not have a voice; she does not speak. She initiates one action, “going out,” after that, actions are done to her, around her, because of something that happened to her. Dinah has no agency.

Whether her agency is taken from her in the act of sexual violence, or whether she never a strong sense of it to begin with it, I still look to this story for direction. My first reaction of, “look at how women in the Bible are mostly secondary characters, who are known in the context of their sexuality or the fact of their womanhood” changed when I dug a little deeper. I cannot deny that Dinah has very limited ability to do any kind of self-advocacy.

We don’t know if Dinah consented to having sex with Shechem. We don’t know how she felt about what happened, or how her family reacted. Whether her voice was omitted because it did not matter, or because Dinah, the person, could not or would not speak, I think we learn from this story how important it is for women to have a voice.

I learn from Dinah how important women’s empowerment truly is and how sexual violence is destructive for women and their communities.

Silence is not consent. Silence is not endorsement. Silence is the voices of women being ignored. Silence is women feeling like their voices will not be heard. Learn from Dinah, and lift your voice.

Sarah Greenberg is the Assistant Legislative Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in 2013-2014. Sarah graduated in 2013 from Cornell University, and is originally from New York City.

Sarah Greenberg
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