In Parashat Vayeishev, we read that Joseph suffers sexual harassment at the hands of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph is the patriarch Jacob’s second child to face sexual violence, after his daughter Dinah was raped (Gen. 34). In this midrashic monologue, we wonder how Jacob reacted to the news of what happened to Dinah:
“There’s so much I regret in my life: Stealing from my brother Esau. Lying to my dad. My part in the scheme to ensure I received the blessing of the firstborn. The dysfunctional animosity between my children that I couldn’t—that I didn’t—stop.
“But my biggest regret, the one that keeps me up at night, is that I said nothing when my daughter Dinah needed me.
“How do parents go on living when their child is grabbed, “manhandled,” taken, and raped (Gen 34:2)? How does a father remain silent when his daughter is assaulted?
“At first, I didn’t understand what happened. I stupidly thought Dinah was at fault for going out alone. What silly questions I asked: ‘What were you wearing? Why were you out there alone? What did you expect, from men and boys?’ It was as if I expected men to mistreat women and that I accepted this reality.
“And then, when the story came out, I didn’t know what to say. And then, I never said anything. I ignored it. I ignored her.
“When my sons Simeon and Levi took matters into their own hands and slaughtered the Shechemites, I remained mostly silent, because I gained power from that horrific act (Gen 34:25-31).
“Even near my life’s end when I blessed my sons, I didn’t mentioned Dinah or this rape again. I couldn’t. Because I was ashamed—of myself.
“Oh, how wrong I was, how terribly insensitive. I was so caught up for all those years in seemingly more significant issues—the power politics of building up a people—that I chose to believe another male tribal leader, Hamor, instead of my own child. Because my tribe was increased through my silence. Because I gained power by maintaining the peace.
“Yet someone was raped. My child was raped. And I remained silent. Oh, how the guilt is overwhelming.
“To be honest, I really didn’t understand it all back then, so steeped was I in my patriarchal privilege. My leadership was born out of acts of manipulation and lying, stealing the leadership of our people by tricking my weak-eyed father. That power needed to be retained, maintained, by any means necessary. It blinded me.
“Tragically, only later did I begin to understand, when my boy Joseph recounted to me his experience of sexual harassment, an ugly incident that led him to be thrown into an Egyptian jail. Why did it take something that happened to my son to make me see what happened to—and what I did to—my daughter?
“At first, I was horrified at what Joseph told me. About how Zuleicha, his master Potiphar’s wife, harassed him (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, on Gen 39:7,10,12).
“I interrupted Joseph, asking, ‘Was she beautiful? Did you desire her too?’
“He looked at me incredulously, laughed bitterly, and shouted,
‘Did you not learn anything from Dinah’s rape, Dad? It’s not about how she looked, or how attractive she kept saying I looked. It’s not about whether some part of me desired her or not.
‘Dad, it was about power. She had it all. Like Shechem had it all when he raped Dinah. Like my brothers Simeon and Levi, exacting their revenge, had it all. But Dinah lacked power. Me too.
‘Zuleicha was the wife of my master, controlling my future, my very existence. I tried to reason with her, speaking about my loyalty to my master, and about my fealty to the morality of our God (Gen 39:8-9). But it didn’t matter. Because she had the power.
‘And so, when Potiphar’s wife grabbed at me, holding tight on my cloak, and when I barely escaped, she exercised her power. She told her lies - saying that I tried to rape her—sending me, a loyal servant, to the dungeon as a slave inmate. All because she could. All because she had the power (Gen 39:14-19).
‘And Potiphar, the master for whom I worked loyally with the utmost of responsibility and trust, never even asked me what happened. He just took her word as truth. Because his wife was like him, a member of the Egyptian ruling class.
‘And what was I? A mere powerless nobody. Deserving what I got. They say this doesn’t happen to men anyway. No one would have believed me.’
“When Joseph shared his truth, that’s when I, Jacob, finally realized what I had done to Dinah: what I did, not just what Shechem did or what her brothers did. Not just what history will do to Dinah, but what I, her father Jacob, who knew and loved her best, did—and didn’t do—for this powerless person, assaulted and raped. This somebody.
“Dinah was brave enough to tell me, unlike so many other survivors who do not tell their stories because they do not want to deal with the emotional reaction of the listener. (See The Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2018). And what did I do when she told me? Nothing.
“If I could do it all over, I would have reacted differently, as I finally did for Joseph, continuing the conversation when he was ready. Listening without judgment. I would have recognized that the powerful have privilege, and when they band together they run roughshod over those without power or without a voice.
“I would speak to my daughter, Dinah, in the way I ultimately learned to speak to my son, Joseph. I would listen to her, without asking my clueless questions. Not assuming she brought it on herself. Not thinking whether she was lying about what happened or who did it.
“I would say to Dinah, as I said to Joseph:
‘I believe you. It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.
‘It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.
‘You are not alone. I care about you and am here to listen and help in any way I can.
'‘I’m sorry this happened. This shouldn’t have happened to you.’ (See “Tips for Talking with Survivors of Sexual Assault.” RAINN).
“I would tell her that I understand if she doesn’t want to talk about it, but that I will always be here to listen, and, if she needs it, I will help her find others who will listen (with appreciation to Rabbi Leah Berkowitz who voiced this response).
“I must tell Dinah I was wrong. And that I’m sorry.
“I must add Dinah to my blessing. I wonder what that blessing would be?
“But right now, I cannot find her. Dinah has disappeared from me, from my story. And all I have is patriarchal privilege to pass down l’dor vador (from generation to generation), a privilege that could have stopped with me.”
Rabbi Paul Kipnes, MAJE, a popular lecturer on raising spiritually balanced, emotionally whole children, is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. A former camp director and North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) regional advisor, Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November, MSSW, co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).
(In writing this davar acher in response to Rabbi Kipnes, I am keenly aware that it is two male rabbis who are offering their views on these important issues. As an ally, I contribute this teaching to an ongoing conversation where women’s voices should be central.)
Through the gift of modern midrash, Rabbi Kipnes grants our ancestor, Jacob, the opportunity to teach an important lesson about Parashat Vayeishev. With regret at his previous failure to be truly present for his daughter in the face of sexual violence, Jacob voices the responses we hope we would give when confronted with such a terrible situation today. Jacob acknowledges, too late, the role he could have played as an ally and supporter.
In the same portion that inspired this midrashic monologue, we have another instance of the intersection of sex and power. Here, however, the male protagonist seems to gain greater understanding and recognizes his abuse of power and privilege, at least a little bit.
In the midst of the stories about Joseph, we read about another of Jacob’s sons, Judah. Judah has three sons of his own, the oldest of whom marries a woman named Tamar. When the oldest son dies, Judah’s middle son is obligated to marry Tamar to continue the family line, but he dies, too. Judah’s youngest son is too young to marry, so Judah sends Tamar away. Time passes, and Tamar realizes that Judah does not intend to have his youngest son marry her, as was required by the levirate marriage laws. Seeking to continue the family line, Tamar disguises herself and, thinking she is a prostitute, Judah sleeps with her. As his pledge for payment, he leaves with her his seal and cord and staff (Gen. 38:1-19).
Three months later, when Tamar’s pregnancy becomes known, she is deemed guilty of apparent improper sexual behavior and sentenced to death. She produces the seal and cord and staff, and Judah recognizes what has happened. He acknowledges his responsibility, explaining, “She is more in the right than I, for certainly I did not give her to my son” (Gen. 38:26).
This story is one of few instances of biblical sexual power dynamics in which a man recognizes his wrongdoing, even in a context in which he holds ultimate power over a woman’s fate. Judah admits his abuse of the system and Tamar’s righteousness. It isn’t much, perhaps, but it is a step in the right direction.
As Dr. Carol Bakhos points out, B’reishit Rabbah 97 teaches that “Judah was rewarded for his confession that he had wronged Tamar, since God delivers those who admit their misdeeds” (“Post-biblical Interpretations,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p.227). And it is worth noting that Peretz, one of the children born of this union, is a progenitor of King David (Ruth 4:18-22), and by extension, the Messiah.
Perhaps, then, we draw from this story a lesson for how we can take steps in the right direction. When those with power and privilege name and recognize it, and then help to center the voices and experiences of those who have been marginalized, we bring our relationships and our world closer to the messianic ideal for which we strive.
Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 244–260; Revised Edition, pp. 244–262;
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 208–232;
Haftarah, Amos 2:6–3:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 352–354; Revised Edition, pp. 263–265