In the midst of this week’s parashah, most of which focuses on Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan with his wives, maidservants, and children, is a lengthy story about Jacob’s only daughter, Dina (Genesis 34). While Jacob briefly appears in this story, he plays a surprisingly insignificant role. Indeed, after Jacob hears that Dina has been raped by Shechem, a local Hivite prince, he neither tells anyone nor takes any action, choosing to wait until his sons, who are in the fields tending to the livestock, return home (Genesis 34:5). Even when Hamor, Shechem’s father, comes to see Jacob and asks that Jacob agree to let Dina marry his son (who apparently, after defiling Dina, has fallen in love with her), it is not Jacob, but his sons who are now home, who provide Hamor with an answer. They tell him and Shechem that for Dina to marry an uncircumcised man would bring shame upon their family. However, should all male Shechemites (that is, Canaanites living in the city of Shechem) be circumcised, thereby becoming more like the Israelites, there would be no objection to Shechem’s marrying their sister. Indeed, if all Shechemite men were circumcised, Israelite men in general would allow their daughters to marry Shechemites and they would conceivably marry Shechemite women, settling among the Shechemites and becoming one people (Genesis 34:15-16).
This promise, it turns out, is a trick. Just over two days later, when the Shechemite men are still in great pain from their recent circumcisions (Genesis 34:25) and thus unable to defend themselves, the sons, led by Dina’s full brothers, Simeon and Levi, take brutal revenge against not just Shechem, but all of the Shechemites. They kill Shechem, Hamor, and the rest of the Shechemite men, take the women and children captive, and seize all of their wealth and possessions. When Jacob expresses fear that his life and the lives of members of his household have been endangered by the brothers’ actions, Simeon and Levi’s response can be seen as a rebuke. Suggesting that Jacob should be more concerned about Dina’s social reputation, physical well-being, and perhaps consequent legal status, they rhetorically ask: “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31).
Genesis 34 can best be described as a “text of terror,” a term coined by Christian feminist theologian, Phyllis Trible, to refer to scriptural narratives in which women suffer as victim (Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Fortress Press, 1984). Many years ago, I wrote a midrash in which I attempted to view Genesis 34 through the eyes of Dina, since even though the biblical text is purportedly about her, she, even more than her father Jacob, is silent. How might she have felt, I wondered, after her rape and Shechem’s ensuing declaration of love? Did Simeon and Levi forcibly remove her from Shechem’s house, as Genesis 34:26 implies or was she relieved to go with them? Did she believe that her brothers’ acts of violence were acts of revenge or, in her mind, was there another motivation? As I wrestled with the biblical text, my answers became clear. My midrash began:
The sun had already set, yet Dina still heard their cries — the women,
crying from pain and humiliation; the children, dazed, afraid to move,
afraid that if they did, they would be raped, like their mothers, or
killed like their fathers. Dina covered her ears and closed her eyes,
wishing she had only imagined the screams of the Canaanites.
(Ellen M. Umansky, “Beyond Androcentrism: Feminist Challenges to Judaism,” Journal of Reform Judaism, Winter, 1990, p. 32)
According to midrashic tradition, Dina herself was to blame. Since God created the first woman from Adam’s rib, a part of his body that was covered, women were to be modest by nature. Thus Dina acted unnaturally by going out, and in so doing, endangered herself. As the fourth century Rabbi Berekiah said in Rabbi Levi’s name: “This may be compared to one who was holding a pound of meat in his hand, and as soon as he exposed it a bird swooped down and snatched it away" (B’reishit Rabbah 80:5). Yet the biblical text itself does not fault Dina for publicly socializing with the Canaanite women. Indeed, as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary notes, the justification that Simeon and Levi give to Jacob for their acts of revenge indicate that in their view, Shechem’s offer of bride money and gifts after he had sexually defiled their sister, maligned her character by implying that she had made herself available to him as a prostitute (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary [NY: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008], n.31, p. 195).
In my midrash, Dina comes to believe that the real motive of Simeon and Levi for killing the Shechemite men and taking the women and children captive was not to revenge her honor, but to justify their conquering the land of Canaan. Certainly, I think, my interpretation is plausible. Yet like so much else in Genesis 34, Dina’s own understanding of her brothers’ action is unknown. I ended the essay in which my midrash on Dina appeared by maintaining that if:
we are to create, or attempt to create, a non-patriarchal, non-androcentric Judaism — a Judaism in which the experiences of both men and women are seen as central — we Jewish women need to reclaim our voices. In so doing, we need to imagine what our foremothers, like Dina, might have said, if only they had spoken (“Beyond Androcentrism,” p. 33).
Were I to write this essay today, I would emend the last sentence. Dina, of course, did speak. But like so many of our Jewish foremothers, her words sadly were not recorded.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university’s Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.