Vayishlach - What to Do With the Silence...
We have been reading the Torah for over two thousand years. The beauty of such a long relationship with a text is that we have poured over every chapter, verse, and letter, mining for meaning and attempting to learn about how to live our lives based on how the text presents our ancestors. By reading the text, we link ourselves to the generations who came before us, and become a conduit for tradition that hopefully will outlast us, just as it outlasted the people who passed it our way.
The great challenge, though, with ascribing such meaning to an ancient text is that we don’t get any more information. We can’t ask the author what they meant by this phrase, because we are unclear on the authorship of the sacred texts. We can’t read first drafts or alternate options, because this is the Torah as we have it, and we can only make deductive guesses at some of the nuanced difficulties we encounter when we experience a problem with the text, whether it be gramatical, logistical, or literary.
In this week’s parashah, we encounter one of the plot points that is most challenging to our modern relationship with the lessons we try to learn from Torah. In Genesis 34, we read the following:
“Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, 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. Being strongly drawn to Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly. So Shechem said to his father Hamor, ‘Get me this girl as a wife.’” (Gen. 34:1-4)
Right off the bat, we have a contradiction. In one verse, we read a violent rape scene, Shechem taking what he wanted from a woman visiting her friends. In the next scene, we see a man in love, saying kind words to Dinah and looking to marry her by going through the “wife acquisition” process. The distinction is obviously troubling, and has been a source of angst for biblical commentators for centuries. The question, it would seem, is whether or not Dinah was consenting in her relationship with Shechem. The text, written at a time when women had little to no agency in their own merital decisions, could have been describing a woman who consented to sexual relations with a man her father had not agreed to, thus leaving the text to claim “theft” rather than “rape.” Or, this could be exactly what it seems to be: a woman was taken advantage of, and her abuser then wants to keep her for himself. The obvious problem is that we don’t get to hear Dinah’s side of the story, and thus cannot apply her feelings to better understanding the situation.
This has, over the years, led to many attempts to write Dinah back into the text. Most famously, Anita Diamant’s book, The Red Tent, gives Dinah a voice to describe what happened to her and her family, a modern Midrash that helps us come to terms with what the story means to us and what we are to hope to learn from it.
Dinah’s feelings on the subject certainly would be helpful in piecing together what comes next. This is a story about forced conversion, the slaughtering of an entire people, a father more interested in geopolitics than the murders his sons carry out or the harm done to his daughter. It is a story fraught with lessons, but all of them are stunted by this first question: how did Dinah feel? What was Dinah’s experience of her own encounter with Shechem, and how did she feel about the violence done “on her behalf” in getting revenge?
No matter how many times we read the text, no matter how often we demand answers, the written words never change. Dinah is, and will forever be, canonically silent on the matter. And so, we as modern readers are faced with the three choices for what we can do when we grapple with difficult texts.
The first option is to ignore the story. This sounds like an impossibility, but it is one of the most common answers in progressive congregations. This Torah portion also includes the famous story of Jacob wrestling with a Divine Being, the confrontation between Jacob and Esau, and the lineage of the family of both men. When I can only read a section of the Torah portion on a Saturday morning, and Torah study can learn about any of these sections, it is entirely too easy to avoid the conversation all-together, sticking to uplifting and positive stories that don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. The obvious problem with this decision, though, is that this is a part of our history, part of our tradition, and we owe it to ourselves not to gloss over the parts that make us feel icky and truly come to terms with the tapestry of thoughts and feelings that our texts elicit.
The second option is to harmonize our texts. We want to be able to say that the entire Torah is meaningful in some way, and so we fill in the gaps with answers that make ourselves feel better about the situation. Dinah wasn’t RAPED, we might argue, she simply subverted the cultural norms of the time and that is why the Torah wrote it this way. Or, in the converse, Dinah was RAPED, and the actions of her brothers in the following verses were entirely justified, rendering the story not one of murder but one of righteous revenge. This is the favorite choice of the medieval Torah commentators, who can’t stomach the notion that our Torah might teach us something negative about the Chosen People, and so they work very hard to spin every situation into the most flattering of tones, add all kinds of invented context in order to justify what we experience of the text today. Rashi, Nachmanides, and Ibn Ezra all agree, in this case, that Dinah was violated by force, rendering what comes next far more palatable. But in either case, we have to confront the notion that we just don’t know. We don’t know Dinah’s feelings on the subject. We don’t have enough context to understand what was “really” going on here, and so we are left to fill in the gaps with our own imagination, sometimes with better results than other times.
But this leads to the final and most respectable option for our understanding of the text. The third option is that we can experience the discomfort of our lack of understanding. We learn the text and we discuss it, process why it feels uncomfortable, and learn lessons from why the situation bothers us, all while refraining from fixing it to save our feelings. If this story is one of rape, it makes me unpset to know that an act of violence was perpetrated against a woman in our sacred texts and we don’t bother to mention how she feels about it. If this is a story about consensual sex that took place outside of the permission of her father, I am sad to see a tradition that so often took agency away from a woman and put her decisions in the hands of a man to make them for her. But, in either case, there is no plot hole I can fill with my imagination that will be more fulfilling to my relationship with the text than acknowledging that Torah is a product of its time and is likely to seem flawed when evaluated by our modern conceptions of the world.
The Torah is not nearly a feminist document. Women are used as plot devices and pawns throughout the narrative, in a way that should leave us deeply unsettled. But I do not become a better person in the world by pretending those sections do not exist, or by writing them away by creating an imagined interpretation of the actions that is more tolerable. The Torah always has something to teach us; it’s just that sometimes what it teaches is how we SHOULDN’T behave, how we need to be better than those who came before us.
The great challenge of passages like this is that it makes it very difficult for women to read themselves into their own tradition. Without adding the perspective of Dinah, we continue to have very little space for the voice of women to echo through history, because men have spent far too much of that history shoving women off to the fringe. That is a historical act of cruelty that we will never fully be able to remedy, and I’m not sure that we should. The shame of that history can and needs to be a driving force behind the fixing of our future. We, as men, need to look back with embarrassment at these texts and need to ensure that we never allow the forced silence of women to happen again. We need to learn how meaningless our history becomes when we only preserve the opinions and perspectives of half our community. We need to see how much more beautiful the tapestry of Jewish history is going to be when we allow all to participate in the writing process, in the interpretive process, in the practice of our traditions. We need the discomfort of our flawed texts in order to grow into a better version of ourselves.
There are lots of places in the Torah that cause us discomfort. We learn from each and every one of those situations. And it is our sacred obligation not to pretend that those situations aren’t real, nor to allow ourselves to rewrite the Torah to match our modern realities. We need to stand in the ambiguity and feel all of the accompanying feelings, in order to ensure that we have a healthy, complex, and fully aware relationship with a tradition that has endured for centuries, but that has meant something different to us every time we look.