Giving thanks

Thoughts on Vayishlach

I spent a cozy Friday evening with my tikkun, practicing today's Torah portion. I have some thoughts about this section of parashat Vayishlach. The first thing that strikes me is that Dinah is identified as daughter of Leah before she's identified as daughter of Jacob. ("Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land...") Rashi writes, "Because of her going out, she is known as daughter of Leah. For Leah, too, was an 'outgoer,' as it is written: 'And Leah went out to greet him.' Regarding Dinah it is said, 'Like mother, like daughter.'" Is this an indictment of Dinah's "going out"? If so, is it also an indictment of Leah's "going out" to meet Jacob? Is Rashi implicitly arguing that women should stay home, out of the public sphere?

Earlier in this portion, we read that when Jacob met with his estranged brother Esau he brought his eleven children. But Jacob had twelve children; why does the text say eleven here? Naturally, there's a midrash which answers the question: Jacob hid Dinah in a box so Esau wouldn't see her beauty and wish to marry her. Rashi chides Jacob for hiding Dinah, arguing that had Dinah been allowed to interact with Esau he might have abandoned his wicked ways. This seems to be an argument against sequestering women, which suggests to me that what Rashi says about Dinah "going out" is not an argument to keep women out of sight. Unsurprisingly, it pleases me to see that it's possible to read one of my tradition's most important commentators as arguing in favor of female visibility.

Of course, it's also possible to find voices arguing against female visibility, both in antiquity and today. This post at Parshablog uses syntactical interpretation to argue that Dinah went out with her arms bare, and that this is why Shechem raped her.

Anita Diamant's The Red Tent is famously predicated on the notion that the encounter between Dinah and Shechem wasn't a rape at all, and that it's possible to read Dinah and Shechem's encounter in other ways. My JPS translation says Shechem "took her and lay with her by force," true, but after that it says "Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly." As Dan Rosan notes, that last phrase in the Hebrew actually says, "he spoke to the maiden's heart." The text doesn't tell us how her heart responded, and that seems to be the omission which sparked Diamant's midrashic novel.

To me, the central question of the portion is this: if Dinah was raped, are the subsequent actions of her brothers justified? Some commentators seem to valorize those actions: A Simple Jew argues that Levi was thirteen when he and Shimon slaughtered the Hivites, and that this is the origin of what we today call becoming bar mitzvah. (The sources of that interpretation are cited here.) Honestly, my reaction to that is a heartfelt oy. I am profoundly troubled by the awareness that children are conscripted to kill today; how could I feel good about the notion of Levi slaughtering a village at thirteen? 

In contrast, though, Shammai Leibowitz focuses on Jacob's response to his sons' actions. He notes that Jacob chides them here for the slaughter on a pragmatic level, but later on (in parashat Vayehi) he curses his sons for killing innocents. Instead of giving them a blessing from his deathbed, he hurls furious imprecations. His reading seems to suggest that what Shimon and Levi did was not morally acceptable, even if it was technically justifiable.

This reads to me as a parable about how violence escalates: one man perpetrates a violent act on one woman, and in retaliation all the men of his tribe are killed and the women and children are enslaved. I think it's a story about the desire for vengeance, and I think it's possible to read the text as encoding the message that this is not right action. (Jacob's curse of his sons reads to me as a pretty solid condemnation of what they did.) Though I can see value in the brothers' intent to protect Dinah,  for me that value is negated by the needless violence her brothers perpetrate in her name.

A few times this week I've stepped back and thought, "What a bizarre story to include in our holy scriptures. What is this doing here?" But I think part of what makes Torah interesting is that it reflects human nature, and sometimes human nature is violent and troubling.  I think there's merit in examining this story for traces of ourselves, reflecting on what bothers us about this portion, and considering how it might be possible to respond to violence in a God-conscious way.