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On the silencing of Dinah, and rape culture today

This post focuses on an act of Biblical rape, and on silencing and rape in our own world.
If that is likely to be triggering for you, please feel free to skip it.


That same night, he got up, took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, and crossed at a ford of the Jabbok. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:23, in this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach)

Looking-out-of-the-red-tent-renee-kahnI'll say more about Jacob's encounters on the banks of the Jabbok in my d'var Torah this coming Shabbat. (If you don't live locally and can't make it to services, never fear, I'll post it here on Sunday.) Today I'm focusing on a different aspect of the parsha. Note that Torah refers here to his eleven children, but we know that Jacob had twelve children at this point -- eleven boys, plus Dinah. Why, then, does Torah say eleven? Rashi explains, quoting Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) that Jacob hid Dinah in a box so that Esau would not see her and seek to marry her. Jacob was so afraid of his twin brother's animal appetites that he concealed Dinah in a coffin to keep her safe.

That may seem ironic when we reach the very next story: Dinah's encounter with a local man named Shechem, which some translations call seduction, though most translations name as rape. Afterwards, Torah tells us, Shechem falls in love with her, speaks tenderly to her, and sends his father Hamor to procure her as a wife. Later in Exodus 22:15 we will read that "If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to anyone and has sex with her, he must pay the customary bride price and marry her" -- perhaps a troubling practice, to our modern sensibilities, but apparently an accepted one in the ancient Near East. And that's exactly what Shechem does.

But Dinah's brothers, outraged by this act of violence against their sister, devise a plan. (Some have argued that they were more outraged by Shechem's non-Israelite status and by their sister's act of premarital intercourse than by the suggested marriage -- see Dinah: Bible at the Jewish Women's Archive.) They explain that they couldn't marry off their sister to a man who isn't circumcised. They say to Hamor that if every man in the village will agree to be circumcised, then they will let their sister marry into this community. Then, when every man in the village is incapacitated and healing from this elective surgery, the brothers slaughter all of them. They kill every male in the village, and take their wives and children as captives. They take all of the wealth and livestock which belonged to that village.

Throughout this narrative, Dinah never speaks once. Her voice is entirely absent from the black fire of our text.

In order to hear Dinah's voice, we look instead to the white fire. Some classical midrash argues that Dinah becomes the wife of Job, which is regarded as a punishment for Jacob since he withheld her from Esau. (How Dinah's ensuing suffering is seen as a punishment for her father but not for her is a sign of her invisibility in her own story.) Another midrash suggests that she gives birth to a daughter who is taken by the archangel Michael to Egypt, and raised by a childless Egyptian priest, and becomes known as Asenath, daughter of Potiphera: the woman who will marry Joseph. In that version there's a kind of redemption for Dinah's child, if not for Dinah herself.

Anita Diamant's midrashic novel The Red Tent gives voice and agency to Dinah, showing us a Dinah who genuinely loved Shechem and hoped to be his bride. In that version of the story, after the slaughter, Dinah escapes to Egypt, gives birth to a son, and eventually reconciles with her brother Joseph. It's still a difficult story, rife with violence -- the slaughter, sacking, and plunder of that entire village -- but in Diamant's imagining, Dinah is a whole, vibrant human being who tells her own story as she understands it. Reading that book felt to me like a tikkun, a healing, because it gave Dinah voice. But I know that it's a reading which goes counter to the ways my tradition has usually read this story.

In Torah, Dinah is silent (or silenced.) And Dinah is raped. I believe that these two acts of violence against women are connected.

Think of all the times and places in human history when women haven't been able to tell our own stories. That silencing constricts our freedom as surely as Jacob's box constricted Dinah's. The people and the structures of power responsible for silencing us may think they're keeping us "safe" -- but in this week's Torah portion, we see that keeping a woman hidden or silent offers no protection. If you read the text as most of our commentators have read it, Dinah is raped by a stranger. If you read the text through Diamant's (and the JWA's) feminist lenses, giving Dinah agency in this act of unmarried sexuality, there's no rape -- but Dinah's trust is violated by her brothers and their acts of violence. Either way, her silence does not help her.

How might her story have been different if Dinah had been allowed to participate wholly in the journeying of her family -- if, like her brothers, she had been able to walk freely in the open air -- if, like her brothers, she had been given a voice to speak out or talk back or tell it as she saw it? How might our stories be different if every woman in the world were granted those freedoms as a matter of course? Dinah's story challenges us with its very familiarity. A woman, rendered invisible and silent. A woman, raped. Maybe the only upside here is that the ensuing violence of the "honor killing" is directed against Shechem and his people, and not against Dinah herself... but I find that to be scant comfort indeed.

Some of the structures which silence women today are almost invisible. Societal expectations, peer pressure, the desire to be liked, the fear that if we speak what's true for us we will be shunned or left alone -- not to mention the outrage and active silencing coming from men who don't like it when we get uppity. (Don't believe me? Try The Unspoken Rules that Silence Women in Leadership; Michigan Women Lawmakers Silenced By GOP After Abortion Debate 'Temper Tantrum'; 700 Texans gather for 'People's Fillibuster,' GOP Lawmaker Tries to Silence ‘Repetitive’ Testimony; Six insidious ways social media can be used to silence women. Those are just a few links; there are many more.)

Rape itself is a tool frequently used to keep women silent. (See Breaking the silence: addressing rape culture in America; see Rape Culture Exists: An Open Letter, posted just this week; see 50 facts about rape.) Every two minutes, a sexual assault takes place in America, and most of the victims are women. Around the world, one in three women has been abused, beaten, or coerced into sex. And most of these stories are never told, because girls are taught -- in ways both obvious and subtle -- that if we speak out, we will be punished further. We have learned that it is safer to remain silent.

These structures of oppression are hard to dismantle. But that doesn't give us a pass on dismantling them all the same. I know that the Pirkei Avot line "It's not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it" has come to feel like a hoary old chestnut, it's quoted so often -- but it's still true. We are not free to refrain from this work.

How can we honor Dinah, the silent twelfth child of Jacob? By changing the world we live in so that it is no longer one in which this story could happen.

  • Get informed about rape. (See Ten Things to End Rape Culture, the Nation. Or Women's Rights, Amnesty International, which focuses on the rights of women in the Middle East.)
  • Learn about how women are silenced -- and how we learn to silence ourselves. (See, e.g., Silencing the Self: Women and Depression by Dana Jack.) Commit to seeking out, and to really hearing, women's voices.
  • Make a particular effort to be attuned to the voices of women of color and transwomen, who frequently experience doubled silencing and oppression. (See An Open Letter to the White Feminist Community; see Silence Kills.)
  • Support your local rape crisis center or hotline, so that rape victims get the care and support they need. And challenge the culture in which it's ostensibly reasonable for a woman to be silenced or assaulted, so that there will be fewer rape victims in need of that support.
  • When people tell rape jokes, ask them to stop. (Captain Awkward has some suggestions on how to do that.) Rape isn't funny. Ever.
  • Recognize that the way to stop rape is to stop rape, not to constrain the actions or behavior or dress of women.
  • Educate your children -- of any gender -- about human dignity and about consent. (I highly recommend Ask Moxie's post about this: A Letter to my Sons About Stopping Rape.)

Dinah's story calls us to stop the silencing of women, to stop violence against women, to change the whole system in which rape and violence and shaming and silencing happen. We can create a different world. And we must.


Image source: "Looking out of the red tent" by Renee Kahn.

My thanks are due to everyone who responded to my tweet earlier today asking for suggestions of actions we can take to end rape culture and the silencing of women.