Dinah – unexpurgated: A Davar Torah for Friday Night

In a couple of weeks (in fact on 25th November) it is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Now it might be our second nature to realise that violence against women is wrong.  Well evidently not to everyone, here are some facts from the UN:

  • Up to 70 per cent of women experience violence in their lifetime.
  • Between 500,000 to 2 million people are trafficked annually into situations including prostitution, forced labour, slavery or servitude, according to estimates. Women and girls account for about 80 per cent of the detected victims
  • It is estimated that more than 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM/C, mainly in Africa and some Middle Eastern countries.
  • The cost of intimate partner violence in the United States alone exceeds $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion is for direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion.

So it is with that in mind that I’m drawn to our Torah portion.  First of all, as I always mention.  The text says the 11 sons of Jacob are sent across the river.  Clearly ignoring the presence of his one and only daughter. The midrash, which Rashi (the medieval commentator) quotes – suggests Jacob does not want Dinah to be seen by his brother as a possible wife for one of his children, so he puts her in a box and floats her over the river.  The midrash further suggests Jacob is punished for this. How? – by the rape of Dinah at the hands of Shechem.

The rape of Dinah is a narrative section not often read in a Liberal synagogue. Though tomorrow it will be studied with our scholar in residence, Dr Ellen Umansky. It doesn’t form part of the lectionary, that’s for certain – and it’s certainly not in Claude G Montefiore’s ‘The Bible for Home Reading’ (essentially an expurgated Bible), nor is Dinah mentioned in the notes at the end of this parasha in Montefiore’s list of Jacob’s SONS.   Why isn’t it read?  Well, I suppose we can see many things in the text that would be exceptionally problematic:

1)   Rape

2)   Fierce condemnation of intermarriage

3)   Revenge

These ideas are all created through the figure of a woman in the Torah.  What else is Dinah known for?  Where is she when Jacob crosses the Jabbok?  Absent.  Absent before and absent afterwards.  Dinah is a figure whose mystery dominates this section of our Torah.  Suddenly, from nowhere she becomes the ‘object’ of our attention.  And we know objectifying women is one small step from dismissing their role as equal and respected human beings.

Yet, because we don’t often read or study this text in Liberal Judaism we even further marginalise her from the place in the Torah. All we are left with is the patriarchal prejudices that we so categorically reject – in theory if not always in practice.  We ignore a case of violence against women and therefore ignore the potential lessons we learn.

The evolution of Judaism begins far back in the unknown history of the Torah.  Some texts clearly made it into the canon, others did not.  Yet their placement in the scroll itself leads to an altered perception of how they can be understood.  Helena Zlotnick (a pen name for the academic Hagith Sivan) deftly reads the narrative about the rape of Dinah in relation to the later Midianite/Israelite relationship of Numbers.  Both focus on an illicit sexual relationship, both focus on a relationship between an insider and an outside.  Through this lens of insider/outsider we start to see the place of women brought into focus.

Women, in rabbinic Judaism, are the outsider who is inside.  Though women have their role, if they over step it they become dangerous, threatening and seductive.  The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash, in the misogynistic milieu of late antiquity, begin to locate the place of a woman quite clearly in the home and out of harm’s way.  Why else are they all but banned from the study hall and the prayer hall.  The exceptions only serve to demonstrate the truth of this claim.

As we turn from the rabbinic period to the post-rabbinic period, when the ideals of the Talmud are starting to be realised, the place of women – of the other – becomes entrenched.  Women have the power to seduce men, to turn them away from their study and their only useful purpose is in keeping a home and creating a family.  Once again there are exceptions, but these do not change how the notion of what it means to be a ‘Jewess’ had closeted and removed from active involvement in life 50% of the community.

Then we reach the modern period.  We start to reject that which has become the normative way of practicing Judaism. We, as Liberal Jews, are able to re-evalute law and deed in light of our time – changing, rejecting or embellishing that which seems problematic.  But we still have a problem.

There are texts that we find distasteful, not fitting for the public reading on a Shabbat morning.  Not ennobling, quite the opposite.  So we don’t.  But there’s a problem in that – by not even studying the section that deals specifically with a woman we contribute to the continuing sidelining of women in Judaism.

How many narratives feature women not as a foil to the male character but as a central and significant part of the unfolding story.  Very few.  What is more, as in later rabbinic literature, rape is akin to a social death.  In the Bible, women who have been raped are damaged goods, they can’t fetch the bride price for their father.  They cease to exist.  Dinah is never heard of again.  She does not die but the single act of violence against her causes her to be deleted from the story – there are 12 tribes and she is not one of them.  So what do we do, we expurgate even the very story in which she features. Every time I ask how many children Jacob had the first answer is 12.  No, he had 13 (excluding the complexity of Ephraim and Menasheh).  12 sons.  1 daughter.

So in memory of Miss Lily whose legacy we meditate upon this Shabbat – a programme fittingly created by the first senior WOMAN rabbi of the LJS (Rabbi Alexandra Wright) – do not do a disservice to Liberal Judaism by expurgating a central narrative from our Torah which contains one of the few female characters and avoid reading it because you don’t like what it portrays.  So I urge you in remembering that violence against women still persists and must be stopped – reinstate Dinah – go home and read what happens to her and then come back tomorrow morning for the shiur with Dr Umansky.

Advertisements