Resilience and Resourcefulness

December 16th: Vayishlach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There are two ways to look at the story of the “Rape of Dinah” (Genesis 34). The traditional way speaks of an assault on a member of Jacob’s family and the strategies adopted by the family to deal with it. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, is raped and kidnapped by Shechem, the son of the local Hivite chieftain. Claiming love and a willingness to marry, Shechem tries to cover his guilt and maliciousness with an offer of tribal unification, but Jacob’s sons realize that such a person is not to be trusted. The massacre that follows prevents any further abuses by Shechem and his people.

A second way sees the story of the “rape” as an attempt to stifle the freedom of Dinah and all other women. Could it be that Dinah is not raped at all—that she goes out on her own and enters into a relationship with someone she chooses, and not someone her family chooses? Could the whole terrible story be a kind of face-saving effort to cover up unacceptably assertive female behavior?

Traditional Judaism uses the opening verses as a warning to young women: “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.” “See what happens,” the Traditional advice goes, “When young women go out. Better to stay at home and let your father arrange your life.” Of course, the feminist/egalitarian opposition to this paternalistic view states that young women should be able to go out and make their own decisions about romantic attachments and every other part of life.

The Midrashic novel, The Red Tent, by Anita Diamont, retells the Biblical story from a more feminist perspective: Dinah is raised by the women of her family to be assertive and responsible for herself. She boldly decides to enter into a relationship with Shechem, but their relationship is rejected and violently destroyed by her brothers. The novel’s context is a sub rosa world in which women in the Patriarchal Period exercise a surprising amount of autonomy and power. Their world is certainly controlled by men and male prerogative, but it posits the view that men thinking of women as objects of their decisions and actions does not mean that women necessarily think of themselves the same way. If we want to understand the often unwritten history of our female ancestors, accounts of the way that women negotiate a male-dominated world can be very illuminating.

For example, the Biblical Scholar and Archeologist Carol L. Meyers of Duke University has written about the power given to women in Biblical times. In a subsistence economy, where nutrition was not guaranteed, the person given control over food was very powerful. The Bible and Talmud may not emphasize it, but think about the responsibility and empowerment women had when they were in charge of storing, rationing, and preparing food. Whatever meager provisions existed had to be guarded and allocated and prepared carefully, lest the supplies not last until the next harvest (if the harvest came in!) Rather than women being relegated to the kitchen, Meyers suggests that Biblical women’s food-oriented duties carried significant status.

So often, in our pursuit of equality and justice, we focus on the relative inequality of women in the past, and this is clearly important. However, let us not short-change the resourcefulness and strategic thinking of the women who came before us and worked within the systems of inequality they inhabited. Let us also not be distracted by the fact that history is written by the men—and generally the men in power. Just because something is not written does not mean that it did not happen. If one were to take two modern tales of hierarchical societies, Downton Abbey and My Big Fat Greek Wedding and imagine them written by the people in charge, the relative role and influence of the women might be untold. However, in both tales, it is clear that the women work the system and influence life in significant ways. The aristocratic women in Downton Abbey are definitely part of the dynamic of decision making, and, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the mother (played by Lainie Kazan) even explains to her daughter how it is done. The husband thinks he is the head of the house. “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”

And, in hierarchical societies, it is not only the aristocratic women who display relative empowerment. Notice how, in Downton Abbey, the lower class downstairs servants—both male and female—guide the affairs of the Great House in all sorts of ways.

One can see a similar dynamic at play in any case of an “inferior” group working “under” the dominant group. Has this not been a constant effort of Jews in the Diaspora? Is it not also the case among other groups who are not fully enfranchised: African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, LGBT individuals, etc.?

This is not to understate the injustices of the past, nor to suggest that there is not a lot of work to be done on the road to full justice. However, we should never let our disapproval of inequality blind us to the resilience and the relative successes of the people living under less-than-fair conditions.

So, when looking at the story at hand—the Rape of Dinah, I believe that both interpretations speak of our people’s dealing with relative weakness.

If what happened to Dinah is indeed a rape, then Simeon and Levi use subterfuge to stop a group with pretentions of treating us all as Shechem has treated Dinah. Jacob senses his relative vulnerability among the Canaanites and worries that his family’s savagery will invoke hate and fear. Simeon and Levi agree, but they see such hate and fear as a protection for their vastly outnumbered tribe.

If Dinah’s experience is not a rape but a disapproved romance—as portrayed in Diamont’s The Red Tent, then, as much as we disapprove of the paternalistic control ancient families exercised over women, let us celebrate the ways our ancient mothers must have carved out autonomy in their limited circumstances.

Life is not easy, and so we must rise to challenges that come our way. May we have the strength and resilience and creativity that have kept our people going for some 4000 years.