Vayishlach is a packed portion, mostly focusing on Yaakov and his road to redemption from being Yaakov to becoming Yisrael. The portion opens with Ya’akov sending messengers to Esav, their encounter and their settling things out. It is in this story that Ya’akov has his struggle with the angel, and is named Yisrael for the first time. Deborah, Rivkah’s nurse, dies. Rachel also dies, giving birth to Benjamin. The portion closes with the line of Esav.
Our triennial focuses on the story of Dinah, which happens just before the deaths of Deborah and Rachel.
As we read the story, I’d like you to think about a few questions:
- Using the text, describe Dina with your own words. What do you imagine is going to be the traditional understanding of Dina?
- If this is a case of rape, what is missing? Could you read this as a case of seduction? What does the simple meaning (pshat) imply regarding Dina’s agency?
- What do you think of Shechem and his actions? What does the text imply about Shechem’s power?
- What are the differences between how the men involved see the episode? How do Yaakov, Chamor and the brothers see what happened?
- How could the brothers do what they did?
The traditional reading of this episode [Genesis 34, read it here] will be influenced by Rashi. Rashi will blame the entire episode on Dina, and of course, her mother Leah. Calling them both yatzanit, goer-out, he points out that were Dina not going out to see the girls of the land, like her mother who goes out to get a night with Ya’akov in exchange of the mandrakes (we saw this last week) nothing would have happened. [Read it here]
Many commentators disagree, but it is important for us to make sure we understand that there is this position in our tradition. The strongest voices against Rashi come from David Kimchi, Abarbanel and Luzzatto.
David Kimchi (Radak, Provence, 1160-1235) admits that were Dina to stay in, nothing would have happened and that that was Leah’s fault. However, he also points out that there is a midrash that looks with askance about Dina in the previous story, the encounter of Yaakov and Esav. In that midrash, Dina was hidden by Yaakov inside a chest, so that Esav would not see Dina, and not request to marry her. (Genesis Rabbah 76:9) The question revolves, too, on the fact that Shechem is not circumcised, whereas Esav was.
Abarbanel (Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, Portugal, 1437-1508) says that the blame is actually all Yaakov’s. He was the one who decided to buy land there, and pitch the tents near the city. If he was so worried about his daughter, he should have pitched the tents farther away. Moreover, to buy the plot he obviously had to invite Shechem, who saw Dina. He goes on to actually defend Dina’s reputation, saying that Rashi is completely wrong and that Leah was a modest woman, who stayed in the tents – the one going out pasturing sheep is Rachel. And then he adds something else: Dina is the only young woman in that entire household. She has no sisters. And of course, he says, she went out with company – as Moses did when Moses goes to see his father-in-law.
Luzzatto (Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865) defends Dina from the accusation of doing anything wrong: he says she just wanted to see the clothes and the women – and this is just what women do, there is nothing wrong. And he adds that, when he saw the Samaritan version of the Torah, it is not written “to see”, lir’ot, but “to instruct”, leharot, leaving us with a higher image of Dina than we would have.
A final voice for this moment in the discussion, much older than Rashi but apparently unknown to him, is a midrash collection called Pirkei deRabi Eliezer (Israel, 3rd century CE). On 38:1 it calls our attention to the verse that says that Shechem desired Dina the daughter of Yaakov – that Shechem had seen the tents pitched and wanted the wealth as well as the girl, so he send women to play music on pipes in the streets, and as soon as Dina came out drawn by the noise, he takes her. So depending on where you look, you will see different positions regarding Dina’s agency – and by comparison, the agency given to women in general.
Now, let’s talk about the case itself. There is a dispute on whether this is rape or seduction. Rape is an objective crime, seduction is much more complicated. And you understand the different reactions of the males in the story by separating these two ideas.
Those who see this as rape point out to “lay with her by force.” But this is a question of translation – the word “yeaneha” actually means “mistreated her” or “he humbled her” – and it is used in several other instances, but not in rape. This mistreatment of the body can be self-inflicted, imposed, or willing, and is used to describe fasting (Vayikra 23:32), slavery (Bereishit 15:13), and even adultery (Devarim 22:24).
The Tanach talks about rape in different moments – and in all those the expressions are chazakah – lit. force, or tefisa – lit. seizing physically (see Deuteronomy 22:25-28; II Samuel 13). Both are missing from this story. There is no expression by Dina of screaming or trying to ward off Shechem. The verb used is lakach, to take, an ambiguous verb that is used also in marriage (to take as a wife.) The Tanach also knows about seduction, and in the case of a woman not betrothed, they must get married (Exodus 22:15-16) or the father receives the bride-price, whatever the father decides. Jewish law later, due to rabbininc enactments, will make sure that in the case of marriage the woman has the final say in any instance.
But back to our case – compare Dina’s case to the case of rape of Tamar by Amnon. As soon as he is done, he casts Tamar into the streets (II Shemuel 13:15-19). The idea is that once the act of violence is completed, from the psychological standpoint, the usual case of rape results in disgust on the part of the rapist for his victim. And this is why in Deuteronomy the rapist is punished by having to marry and never to divorce his victim unless she desires it (Devarim 22:29). But look at Shechem – in the aftermath we read “his soul clung to Dina… and he loved the girl, and he spoke to the girl’s heart” (34:3). They are either inside the palace or they go into the palace later.
With those possibilities in mind, we can try to position each of the male characters. Each reaction is paired with a verse:
Yaakov (“for Dina his daughter had been defiled” [v. 5]);
The sons (“for an abomination had been committed in Yisrael” [v. 7]);
Chamor (“Shechem my son longs for your daughter” [v. 8]).
Yaakov sees his daughter as defiled because she had relations with an uncircumcised male. His baby, unaccustomed to the attentions of men she is not related to, has been taken advantage of by the local prince, a youth who may have slept with half the girls in his town already, for whom “I want, I have” is pretty much the law: this is not exactly democracy. Perhaps she even believes she is in love with him. Yaakov is upset but what can he say? He is learning all this through this visit of the king, Chamor, who actually wants the two young people to marry. Maybe Yaakov does not want to leave his daughter in the hands of this man, but he cannot force her to leave either. Uncharacteristically, Yaakov is quiet and reminds us much more of Yitzchak.
For Dina’s brothers, this is a clear-cut case of rape – statutory rape, perhaps, but the legal difference is not so important. “For an abomination had been committed in Yisrael, to sleep with a daughter of Yaakov – such cannot be done!” They are incensed. They feel dishonored and decide to act with guile, convincing the townspeople to circumcise themselves. Shimon and Levi, the zealots, alone murder every male, but all sons help in the plunder (v. 25-28).
Chamor sees this as a case of young love. Apparently, he is serious, seeing a full socioeconomic assimilation in his town’s future. Indeed, his townsmen see circumcision as a prerequisite for the assimilation of Yisrael amid the Chivi. They suspect nothing, since they see nothing wrong with the whole situation – and even if they did, who among them was going to go against the future king?
Dina, clearly, is not part of the conversation. She is not given the chance to say she wants – or not – to marry Shechem. Her only active part is going out. In all the rest of the story she is passive, and is only mentioned as an independent person at the end, on verse 26. She is seen as a figure, property, really, and the words to describe her will describe to whom she “belongs” – a girl to become a wife, a daughter, a sister. The story is much more a story about the positions of the men regarding Dina than of Dina herself. But that she might have been a willing participant is also underscored by what the brothers say at the end: is she to be treated like a prostitute? Prostitutes typically engage in sexual activity willingly, whatever your thoughts about prostitution might be.
Now, even though all brothers are together to take Dina back, only two are filled with blood lust. The brothers say twice that the only guilt here is “defiling” Dina. They do not even bring up the abduction – maybe because there was none. Maybe they all understand, through Chamor, that Dina went willingly. But that does not matter – it was the honor of the males that they go to punish the city. Yet Shimon and Levi go on to do an indiscriminate killing.
In terms of social conventions, if the seductor and the seduced were Israelites, they would be married. But this story comes to talk about the intermarriage with idolaters, circumcised or not. In this case, the polemic is very strong – and it has reverberations later in Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah. But neither of those two books have the violent reaction of Shimon and Levi. That is so beyond the pale that Yaakov objects strongly at the end of the story, and will not forget this when he dies, cursing them (Gen. 49:5-7):
“Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.
Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel.”
Levi, we all know, gets no land – they are scattered in towns and are not landowners. Shimeon, as a tribe, eventually has land, but it is an enclave inside the tribe of Yehuda (See map here). Rashi, looking at this much later, will say that “all the very poor, such as scribes and elementary teachers, are all from the tribe of Shimeon.” Levi, without any land, has to serve in the temple and “go around collecting the tithes and gifts to the levites and kohanim” (Rashi on Genesis 49:7), a step up from begging, but not by much.
If the reaction of Yaakov in the beginning has to do with practicality, we see that it morphs to moral at the end of his life. Not only what Shimon and Levi did was morality wrong, but also it demonstrated even less consideration for Dina’s welfare than the laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
Dina will disappear from the Torah, but the daughter that she has with Shechem, according to the midrash, will be Asenat (Pirkei deRabi Eliezer 38:1-2). Asenat will marry Yosef. This last midrash is really looking to find a silver lining in all this, one of the most difficult stories of our patriarchs.