Jewish Men and the “Rape” of Dinah
This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, has even more stories than last week’s Vayeitzei. But the one that has intrigued me the most is the story of the supposed “rape” of Dinah, the one female child among twelve brothers born to her father, Jacob. The reason is not because we read the story just around the time we honour women and rise up against violence committed by men against women. For the 25th of November is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. That is not why I have been particularly attentive to the story, though I read about the two weeks women have devoted themselves in The Campaign entitled, “Leave no one behind – End Violence Against Women”.
Why am I so attentive? I believe my curiosity, my analytic tools, my observations, have been especially acute these days because one famous man after another, in sports and the media, in politics and in business, has been accused of assaulting women. On the latter score, I am ashamed to note how many of those men are Jewish.
Why am I ashamed? I did not do those acts. I did not and do not condone them. My exceptional attention to these stories is not simply because I am especially intrigued by anyone who is both famous (or infamous) who is Jewish, though I confess that I read a number of articles about Meghan Markle, stories I would not normally have read. I looked them up because there were widespread rumours that the young lady newly engaged to Prince Harry of the House of Windsor was Jewish. She was and is not. The rumours are evidently false. They are fake-news. She did have a Black mother, though. That may be even more interesting in helping counter the horrors of racism than her being Jewish.
My intrigue with the men accused of forcing themselves on women without their consent preceded my noting that many of them were Jewish. In fact, I was shocked to discover how many of them were Jewish. I had always believed, despite any absence of evidence, that Jewish men treated women more gently than gentile men. Of course, it was and is an ignorant prejudice. But it is one of those beliefs you hold onto from your childhood even though it lacks any evidence and seems on the surface to be patently false.
The recent stories might even lead you, erroneously, to the opposite conclusion. After all, in the effort to empower women, in the global campaign, still relatively in its infancy, there has been an outcry – see the hashtag #MeToo – encouraging women to set aside their fears of being shamed, shamed a second time for something for which they undeservedly felt ashamed in the first place. The magnitude of female harassment is astounding. The complicity of society in tolerating if not condoning such behaviour is perhaps even more astounding. But not surprising. After all, most of us know that the habit is widespread. Further, a man could be elected President of the United States even though 16 women have come out in the open and accused Donald Trump of molesting them.
However, I am not a righteous leader in that campaign, but a passive and sedentary follower. As such, I share in that complicity. But it is worse. I even feel the campaign somehow has gone too far when flirting, when catcalling, when joking, are all included as modes of harassing women on an equivalent level to men forcing themselves on women, grabbing their asses or their genitals. I do not think these very different types of behaviour are equivalent even though I understand the calls for zero tolerance, even though women have personally told me how this form of behaviour diminishes them and makes them feel very uncomfortable.
All that said, the fact that so many men are Jewish captures my attention more than the empathy I feel for these women. I am not wearing an orange scarf. Nor do I notice many others wearing orange. In fact, the evidence of witnessing and supporting such a campaign seems disproportionately low compared to the amount of pain and grief caused by such behaviour. One in three, to repeat, one in three women experience at least one incident of such violence in their lifetime. Every woman I have really known, including my two daughters, has had such an experience. I suspect the 1 in 3 is an underestimate. Certainly, among the refugees, among the civilian victims of war, the incidence of rape has been overwhelming. I recall when undertaking research on Indochinese how surprised I was to learn that as many as 50% of women refugees were violently sexually attacked. I was even more surprised to learn of women’s resilience when, at the time, there was no campaign to empower women and enhance the feeling that they could resist.
In light of this unexpected knowledge, in the 1980s we set up a program to provide therapy for these women after their instincts for survival had subsided and the events were predicted to come back and haunt them. But those therapeutic tools were not for the most part needed. And when and if needed, they were diverted to helping men who suddenly became unemployed when the economic crisis hit in 1989 and experienced severe meltdowns.
In other words, I do not approach this problem with wide-eyed innocence. But I have not used my time and energy to advance reforms that will end impunity, that will prove that a culture of violence against women is not a natural part of our cultural landscape. Yet what do I focus my attention on? Not the pain and suffering of the women, but the number of the accused who are Jewish.
Harvey Weinstein, the most recent and one of the most painful examples, is Jewish. So is Al Franken, even though his apparent mistreatment of women was not nearly as frequent nor associated as much with explicit violence while, at the same time, clearly violating a woman’s space. But look at the much longer list of Jewish men who have been accused:
James Toback, the writer and director with films like Bugsy (1991) and Mississippi Grind (2015) to his credit
Leon Wieseltier, one of my favourite writers and editors
Mark Halperin, a journalist who was obsessed with stories about ambition and power, but evidently himself harassed women when he had such a position at ABC
Brent Ratner, a film producer
Jeffrey Tambor, the actor from The Larry Sanders Show and other sitcoms
Charlie Rose, rumours to the contrary, is not Jewish.
The list goes on. And these are but the tip of the tip of the iceberg, mostly drawn from public figures in entertainment, media and politics. Jews may be disproportionately represented on that list because Jews are disproportionately represented among those with money, power and influence. Further, though all of the men come from a Jewish heritage, many of them have only a glancing relationship with their Jewish identity.
But that is not my point. I suspect the Jewishness of the perpetrators has little to do with religious or ethnic identity, though I am unsure. Even though the list would include the less famous doctors and lawyers, dentists and rabbis, my focus is not on these men, but on myself. What do I feel and think as I have moved from reading the story of “The Rape of Dinah,” from a tale I once believed was about rape to what I now believe is really a story mainly about men, and not even mainly the man who committed the alleged assault, but the men, Dinah’s brothers, who took it upon themselves to revenge their sister’s supposed “defilement”.
Read the story in the Torah. Reread it. It begins by describing Dinah very briefly as the daughter born to Leah and, by implication, not to Rachel or the two concubines. Is that significant? Is it more than a matter of casual interest that this first verse continues by describing Dinah as having “gone out” to meet the daughters of the land in the same terminology that described Leah going out to meet Jacob after she bought the mandrake root to seduce him into sleeping with her? Leah had intrigued to have sex with her husband. Was Dinah a young adventurous girl exposing herself to great risk by going out and consorting with the daughters of the Hivites when she was unescorted? Rashi writes, “Daughter like mother.”
Whatever the case, though Dinah may be a young virgin, there seems to have been an effort to paint her as compromising her innocence. “Her skirt was too short.” “She showed too much cleavage.” “She must have been stupid to go to his hotel room alone to discuss business.” The story seems less about Dinah’s innocence and the alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of Shechem than about the events following her defilement”.
Was she even raped? Verse 2 in the Plaut translation reads: “Shechem son of Hamor, the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, took her and lay with her by force.” (my italics) Plaut in his footnote writes: “Literally, lay with her and forced her.” But Rashi puts the emphasis, not on force, but that Shechem seduced her and had anal intercourse with Dinah – he was intimate with her in an unnatural way. That was the real defilement. The majority of commentators translate the verb vaiyeneh וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ as either rape, or violated, or lay with her by force.
Shawna Dolansky from Carleton University wrote an intriguing essay called, “The Debasement of Dinah” in which there is a long discussion about the meaning of the term vaiyeneh וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ or innah to claim that the verb does not and cannot mean “rape” for in many of the uses the verb is conjoined with the consent and not the non-consent of the woman. It is a case of reading into the text based on our own presumptions and sensibilities. Further, the term associated with rape uses a different verb– חזק – which is associated with using force and overpowering a woman. As the commentator suggests, “Thus, it seems clear that the biblical expression for rape is ויחזק וישכב, “to overpower and lie with,” not ‘innah’.
For Dolansky, the issue is debasement and not using force against a woman; it is debasement, not of Dinah, but of the standing of the men in her family. Dinah is debased, not because she had sex with Shechem, whether under duress or through seduction, but because the family has been debased. Why? Because the sexual activity did not take place as a result of the consent of the family. It is the power and status of the men that has been compromised. The story is not really about Dinah and whether she consented or not, but about the status of the family, particularly the men in the family.
In other words, if Shechem did use force against Dinah, then the problem is how this affected the brothers. And there are certainly many suggestions that rape was not involved. For the very next verse says that Shechem was “strongly drawn to Dinah,” that he was in love with her and that “he spoke to her tenderly” and wanted to marry her. This does not sound like rape, for rape is about the demonstration and exertion of power, not about sexual attraction.
The defilement, which Jacob recognized, was not about his daughter having sex with a young man, but having sex, and sex with a non-Israelite, without the father’s consent. The outrage that the brothers felt is not cited as the use of force, but that Shechem’s outrage was even sleeping with Dinah (verse 34:7) However, as usual, Jacob was measured in his response. And also diplomatic. One wonders whether he would really have been open to Hamor’s offer of a huge bride price. However, Jacob’s use of trickery now came back to haunt him as his sons not only tricked the Hivite men into being circumcised, but when they were in pain, slaughtered them. The brothers, all the brothers, took the women, children and animals as booty.
In addition to committing an outrageous crime, they besmirched the meaning of the covenant. Instead of intercourse and interchange between the Israelites and the surrounding tribes on terms very favourable to the Hebrews, Jacob ends the story by noting: “You have troubled me, to discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and among the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against me, and I and my household will be destroyed.”
What was the rejoinder by Simeon and Levi? “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?” The issue was not the supposed rape of Dinah, but the defilement of family honour. For without their consent, the sister was considered a whore even if she had been seduced and fell in love with Shechem. Honour and status were far more important than the safety and security of the Israelites and certainly far more important than any pain that Dinah might possibly have experienced.
What has this to do with a disproportionate number of men in the United States being outed for their harassment and forced attention against women? Because it is the same story – one not of the pain and suffering of women, but the power and status of men. That, unfortunately, is also the story of bystanders like myself who look on and focus on that power and its defilement rather than on what happened to the women. It is a story about national socialism, about the ideology of Bannon and Trump, about ethnic exclusivity, about the power of one’s group set off against another, and about women used as tokens in these conflicts over status and power.
I believe I am complicit in a much larger sense under the masquerade of my liberalism.
With the help of Alex Zisman