Vayishlach – Dinah and Sexual Abuse in Our Time

December 9, 2014

Every rabbi at some point teaches a course entitled, “Bible stories they never taught us in Religious School.” We go through the Bible and teach all the chapters that we never – for various reasons – learned from our Hebrew school teachers. One such chapter is the story of Dinah.

In case you missed the Topol boys this morning, I will remind you:
After entering the land, Jacob and his large family settles on the outskirts of Shechem. Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, “goes out” to see the ‘daughters of the land.’ But Dinah doesn’t just see; she is seen as well. The Torah tells us that after catching the attention of a tribal chieftain, Shechem “saw her, took her, lay with her and humiliated her.”

When Jacob learns what happened, he holds his tongue until his sons return home. And when they learn what happened, the brothers become enraged: “Shechem has committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, a thing not done.” And so the brothers – at least two of them – hatch a plan. They approach Shechem and his people and make a treaty. They make only one request – the Shechemites must be circumcised if they wish to marry with Jacob’s family. You know how the story ends. While the Shechemites are recuperating from surgery, Shimon and Levi enter the city and kill all the men. Jacob reacts, but hardly in a way we admire.

This is definitely one of the more disturbing chapters in the Bible; so much so that we rarely talk about it and almost never teach it. Not only is Dinah’s story ‘x-rated,’ but it is troubling because it lacks empathy for the victim of the sexual crime it reports. And there is the question of Jacob’s sons whose actions wreak of deceit and vengeance much more than justice. But the story needs to be told, especially because it is SO TIMELY, because the problem it represents has hardly disappeared. Today women (like DInah) are being assaulted – the UVA gang rape [though now disputed] is just an example of what still happens – know that one in five college women will be sexually assaulted! One in five. Yet most,  like Dinah, will remain silent, and – like Jacob – society doesn’t want to deal with the problem and tends to blame the victim or brush it under the rug. All this, but in brief of course, is my topic today. I will try to answer 2 questions as I proceed – SAY BOTH AS BELOW.

Question One = What’s With Jacob? Why is Jacob silent when he learns of the rape, only reacting later, not to the assault on his daughter or even to his sons’ brutal actions but to the possible negative consequences of their actions.  What’s with him?  The Torah says first off after the rape: “Vihecherish Yaakov” and Jacob kept quiet.  A daughter is raped, and a father is silent? How can that be?  You would expect Jacob to scream to the heavens. You would expect Jacob to do whatever has to be done in order to rescue her from the place where she is being kept. But instead, the Torah says: “vihecherish Yaakov”—Jacob kept quiet.

When he finally speaks, Jacob is more concerned about his family than his daughter. He tells Shimon and Levi, the perps of the act of revenge (or justice?): “You have brought trouble on me – making me odious among the inhabitants of the land!”  Hadn’t one of the inhabitants of Shechem just raped his daughter?

There are many theories as to why he was silent at first, and then more worried about himself than the assault when he finally does talk.  Let me offer you my guess, for whatever it may be worth – it is an attempt to answer our first question:  Jacob has lived in exile for twenty years. And when you live in exile, you behave differently than you do when you live in your own country. When you live in exile, you worry about what will the neighbors say? You worry about whether they will like you or not. You worry about whether they will expel you if you do something wrong.

Jacob lived in the land of Aram, modern day Syria/Iraq (lovely neighborhood), in the house of Laban for twenty years, and one of the things that he learned there was, that if you are an outsider, you have to be careful not to antagonize your neighbors. If he was mistreated by Laban there, if Laban changed his wages again and again and again, he kept quiet and did not protest, for fear of upsetting things. When he was successful, he became apprehensive that the sons of Laban would resent and envy his success. When he wanted to talk to his wives about whether they should leave this place or not, he took them out into the fields because he was afraid that someone might overhear what they were saying.

So therefore, Jacob’s first reaction when his daughter is raped, and when his sons retaliate and rescue her, is what will the neighbors say? If they find out that my daughter has been raped, I will never be able to find a shidduch for her. And if they find out that my sons are capable of such violence, they will not want to have anything to do with me. Let’s keep this matter in house, and not let the neighbors find out, for fear that they will not like us.

That is my explanation for why Jacob kept silent when his daughter was raped. I don’t think it takes anything away from his culpability. He should have spoken up. He should have demanded justice for his daughter. He should have ordered his sons to go in and rescue her. But because he had a ‘galut/exile mentality’, because he had spent twenty years in exile, he could only be cautious, and careful. He could only be concerned that no one in his family rocked the boat. He could only be alarmed that his sons would make things worse, by bringing what had happened to the attention of their neighbors.

Dinah’s brothers aren’t much better.  “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” they ask. The emphasis is on the word “our.” Dina’s brothers are more concerned with their reputation. To allow Shechem to get away with rape would make the brothers appear weak!

But how does the Torah feel about what Jacob said and what they said? I think the answer is important and teaches us something important for our time.  I think that the Torah sympathizes with the sons of Jacob, and not with Jacob.  I can’t prove it, but do you know what makes me think so?  It is because the Torah gives the sons the last word. The scene ends with Shimon and Levi answering their father: “Hakizonah yaaseh et achotenu?” What do you want? Do you want us to allow our sister to be treated as a whore?  That is the last line of the story. The curtain falls on that rhetorical question. And when the Torah gives the last word to someone in a dispute, that is a hint that the Torah agrees with that person’s point of view.   What Shimon and Levi are saying here is: “We don’t care whether this will upset the neighbors or not. If it does, then it does. But what do you expect us to do? Do you want us to abandon our sister? Do you want us to let our sister be treated like a prostitute?”  I think that the lesson that we are supposed to learn from this story is that a father is not supposed to keep silent when he sees his daughter sexually abused, and that if he does, then he is wrong. And that would apply to anyone, anytime, who knows of sexual abuse and does nothing about it. You can’t just ignore it. Which brings us to…

So, now to question two: Why is Dinah silent?  We never hear from her, here, or ever. She disappears from the text almost completely after this incident. The sages were aware of her glaring absence and tried to address this issue. Maybe she went off and married Esau, some speculate that she was Job’s second wife, maybe she escaped her infamy and went to Egypt and was the mother of Asenat who Joseph married there.  But in the Torah itself, having been raped, Dina seems unworthy to be part of Israel’s narrative. Rabbi Laura Geller writes, “What about Dina? What has she done? How does she feel? The text is silent. We know only what her brothers and father think…No one asks Dinah what she wants, what she needs, or how she can be comforted…her silence reverberates through the generations.”

Let’s talk about that silence. The silence of women who are victims of sexual assault is not restricted to Dinah. It’s all around us today.  It has different origins, let me mention three:

  1. The silence of women victims can be because they have no voice or power. In far too many parts of the world, rape is a weapon against powerless women. In South Africa, a study suggests that in some provinces, 25 percent of men admit to rape. In Sudan, hundreds of women face sexual violence each day. Eve Ensler, playwright and activist, wrote a while back that “the women of eastern Congo are enduring their 12th year of sexual terrorism. The girl children born of rape are now being raped.” According to the UN, 200,000 women, from very little girls to old women, have been raped during the ongoing violence there, and often without consequences.  Note that by raping women from an opposing tribe or ethnic group, they are no longer fit for marriage
  2. The silence of women victims can be because though they can speak they are reluctant to report the assaults. Most of the time the victims are abused by someone they know. 90% of the perps are acquaintances, maybe even someone they have been friends with or trusted at different times. The MD student victim quoted in the long Washington Jewish Week article this week knew the perp since childhood, their families were and are still close. Reporting that kind of assault can cause all kinds of repercussions. And sometimes victims don’t report because they want to avoid the fear and frustration of going theough the legal process = they suspect that the case will go nowhere and nothing really happen to the perpetrator; they are frightened and ashamed of what happened, reporting it seems not to offer a way out of the pain. And sometimes they don’t report because they know that the victim often gets blamed for what happened, just as our Torah portion implied that Dinah would have been just fine had she stuck to her own neighborhood.             In 1998,  Arbab Khatoon was raped by three men in her village in Pakistan. She was murdered seven hours later for going to the police and bringing dishonor on her family. There are reasons not to report.
  3. The silence, finally, may be because such crimes often get covered up even if reported. We all know about the sins that have been committed by priests, and we all know how the Catholic Church tried to cover up these terrible acts. We all know how the church transferred priests to other parishes when they were accused, instead of turning them over to the police. We all know how the church pressured the victims of sexual abuse not to go to the police, and we all know how these efforts at cover-up ended up bringing damage and disgrace upon the church. The Catholic church has had to pay millions of dollars in fines for what it did, and, even worse, it has lost its good name among some of its own parishioners, for what it did.

We all know about what happened at Penn State and at Syracuse, where the administration tried to cover up the terrible acts that were committed against innocent children by men who were coaches of their teams. We know how the campus police, and the head coaches, and the university administration evidently worked on these young children and their parents and tried to persuade them not to report what happened to the police. And we knew what harm has been done to the good name of these universities when the scandal of what was done, and even worse, when the scandal of the efforts to cover up what had happened, were revealed.

But I don’t know if you know about the equally terrible scandals that have taken place in recent years in some places in the ultra-Orthodox community. In Lakewood, and in Brooklyn, hundreds of cases of sexual molestation have been discovered. For some reason priests, and coaches, and rabbis who teach in yeshivas commit child molestation and it seems to happen quite often in all-male environments and the harm they cause is extremely disturbing. What is worse,  those who have been victims of these abuses have been pressured by the rabbis who are at the head of this community not to go to the police.  They have been told that for a Jew to report another Jew to the police is to commit the crime of mesirah. They have been told that anyone who goes to the secular authorities and reports a Jew for committing a crime is worse than the person who commits the crime in the first place. And as a result, most victims of sexual abuse are afraid to speak up for fear of the rabbis.

As for our safe and secure college campuses, there is a kind of coverup there too. While  colleges are required to report their internal crime stats to the FBI every year, many underreport their crimes – which aren’t good for their “product” – which is why UVA and 85 other colleges and universities are under Title IX investigations right now. Title IX, you recall, is about protecting women.  So, the extensiveness of sexual assault – remember 1 of 5 college women will fall victim to it – is not known, which further discourages victims from reporting what seems so unusual (when it is unfortuantely not).

So, you can see, there are ample reasons for the silence of the victims.  The story of Dinah’s silence is not at all unusual.

Jacob’s silence, we saw, was due to fear of what the neighbors might say. His sons set him straight.   Dinah’s silence – why bother if nothing will likely be done except bring embarrassment and coverup – there was no easy way to fix that.

Friends, what do we do with this?  I think we need to rethink how we teach the Bible to children.  Instead of hiding such harsh and violent stories from our children, we need to talk about them openly, critically, and honestly. Our children know about these things – they see them on television all the time. They need to know that Judaism sides with the victim and those who are weak. No one needs to be ashamed when they are violated. They deserve justice.  We need to tell them that young people, both boys and girls under eighteen and college kids, are at much greater risk than any other group of being victims of sexual crimes. By remaining silent, as Jacob did, we do not make the outrage go away.

We need to learn not from what our ancestors did but – at least in this case – from what they failed to do. The Bible does not shy away from blame and guilt. Sometimes it teaches us indirectly.  The story of Dinah is a cautionary tale which should inspire honest and open conversation in every family and in every classroom. We need to create a new Midrash with which to read the story of Dinah, one which shows sympathy and concern for the victim of rape; one which gives Dinah back her voice and her dignity as an individual.

There are thousands and thousands of Dinah’s in today’s world. We should not ignore them! Shabbat Shalom