Religion & Beliefs

A Dvar on Vayishlach

Phyllis Chesler prepared this D’var Torah for the Yavne Minyan, an Orthodox, egalitarian minyan which meets once a month on the Upper East Side, and she delivered it on Shabbat, Dec 13, 2008. Good Shabbos everyone. I want to focus on … Read More

By / December 15, 2008

Phyllis Chesler prepared this D’var Torah for the Yavne Minyan, an Orthodox, egalitarian minyan which meets once a month on the Upper East Side, and she delivered it on Shabbat, Dec 13, 2008.

Good Shabbos everyone.

I want to focus on five words in this parasha: "Vayomru: Hakizonah yaaseh et ahotaynu?"  (Bereshit 34:31). This is what Shimon and Levi tell their distraught and disapproving father Ya’akov after they have rescued Dina by destroying the city of Shechem–the guilty and the innocent alike–all because its prince has kidnapped and raped their sister Dina. I translate their brief but fiery words this way: Shall we stand idly by while our sister is treated like a prostitute?

It is a question that stands for all time. The question is still here, it awaits an answer from each generation. Shall we stand idly by as women are raped– even as we judge Shimon and Levi harshly for engaging in "overkill"? Do we stand idly by as women are forced into prostitution by dire poverty and abuse, or, like Dina, are kidnapped, forced into marriages against their will, trafficked to foreign countries and chained to brothel walls?

Am I my sisters’ keeper? "Hashomer ahi/ahotee anochi?" In a sense, Shimon and Levi have answered God’s question in a way far different than Cain once did.

Rape remains epidemic in our world today. Here on the Upper East Side, in other neighborhoods, and on every continent. South Africa, liberated from apartheid, has the world’s highest rate of sexual violence towards women. In places like Algeria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Congo, Darfur, and Rwanda, rape has become a weapon of war, not merely a spoil of war. I view the repeated public gang-raping of female children and women in these and other war zones as "gender cleansing." The international legal community has even decided that such rapes are "war crimes."

Still, we have not been able to do much to stop such rapes or to bring justice to the victims.     

Granted: Shimon and Levi did a terrible thing, a "Ya’aakovianly," tricky thing and yet, most amazingly, they did not kill their sister because she had dishonored her family, had gone out, presumably alone (from which the Sages derive that no Jew should go out alone in a potentially dangerous neighborhood)–and yet Dina did what her great-grandfather Avraham, her grandmother Rivka, and her own mother Leah did: she comes from a long line of "Tay-tzaers."   

Yes–and incredibly, Shimon and Levi did not kill the "defiled" Dina; they killed Dina’s rapist instead–and, for good measure, his entire male family!

As we know, even today, honor killings are rampant in the Middle East and South Asia, mainly among Muslims, and to a lesser extent, among Hindus and Sikhs. This odious custom has increasingly penetrated the West.  I’m about to publish an academic paper about it. But here, early on in the Torah, when polygamy, cousin marriage, child marriage, arranged marriage, concubinage, prostitution, and human slavery are taken for granted–this is a rather remarkable thing for Shimon and Levi to have done. Is it not? 

Women were once expected to marry their rapists. Dina’s brothers do not force her to marry Shechem. Once, women were advised to "keep quiet" about being raped. Shimon and Levi do not keep quiet about their sister’s rape; it is their stated reason for destroying Shechem. Although progress has been made, in our time, when women attempted to have their rapists prosecuted, they were often dis-believed and not treated humanely in the courtroom, where most victims were "raped" again, this time legally. Dina is neither challenged nor disbelieved.   

But Dina does remain silent, "hidden" from us. Indeed, according to Nachmanides, the Ramban, the brothers do not let Dina out again, they keep her hidden because she has been "defiled." "Hidden," just as the midrash tells us she was hidden by her father Ya’akov in order to prevent Esav from seeing her and wanting to wed her. Some say that Dina withheld is what led to Ya’akov’s troubles, beginning with Dina’s rape. But Leah, who arguably "belonged" to Esav, the older of her first cousins, wept her eyes out until they became "rakot," gentle, tender, wept in fear that she would have to marry Esav.

But why? Esav is by far a better son to his parents than Ya’akov ever was. Esav stays close to home and does what his parents want. Ya’akov leaves–true, he does what his mother Rivka privately tells him to do–but that means leaving home, lech lecha-ing, moving on, choosing public and religious duty over family responsibility. 

Does Dina’s brothers’ action, variously described as "overkill," "terrorist-like," "heartless," "dangerous," and "vengeful," make Dina whole? 

Ellen Frankel, in The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, presents Dina as a Talmudic commentator. "Rav" Dina notes that "[My brothers] recognized that honor stolen can never be recouped: Hamor’s proposed payment transformed rape into prostitution. The only compensation they [Shimon and Levi] would accept was vengeance. But neither act could compensate me for what I had lost."  

What would? As most feminist therapists know, a rape victim does not "heal" by "forgiving" her attacker. Forgiveness as a path to wholeness is a misguided notion in cases of rape, incest or battery. A rush to forgive often means that the victim is unable or unwilling to acknowledge exactly what has happened, or that she has been harmed by it.  Without such acknowledgement one cannot begin the arduous and painful work of healing. In any event, a private, psychological, individual, act of forgiveness does not constitute justice, nor can it prevent the forgiver or others from suffering a similar fate at the hands of the unjudged, unpunished rapist, his city, and his culture. 

Many survivors of rape and torture say that the most lasting harm resides not only in the atrocity itself, but also in how others either dealt with it or failed to do so. Survivors are haunted by those who heard the screams but turned their backs, blamed the victim, who preached against revenge, but envisioned no justice.  As Judy Herman has written: "It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering."

Please understand: The Torah and Talmud’s position on rape is complicated, contradictory and, from my point of view, quite misogynistic e.g. raping a married woman is a capital crime since she is another man’s "property;" but, the rape of a single, un-betrothed woman sentences her rapist to a lifetime of marriage to her unless she won’t have him. He must still pay her father a monetary fine.

Therefore, what Shimon and Levi did was extraordinary both for their time, and for the geographical region. It still is today. What can possibly explain what they did?  

They explain it this way: Rape is not done amongst us. "V’cayn lo ya-aseh." It is a sin, an abomination in Yisrael: "Kee nevalah B’Yisrael." 

Rashi tells us that the nations of the world feared "incest," or other "sexual crimes" as a result of the Flood. I totally agree. Quite simply, the brothers feared that God might destroy the world again because of male sexual violence. They destroyed Shechem in order to defend God’s honor and to protect humanity.

I do not agree with the many honorable feminists who believe that Dina’s brothers ruined it for her, that she really loved Shechem, that he’s a symbol of Palestinian or pagan purity. If Dina really loved Shechem, why would Shechem need to "talk to her heart," (v’yidabayer al lev hanaarah")? Shechem only did so after he "took" (va’yikach otah), slept with, (yishkav otah) and tormented or humbled (vaya-aneyhaa) her.  Only after all this did Shechem’s "soul cleave" to her (va’tidbak nafsho), and "he loved the young girl" (va’yeahav et hanara). 

Where else do we hear the phrase: "He talked to her heart?" 

In Shoftim, at a time when Israel has no king, we have another example of a man who is described with the exact same words. A concubine (pilegesh) has run away from her master/husband. Perhaps he has abused her. Maybe she just missed her father at home. In any event, this master/husband of the unnamed pilegesh also "yadabayer al lebah," he sweet talks her to leave her father’s home in Bethlehem, in the territory of Yehudah.  

As we know, her fate is an awful one. As they journey, night falls, and a man offers the couple hospitality for the night. A Sodom and Gomorrah-like male mob demands the man as their sexual sacrifice.  The master/husband does not sacrifice himself but rather gives his pelegesh over in Givha to be gang-raped to death. Obtaining justice in her case, does not involve the destruction of pagan Shechem; it involves the near destruction of the entire tribe of Binyamin. 

Just because a man says he lusts for or even "loves" a woman whom he takes by force does not mean that he really does so or that his "love-lust" will last or that the story will end well.

In Shmuel Bet, we read that Amnon desired his half sister Tamar. He asks her to sleep with him. Tamar echoes exactly what Shimon and Levi say: "This is not done in Yisrael, don’t commit this abomination." Kee lo ya-aseh kayn b’Yisrael, al ta-aseh et ha’navalah hazot." She tells him to go to their father King David and ask for her hand in marriage. Instead, like Shechem, Amnon humbled, tormented, and forced Tamar to sleep with him. "Viyaaneyha v’yishcav otah." Unlike Shechem, immediately thereafter Amnon’s lust turns to hate. This single act of rape, which is Tamar’s undoing, has dire consequences. Avshalom, Tamar’s brother, kills Amnon, David their father mourns, Avshalom foments a rebellion against King David and is himself eventually killed.

The sexual mistreatment of Tamar destroys her, King David’s family, and nearly leads to David’s downfall. 

Perhaps we might say: In all three instances, the mistreatment of a single woman led to a major catastrophe.

None of this is surprising. God strongly disapproves of rape. It is the reason that God decided to destroy the world with a flood. Remember the language. Just as Shechem took Dina (vayikach otah), in Bereshit 6:2, the sons of God "took (vayyikhu) any woman, any daughter of man, they so chose.( Bereshit 6:2).Widespread, indiscriminate rape. Almost immediately, God states: "My spirit will not dwell within or wrestle against myself with humanity forever because man is only flesh and blood: "Lo yadun ruhi b’adam liolam b’shagam hu basar." (Bereshit 6:3).

Lo yadun ruhi… Din, judgment, law, Dina’s very name reminds us that God finds rape repugnant.  Rape is not only a crime against humanity; it is also a crime against God. Perhaps this is the reason that God ensures that none of the other pagan cities or tribes rise up against Ya’akov. They suffer no repercussions for their destruction of Shechem. "And they journeyed and a terror/fear of God was upon the cities that surrounded them and they did not pursue the sons of Ya’akov." Va-yisahoo v’yihee hetat elohim al ha’arim asher svevotahem v’lo radfu aharei bnai Ya’akov."

Thus, we learn that rape is forbidden. From this we may also conclude that we are obligated to rescue, comfort and obtain justice for a rape victim. Troublingly, Ya’akov, who suffers the loss of Yoseph and the potential loss of Binyamin, is not seen weeping for or even talking to Dina. She remains "hidden," her father remains "silent." Surely, we are obliged to bring up our sons so that they do not become rapists or bystanders, nor should our daughters ever blame or shun a rape victim.   

In Dina’s story, her brothers do not blame her. They rescue her.  May God grant each and every one of us the power to do likewise.  

Good Shabbos.