Moving from Silence towards Justice and Accountability: Lessons from Dinah
Trigger Warning: Content about sexual assault, based on the story of Dinah in the torah portion Vayishlach
Dinah, who goes out to see “the daughters of the land” and is taken and raped by Shechem, is defined by her silence. Though she appears in the torah as the center of a substantive narrative and the violation of her honor is the impetus for a terrible violent and consequential act, we never hear her voice.
Dinah’s silence is established even before the story of her rape. Immediately preceding our story, she is left out of a critical moment of the narrative. When Jacob is anticipating that Esau is coming for him with an army of men, he does what he can to protect to his most beloved family members. Here, the torah says, “That same night, he got up, took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his 11 children, and crossed at a ford of the Jabbok…Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him” (32:23–25).”
He took his two wives, two maidservants and his 11 children. There is a huge textual problem in this moment: At this point, Jacob already has 12 children, the twelfth being his daughter Dinah. Traditional commentators rush in to try to solve this problem- to account for Dinah in this moment of crossing over. Rashi, a famous medieval commentator, quoting a older interpretive tradition, explains this gap saying: “Jacob placed her in a chest and locked her in.” It is explained that this is because Jacob was afraid that Esau might see her and set to marry her. Locking her up was a way to keep Dinah safe.
Given what happens next, this explanation only serves to reinforce Dinah’s subjectivity and powerlessness. Rabbi Laura Geller comments on this traditional explanation: “Hiding Dinah — locking her up — is a powerful image about silencing women. And that silence echoes loudly through the rest of torah text.”
Dinah is silent and silenced in the text. After this tragedy happens, we never hear her voice or understand her feelings or reactions. Lest you think that this is simply because she was a woman and women didn’t have a voice in the torah, we need only look to foremothers. Sarah and Rebecca may have less significance in the story than their male counterparts but they are strong women with agency and needs. Rebecca gets a say in whether she will go with the servant to meet Isaac. When she was struggling with Jacob and Esau fighting in her womb, she went directly to the Source of her complaint- God — and demanded that God address her personal crisis. Rachel and Leah have less agency than the two generations preceding but they have some degree of power (to offer their midwives as an example, albeit a complicated one) and they have voices. Dinah’s silence is unique among the women of Genesis. Her silence is extended beyond the story- we never know what becomes of her, if she is able to resume a “normal life” or if she is shunned by her community. We not only soon do not hear her but do not see her either.
Dinah’s silence is viscerally painful to me because we know that it reflects a reality for women (and men too), since before the torah was written until today, who have been victims of rape. There are countless women who have been and are in Dinah’s position — violated, taken advantage of, forever changed and who are silent and whose stories remain silent. They are silenced because of their own shame due to family or cultural norms; they are silenced in church and synagogue pews because the perpetrator is an untouchable authority figure; they are silenced because they fear retribution to their person or to their career; they are silenced because they are afraid they will not be heard; they are silenced because if they speak out, they risk being scrutinized or judged.
What are we to do, as inheritors of this text and of this present time reality of silence in the wake of assault? How do we create the conditions for speech and ultimately for justice?
I want to offer a few solutions based in varied approaches to the text that I believe have implications for our world:
- Seek out who makes for silence — naming who or what is complicit
- Make sure the pain is heard
- Make space for those who have been silent to speak
First, seek out who create the conditions of silence.
Writer Deena Shanker offers a take on the Dinah story that feels an especially important in the moment we are living in.
Shanker looks at the text and highlights not only Dinah’s silence but also all those who are remain silent in the face of such terror. First and most significantly, there is Dinah’s father Jacob. When Jacob hears the news, the torah says “he-heresh Yaakov” “Jacob is silent (or could be “he was caused to be silent”) until the sons came home. He doesn’t cry out, he doesn’t curse, he doesn’t lash out in anger. What might Dinah have thought when she witnessed Jacob’s silence? What cues might she have taken from him? We have to imagine that Jacob’s silence and passivity reinforced Dinah’s shame and silence.
Shanker also notes that in contrast to other biblical stories, God is silent. That silence is particularly painful given its implications.
The only people who are not silent are Dinah’s brothers who act — but act with such intense violence that they lose the moral high ground. Shanker notes though that this action indicates that the torah itself is not silent. When the brothers respond, their actions demonstrate that rape is unacceptable and needs to be addressed with justice and not the forgiveness that many women are taught.
Whether or not we agree with Shankar’s read on the text, her approach is inciteful and reminds us to pay attention not only to the silence of the survivor but to pay attention to the silence of the people surrounding that person and the silence in our larger society.
Thus, we understand that Dinah’s silence-and all who come after her — in the context of a world that supports and reinforces that silence. This helps us understand our complicitness in a world that does not, often enough, honor or often believe survivors.
2. Make Sure the pain is heard
A bar mitzvah student I recently studied this torah portion with told me that he had a children’s bible book that does not include Dinah at all. While upsetting, it is not so shocking. After all, Dinah’s story is not typical children’s bedtime reading material. At the same time, why not include Dinah with an age appropriate reference, at least mention her as part of our ancestral family? Deena Shanker, the same author I mentioned above, started her essay by saying that she was introduced to biblical Deena in a college course despite her twelve years of Jewish day school and yeshiva education and the fact that her biblical Deena is her literal namesake!
Erasing those stories we find hard to hear is unfortunately not a new phenomena. We often want to skip over the parts of torah and tradition that are hard and embarrassing. Yet, it is incumbent upon us to sit with what’s hard and make the pain known so we can learn and grow as individuals and as a people.
In an effort to address this and to make sure Dinah’s silence “gets heard”, contemporary rabbis and cantors have altered the way they read the text out loud in synagogues. Taking instruction from a tradition of reading biblical curses in an undertone or using the trope of mourning, Lamentations, to read the verses of rape, Dinah’s story now gets imbued with new meaning and cries out for conversation.
In some way, this is a subtle act, yet it has profound implications. When we cause people to notice a difficult and uncomfortable story, we are saying: Pay attention to the pain. Pay attention to the silence. If we want to change our larger culture, how can we do so without paying attention and without wrestling with the fact that Dinah’s story is one that is still so present with us today? That calls out for us to hear and to act?
Third: Make space for those who have been silent to speak
There is a famous midrash that speaks to the Jewish approach to our sacred texts, teaching that the torah was written on black fire with white fire. The black fire translates into the blank ink letters that we read. The white fire is the space in between- the opening for interpretation and new understanding. In other words, the silent parts of our torah are fodder for interpretation, from our ancient ancestors until today. We aim to let the silence speak.
Throughout the generations, rabbinic ancestors have sought to make sense of Dinah’s silence with their own white fire interpretations. Truth be told, their interpretations may not be the ones we want to lift up today; they often reinforce a “blame the victim” mentality.
But those interpreters pave the way for us as contemporaries to follow in their footsteps at wresting meaning out of the silence. In the past few decades, feminist theologians and thinkers have brought newfound attention and awareness to Dinah. Most famously is The Red Tent by Anita Diamant — which follows a particular strain of hebrew interpretation to radically transform the story from one of conquest and violence to one of mutuality and love. Others, like Ellen Frankel or Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, read her voice into their interpretations, literally giving her a voice and expressing her feelings, thoughts, wishes, and hopes.
And just this week, my colleague Rabbi Annie Lewis gave Dinah a new voice and role in this moment that we are living in — the time of #metoo. A moment in which the silence and shame is being shattered by the bravery of those who come to tell their stories. And the power of these stories told by millions of survivors is having an impact and beginning to create the conditions of a paradigm shift around rape culture in our country.
Here is Rabbi Lewis’ poem/midrash on Dinah, entitled Uprising:
Me too, Dinah,
If only you could
see us now,
all the great men falling
like the idols of your
great, great grandfather,
like the men of Shechem.
If only you could
see us now,
taught to make nice,
take care –
All your sisters trained
to harbor shame
for going out,
Because we asked for it
so we deserved it.
If only you could
see us now, Dinah,
rising up like song.
Dinah, once silenced, becomes the symbol of women’s voices raising like a song.
The reason that Dinah’s story is so hard to read and hard to talk about is that it is still so familiar and so close to our lives. Too many women are at risk when they “go out” as Dinah did, whether the risk is from a stranger or a friend or family member or boss or other authority figure. Too many women lose their voice and their agency and are silenced by their loved ones or the culture at large.
Even though we are at a moment when we are glimpsing change, we only need to think about the many ‘open secrets’ to realize just how many more there must be and we see that some people are more easily held accountable than others. I know that this work of ending sexual assault and rape culture is the work of many lifetimes.
At the same time, as our texts and interpretations show us, we have tools at our disposal to begin the work of paradigm shift, so that Dinah’s silence is a story of the past and not a present day reality. We can and must examine the individual and collective silences that keep women and men who have been abused from speaking out. We must hold not only the survivors accountable but those who have kept them silent. We can refuse to look away, to engage with what’s hard and stop and hear the pain of the survivors. And we can and must find ways to make space for those who cannot (yet) speak.
May this holy work in our texts and in our world help us move from complicitness to action, from silence to justice and accountability.
I recognize that there are some who interpret the Hebrew differently, reading it as a more consensual experience. Give the active verb that describes Dinah’s actions in Genesis 34:1 and then the immediate passivity and lack of voice that follows, I follow the traditional reading of a violation taking place.
Rashi on Genesis 32:23. Rashi’s interpretation about the locked box is followed by his understanding that because Jacob locks Dinah away, that is why Jacob was punished by having his daughter defiled.
Rabbi Laura Geller: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/comforting-dina/
Thanks to SAJ member Joel Shapiro for pointing out the agency of Sarah and Rebecca vs. Rachel and Leah.
Deena Shanker: https://forward.com/sisterhood/187603/lessons-of-the-rape-of-dinah/. Note thatShanker seems to give the brothers more slack than they are usually afforded. The claim that they lose the moral high ground is mine not hers.
See Five Books of Miriam and Tribe of Dinah as examples