Va-yishlach: (Genesis 32:4-36:40)

Va-yishlach: (Genesis 32:4-36:40):

Sexual Violation in the Bible and Now

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force. Being strongly drawn to Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly. So Shechem said to his father Hamor, ‘Get me this girl for a wife”(Genesis 34:1-4).

Va’yishlach, the Torah portion for this week, is read in our synagogues just as the current news cycle revels in the salacious details of sexual violation in our secular world. As high profile men are publicly disgraced for a sliding scale of offences that include harassment, groping, assault, or rape, we reflect that human nature has not changed since biblical times.

First of all, this portion details Jacob’s fearful return to the Promised Land, his wrestling match with the angel (which leaves him with a permanent limp but rewards him with the new name of Israel), and his bittersweet reunion, and then parting, from his brother Esau. Following these episodes in chapter 34, is the story of Dinah, who never gets to say a single word about her feelings or fate. The pages of the Torah do not give her the opportunity to speak out about her probable rape by a neighboring Canaanite prince, Shechem, the son of his pagan tribe’s important chief, Hamor the Hivite. Nor can she say a word about her brothers’ subsequent actions to punish the offender – and his entire tribe as well by wholesale circumcision — nor about the death of her rapist, who claimed to have fallen in love with her after he violated her. Whatever she might have had to say about the consequential death of Shechem –  perhaps she loved him too – the pages of the Torah do not permit her to say anything. Her feelings simply don’t count.

And so Dinah, Leah’s last child, and Jacob and Leah’s only daughter, remains silent through the centuries. We don’t know how she feels, and we don’t know how she was treated once she was taken from Shechem’s house and returned to the bosom of her family. Even today, women in some parts of the Middle East and elsewhere who bring dishonor and shame to their families by being raped, are not treated well, and in many cases (some of which Rabbi Laura Geller enumerates) killed by their own relatives – even though they are the victims. Fortunately, in the Torah’s account, the punishment seems to fall on the male perpetrator and his family rather than on Dinah, but we simply don’t know.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarks that Dinah is a blank page onto which we project our own feelings and opinions.

So here goes: First of all, controversy through the centuries has quite despicably, in my view, revolved around whether Dinah, in modern parlance, “asked for it” by “going out to see the daughters of the land.” This is the antiquated thinking of classical (and even some contemporary) rabbis who prefer women to be modestly dressed – even better, in some Middle Eastern countries, veiled from head to toe – and hidden in their own homes, away from the sight of unrelated men. Curiosity about what’s outside your tribe? Want to learn more about the world? Get an education? Stuff it! Stay home, cook, and look after the kids. So, according to these classical rabbis (yes, shamefully), if Dinah had stayed home like a good girl should (or today, dress appropriately for the office), she wouldn’t have been raped.

Then there’s the argument that centers around whether or not Dinah was actually raped. Perhaps, based on the translation of three Hebrew verbs used sequentially to describe what Shechem did to Dinah, she was not raped at all? Perhaps it was consensual?The first verb, vayineh, could be alternatively translated as “raped, violated, or lay with her by force.” The n-h root could be translated as “oppress, overpower, humiliate, subdue.” None of them sound good to me, however.

Dr. Shawna Dolansky, who warns that we should beware of reading this story from a 21st century viewpoint, nevertheless elaborates on this verbal theme, particularly on the verb, “innah,” which is somewhat untranslatable but usually rendered in English as “rape.” She suggests that it means to “debase” or “lower a person’s status,” but most likely from her family’s perspective. So we don’t really know if Dinah consented, nor exactly what Shechem did when he “innahed” her. In any case, it was apparently to the extent that he fell in love with her.

To his credit, though, he did the honorable thing and asked Dinah’s father, Jacob – like Shechem’s father, Jacob was also an esteemed man in the land — for her hand in marriage. Jacob agrees to the marriage, but, in consultation with his numerous sons, with this condition: Since a Jewish women can only marry a circumcised male, Shechem’s whole tribe, along with him, must undergo circumcision as well.

Although Shechem and his father agree to both the marriage and the circumcision, a truly evil act takes place while the whole tribe is convalescing and unable to defend themselves. Two of the brothers, Shimon and Levi, surreptitiously descend on them and kill all the males of the tribe. There are whispers that they had secretly plotted to take advantage of the men in order to confiscate their property and cattle. Jacob, who has always had friendly relations with his neighbors, is so distraught that he feels he must move away in order to prevent vengeful retaliation.

The Torah should really be read straight through like a novel. Shimon and Levi defend themselves with this question: “Should he [Shechem] have been allowed to treat ours sister like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31). It’s a question that would surely have resonated in that time and place. In fact, writes Lewis M. Barth, “the misogynistic orientation of classical Rabbinic Judaism infuses many midrashic comments on this text with statements linking Dinah and her mother to prostitution. Probably the Rabbis reread the final question [above]…as a declarative sentence. The Rabbis’ comments specifically blame Dinah for being raped and being the cause of the slaughter of Shechem, Hamor, and all the males of their community.”

The biblical text, however, does not suggest that Shechem treated Dinah like a whore. We are told that he was drawn to her, and, although admittedly after the act of taking her, in love with her, and that he talked to her tenderly. Since he asked to marry her, surely he did not consider her to be a whore. At any rate, somewhat later in the text, Shimon and Levi get their come-uppance. Jacob does not speak well of them in his bedside oration, and Shimon and Levi are not assigned property in the Holy Land (Genesis 49:5-7).

Thousands of years later, Anita Diament’s The Red Tent (1997), while an historical fiction that invented a sequential period in Egypt, tried to substantially provide Dinah’s voice amid the atmosphere of the times. Of course it was widely read and appreciated – and still is – countless women. Fortunately, there are many female, as well as male, voices (besides lawyer Gloria Allred) that speak out for the Dinahs of this world today.

    1. “The Hivites were a nation that descended from Canaan, son of Ham, son of Noah (Genesis 10:17). The first time they play an active role in the Bible is when Shechem the Hivite raped Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, and full blood sister of Simeon and Levi (Genesis 34).” (Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
    2. Rabbi Laura Geller, “The Silence of Dinah and Other Rape Victims: The Bible focuses on Jacob’s and his son’s reactions, but not on those of the victim herself.” My Jewish Learning, with permission from The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Audrey L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
    3. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Vayishlach,” Covenant and Conversation,
    4. Susanna R. Cohen. “Why We Must Speak Out Against Sexual Violence,”, 11/30/2017.
    5. Dr. Shawna Dolansky, “The Debasement of Dinah: A Historical-Critical Reading,” https: The, 11/29/2017. Dolansky claims that the narrative “never states that Dinah was raped or coerced into sexual intercourse….and that the verb ‘innah’ is used in many places throughout the biblical text in ways that cannot be translated as rape.”
    6. According to Deuteronomy 22:28-29, in Jewish law, if a man rapes an unattached woman, he must pay a fine to her father, and not only is he required to marry her, but also he can never divorce her (Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 69.
    7. Lewis M. Barth, “Difficult Stories Raise Difficult Questions,” Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43,
    8. Richard Elliott Friedman, ed. Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text (New York: Harper, 2003)118.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.