Parashat VaYishlah: The Unheard Voice of Dinah

The spiritual and practical world of women in the Bible (and post-Biblical literature) is relatively unexplored. Their mention is disproportionate to their percentage of the population, and when mentioned it is usually as a component of a male narrative, as an object of male actions and desires rather than as a subject.

The story of Dinah in this week’s Torah reading VaYishlah is an extreme case of this. We don’t know how Dinah felt. Did she scream for help when Shechem, son of Hamor, raped her? Or was she perhaps silent in her great surprise and horror? What did she say when her brothers Simon and Levi abducted her and led her out of the city, strewn with corpses, back to her mother and father’s tent? Dinah’s voice is not heard throughout the incident. The victim has turned into an object.

In Genesis Rabah we read: “And Dinah, Leah’s daughter, whom she had born to Yaakov, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land” (Genesis, 34:1). Why does the text refer to her as “the daughter of Leah” and not as “the daughter of Yaakov?” asks Rashi, and replies: “Because of her ‘going out’ she is called the daughter of Leah, who herself was one ‘who went out’ [Rashi employs the term “yatz’anit”—literally “one who goes out”, a harlot], as is written ‘And Leah went out to meet him’ (30:16)”.

Dinah’s ‘going out to see among the daughters of the land’ is perceived by the scholars of the Midrash and their successors as testimony to her shady character. She is a ‘yatz’anit’, wanton, like her mother, Leah, who goes out to meet Yaakov after having ‘rented’ him for a night from her sister Rachel in return for the mandrakes of her son. A woman’s place is in the home, says the midrash— “All glorious is the king’s daughter within”, and whoever ‘goes out’ is a harlot, deserving of “and lay with her and abused her”. In other words, if Dinah is raped, she is in part responsible for the calamity which befalls her. She is the sinner, and therefore she is the victim.

This patriarchal perspective no longer suffices for contemporary readers of the story. Contemporary women’s engagement in Biblical exegesis has led to more awareness of this silencing of Dina’s voice. Here are three such feminist re-readings of the Dinah narrative:

The first is the American Jewish author, Anita Diamant, in her book “The Red Tent” in which she creatively gave Dinah back her voice in a popular novel. Narrated in first person by Dinah, the book emphasizes Shechem’s love for Dinah, his remorse over the pain he caused her, and his willingness to wound his body in order to enter the covenant with the family of his beloved Dinah. She allows Dinah to gradually fall in love with Shechem, and paints Shimon and Levi as thugs motivated not by love of their sister, but by irrelevant power interests. Diamant’s Dinah is also angry with her father for his silence and flees Canaan to get away from the family and her trauma. (A theme found in Pirkei R. Eliezer, 38)

The second feminist interpretation is that of Mira Magen who also wrote a short story giving Dinah a voice, ( “I Am the Aunt of Serach and Rachel Was My Aunt” (in Ruti Raitsky [editor], Women Read from Bereishit, Tel Aviv 1999, pp. 275-279),). She emphasizes Dinah’s loss of honour because of her violent brothers. According to the Biblical teaching she should have been married to Shechem (see Deuteronomy, 22, 28-29), but Shimon and Levi prevented that happening. Here are a few lines from the story:

“. . . Dinah daughter of Yaakov, that’s what they called me when I was a little girl like Serah.
. . . When Shechem came and did to me what he did, I didn’t have any lamb’s wool to bite, and the scream I choked was loud and strong…
“. . . I am going, and my throat is full of scream and is choking. . . . my feet make way through the mounds of breathing wool, going to the place of the scream, . . . I go to them to raise my voice with the voice of the crowd, so that it deafens the scream which I am going to take back.”

The third is that of Rivka Lubitch who wrote not a novel or a short story but midrashim in the classical style. (Rivka Lubitch in her article “The Story of Dinah: the Bible, Chazal and Us”, in Avi Sagi and Nachem Ilan [editors] Jewish Culture in the Eye of the Storm – Yosef Ahituv Jubilee Volume 5762, pp. 742-753).
She returns to the Rashi I quoted earlier and reinterprets “Going out” (VaYetseh) as follows:

“And Dinah went out” – some expounded upon this text as “so the mother, so the daughter”, and others expounded it as “like her father, so his daughter.” Like her mother, as is written, “and Dinah went out to meet him”; just as this one went out to receive her husband in performance of a mitzvah, so did she go out with the aim of matrimony. ‘Like her father’, as is written “And Yaakov went out”’ just as this one went out because of his brother Esav, she did she go out because of her brothers, to find herself a place…”

By calling our attention to the thundering silence of the raped, Lubitch returns the scream to Dinah and to Tamar and to all those scores of women who were silenced (and, in some societies, continue to be silenced) by family, society, or assailant. Thus, in our new reading of the ancient story of Dinah, assisted by the commentary of wise and sensitive modern women, we hear the scream of Dinah’s heart. Perhaps, through this reading, we learn also to listen to the unheard cries of unfortunate women among us.

Dr Gili Zivan, translated by Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

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