Dinah’s Voice Must Always Be Heard; A Speech Examining Vayishlach (Genesis 34) Through A Feminist Lens

Hi! Thank you all for coming today, it means a lot to me and my family. So, a bunch of things happen in this portion, but today, I will be focusing mainly on Dinah’s story, which by the way, is a total misnomer because she has no voice in this story. So, a quick recap for all of you who have zoned out for the last thirty minutes, Dinah’s story goes like this. Once upon a time, Dinah, the only named daughter of Ya’akov and Leah, went walking in search of other girls in the land of Chamor. Shechem, Chamor’s son, “vayikach Dina” — or “takes” her. What happens after she has been taken, is debated. Some say it is rape, but others say it is a “humbling” of Dinah. Shechem then begs his father to make it so Dinah will be his wife. Chamor approaches Ya’akov with a proposition: if you let us take your daughter as a wife to Shechem, we will give you anything you want. They also propose that their families or “tribes” should intermarry. To do this, Chamor will give Ya’akov all the Chamorite daughters in return for all of Israelite women. Sounds fair, right? Ya’akov willingly passes off the decision making to his sons Shimon and Levi. The now very angry sons agree to Chamor’s request under one term, all the men in Chamor’s tribe must get circumcised. Chamor agrees to this unusual request. Now, the Torah is careful to note that the brothers make their deal with guile. This comes up again when the brothers decide to avenge Dinah, or rather to avenge their family’s name. They launch a surprise attack on Chamor’s tribe, killing all the Chamorite men while they are in pain from being circumcised in adulthood. Shimon and Levi also steal all their belongings and women. Ya’akov gets terrified that the brothers’ actions will cause other people to retaliate against him and his family, and therefore decides to move far away. The story ends with Dinah’s brothers answering “Should they have treated our sister like a prostitute?” I guess they have no regrets.

Okay! One thing that stood out to me was the verb vayikach or “and he took.” This is the same verb that is used when someone takes an object or a man arranges for a woman to become his wife. In biblical society, to take a woman as one would take an object is just normal. That being said, to take a woman without her father’s consent, as in Dinah’s case, would be a culturally unacceptable occurrence. Shechem didn’t initially ask Ya’akov’s permission to “take” Dinah. So Shimon and Levi felt the need to go after Chamor’s family not out of love for their sister, but rather because Shechem committed a property crime against Ya’akov and his family. During the negotiation with Chamor, Dinah has absolutely no say in what happens to her. Instead, her brothers decide to avenge the infringement of their ownership of their sister by stealing some more women from Chamor and killing all of the men in Chamor’s tribe. This stealing does not necessarily imply rape, but it does imply that women can be traded and given and treated as objects rather than thinking people. All of this is reported with limited criticism of Shimon and Levi’s actions. That’s a problem. While most of us would agree that some kind of consequence is needed for Shechem’s actions, Dinah’s brothers’ actions are not morally superior and demonstrate no greater respect for women and their sister. Before I talk about how this reflects on our society today, I would like to make it clear that I’m am not saying that direct sexual violence and the broader objectification of women are of the same magnitude. They’re not. But, a society that normalizes the objectification of woman is one that is less likely to condemn sexual violence or not even recognize it as such.

This set of hypocritical attitudes about the justification of misogynistic behaviors is prevalent in today’s world. Just as the taking of Dinah and the stealing of the Schehemite women are both instances of the objectification of women, we see that many men think it’s fine for them to exploit women in small or large ways, but when their peers do the same, it’s not acceptable. Over a year ago, footage was released of Donald Trump talking to Billy Bush about being able to sexually aggress against women without consequence because he’s a wealthy media star. This gave many people another reason to despise Mr. Trump. While some of his fellow politicians condemned the disgraceful way Trump acts and talks, they did not frame it as societal backwardness; instead, they proudly stated, I would be offended if these comments, behaviors, or attitudes were aimed at MY daughter, MY wife, MY mother, MY women. These statements, while appearing to be honorable and a step in the right direction, still perpetuate the idea that women can only be considered in relation to men and objects of men and are important because of their connection to a man.

Vay’aneha — the verb after the first use of vayikach has several meanings, and that is where the debate over what happened to Dinah spurs from. A common translation of this word is that Dinah was violated. But what does violate mean? One understanding is that Dinah was sexually violated, or raped. The second more conservative approach is that Dinah was violated because Shechem did not ask the permission of Ya’akov before taking Dinah. Both interpretations reflect poorly on how their society treats women. The fact is that we have no clue what happened because Dinah has no voice in the story! She has no voice in being taken, in the negotiation with Chamor, or in the decision made by her brothers to attack Shechem. She is merely the object that is under dispute. No matter how you approach the story, one part or another is unsettling or disturbing. If you think Dinah got raped, that’s disturbing, if you think the brothers’ actions were uncalled for, that’s disturbing, if you think that there are lots of patriarchal attitudes engraved in, the fact that this is a religion and community that many people rely on for answers and we look up to these patriarchal ideas, is disturbing. And the feeling that I am left with is something is really, really wrong and that needs to change!

For millennia, the voices of women and others who have been sexually assaulted have been suppressed. As I’m saying these words, many women are speaking up about their experiences with sexual violence and the effects a patriarchal society has had on them. But right now, we’re standing in midst of a cultural and socio-sexual hurricane. It’s taken thousands of years for Dinah’s voice to finally be heard. From this discussion, I don’t want you to only take away the fact that our culture is woven in with stale and ancient thoughts relating to women. As a society, we are working on changing. Even though certain laws and leaders seem to be trying to roll things back, the amount of attention and conversations that come out of today’s movements are the preliminary step to a change in societal thinking. It’s our responsibility to learn from the wrongdoings that are described in the Torah and the wrongs that are perpetuated by the way that the story is told, and make sure that Dinah’s voice will always be heard.


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