Dinahs story, like many modern issues, has no simple resolution

Gen. 32:4-36:43
Hosea 12.13-12.12

Ever feel like you just want to scream? Years ago we went down to Laguna Beach to see the “Pageant of the Masters” — in which hundreds of actors re-create famous paintings on an open-air stage.

But the pageant didn’t feature my favorite works of art. No intimate psychological studies, no weird bits of surrealism, no floating beggars from Chagall.

And though I waited and waited, I never got to see the one painting that makes me feel better about my own life: Edvard Munch’s classic masterpiece of neurosis “The Scream.”

This week’s Torah portion gives me what I missed: a chance to get inside the experience of “The Scream.” Picture that famous image of disorientation and terror, the ghastly face frozen forever in a silent, anguished outcry. Dinah’s story, a masterpiece from our own tradition, is as intense, compressed and surrealistic as a bad dream.

She was a young girl — only a child, according to one Midrash. Rashi tells us that, like her mother, Dinah was “yatzanit — a gadabout,” forever going out to roam the streets, asking for trouble.

Thus do our sages wrestle with the age-old masculine question about women who cry rape: Were they asking for it?

Dinah’s story, admittedly tragic, is also, as one Midrash puts it, “a good lesson about what happens when a woman spends too much time out of the house. Women should avoid going places where they will be seen by men; they should not even stand by the windows of their own homes where men can see them.” (Me’Am Loez)

Feminist critics note that Dinah is victimized first by Shechem, her rapist, and then by her brothers, who slaughter the man who has come to love her, without asking Dinah if she in turn cares for him. She is victimized yet again by the editors of the biblical story, who refuse to let her speak even one word. And finally, she falls victim to our sages, who end up blaming Dinah for her own misfortune — an ironic fate for a woman whose very name comes from the Hebrew word “din” (justice).

Perhaps it is for the best, after all, that Dinah does not speak. As Munch’s painting of the scream conveys a primal horror, reverberating differently in the mind of every viewer, so Dinah’s very silence suggests the unspeakable outrage of rape — a crime for which there is no restitution, no reparation, no way of undoing the physical and psychic damage.

Her silence — the vacuum at the heart of the story — elicits our own words and invites new ways of interpreting the text.

The brilliant scholar Aviva Zornberg, who applies literary and psychoanalytic theory to the Torah, reads Genesis 34 as another of Jacob’s dreams As in all dreams, some of the figures may be seen as projections of the dreamer.

Within Jacob two spirits are at war. First, the spirit of Abraham, his grandfather, who exemplified chesed — generosity, openness — outreach, if you will.

The spirit struggles with the second, the spirit of Isaac, Jacob’s father. Permanently traumatized by the experience of being bound on the altar, Isaac represents fear, narrowness, suspicion, profound distrust of the world.

Both spirits struggle for control of Jacob, testing him as he confronts another people in Genesis 34. How will he relate to the children of Hamor, to the Canaanite people in whose midst he dwells?

Dinah, who goes out seeking friendship with the daughters of the land, clearly expresses the expansive spirit of Abraham. Shimon and Levi, who cannot believe that Shechem has repented and truly loves their sister, express the narrow, distrustful spirit of Isaac.

The drama plays itself out, but is never resolved. The story ends with a question, one that never receives an answer. Shimon and Levi have triumphed, but it is an ambivalent and ambiguous victory.

And we, descendants of Israel, continue to live out Jacob’s intense psychological drama in every generation. How shall we live with our non-Jewish neighbors, who are both brothers and strangers to us? Abraham and Isaac, Dinah and her brothers, approach and avoidance, all struggle forever inside us.

The questions live in our text today — dynamic reminders that our Torah can teach the static, airless Pageant of the Masters what great art is really all about.

Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.