Torah: A complicated story of responsibility and biblical rape

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Genesis 32:4–36:43

Obadiah 1:1–1:21

Cryptic and short, Dinah’s story in Genesis 34 is still very much a current issue. The only sister among 12 brothers, Dinah goes out to “see” the girls of the land. But instead, a man “sees her.” He “took her, and laid with her, and tortured her; And his soul did cleave unto Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spoke comfortingly unto the damsel.”

There is so much in this short intro. As we learn elsewhere, the Torah takes issue with “seeing.” Eyes can be misleading; they go after what is superficial and external, rather than the lasting, internal quality of listening (“sh’ma”). Dinah went out to see, but alas, she was seen.

Notice the verbs: He saw, he took, he laid, he tortured, and only then did his soul “cleave unto Dinah.” The word “torture” shares its root with the verb used to describe Pharaoh’s harsh dealings with the Israelites in slavery, conveying force and unfairness.

The order of the long list of verbs also is significant: There is no happy ending when we learn that the man loved Dinah only after he raped her.

We also have to look at the man’s name and title: Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite. In Hebrew, “shechem” means shoulder, “hamor” means donkey, and “Hivite” shares its root with the Aramaic word for snake. Therefore, we can read his name and title as big body (bully), the son of a donkey, a snake. What a prince of the land.

Shechem continues “speaking unto his father Hamor, saying: ‘take [for] me this girl to [be my] wife.’ ” “Take” rather than “please give,” or “ask her father if she’d like to be my wife,” as would befit a prince who is in love.

The story quickly gets more complicated, with lots to read on and between the lines. When Dinah’s brothers return home, they are horrified to discover what happened and begin an R-rated negotiation with Shechem’s and Hamor’s families that does not end well. Then again, there is no way this story can end well. Jacob, who keeps silent until the very end, knows that, too.

And someone else is silent throughout the story: Dinah herself, Jacob’s daughter, so much his daughter, although initially she is introduced as Leah’s daughter, to which some commentators add: like mother, like daughter. Just as Leah “went out” to welcome Jacob when she earned a night with him, so did her daughter. Some call her “yatz’anit,” meaning “one who is going out” and “prostitute.”

But others strongly reject blaming Dinah, or Leah. The Torah discusses the issue of rape and responsibility elsewhere (Deuteronomy 22). It distinguishes between rape that takes place in the city and in the countryside. In the countryside, the girl is never guilty, because the assumption is that even if she yells, no one can hear her and come to her aid. But in the city, the Torah holds the woman accountable — not for being attacked, but for not calling for help. She is expected to ask, call, yell, scream!

At the same time, the implication is that the community is expected to be there for her, to hear and assist. We are not allowed to turn away and close our eyes; neither are we allowed to judge, question her about what happened, suggest that if only she did this or didn’t do that, or embarrass her in any way. That is not our role. We must be ready and willing to aid the victim.

It’s been told that in the 1970s, a rapist was loose in Israel, and a Knesset member suggested women should not go out at night because of the danger. Golda Meir replied: ”Why should women not go out, when it is a man who is dangerous?” Her message was that we’re going to combat this issue together.

The Torah, in its wisdom, tells us that rape is not a “women’s problem,” and it’s not even a women vs. men problem. It’s a societal symptom and ailment. We must create a place where everyone feels safe, everyone knows they are protected, and everyone understands that when they need help, all they have to do is call.

Shabbat shalom.

Michal Kohane is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. She can be reached at [email protected].