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December 1, 2017 by

Why We Still Haven’t Truly Heard Dinah’s Story—And Never Can

We’d been steadily progressing through the Chumash in school since the first grade. We’d covered the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rivkah and now, in fourth grade, we were in the thick of Jacob’s ever-expanding family of tribes. He’d spent 21 years working for the privilege of marrying his two wives, sisters Rachel and Leah, and had just met up with—and reconciled with—his estranged twin brother.

Then our teacher invited us to close our books for this lesson.

“I’m going to tell you a story,” she said to our all girls class “And in the meantime, you can draw pictures.”

And so I heard the story, the one we sometimes criticize our teachers for skipping, of the abduction and rape of Dinah, daughter of Jacob. I scoffed in later years at the sanitization of Jewish memory, at that decision to take one of the most troubling, disturbing and triggering stories of the Bible and sterilize it for our nine-year-old ears. It’s only now, decades later as I dig into my feelings around this story, that I recognize with some gratitude the wisdom of hearing about this rape through the ancient feminine modes of storytelling and discussion.

When I continued my studies, I found that the midrash provides layers of context – some informative, some challenging, some seriously disturbing. In Anita Diamant’s acclaimed The Red Tent, Dinah grows into a maiden with personality beyond the rabbis’ broad strokes. And yet, I sometimes regret that additional knowledge has colored my perspectives, and wonder how I personally would have perceived this story without the interpretations of others, as my teacher asked me to on that day two decades ago.

Dinah went out to visit the “daughters of the land.” Instead, she is seen by Shechem. He finds Dinah attractive, and abducts and tortures her. The medieval commentator Rashi let us know this was “she’lo k’darko” “not in the usual way,” meaning sodomization. When Rashi describes the words of love that Shechem spoke after he rapes Dinah, he uses the language of money. It is a patriarchal interpretation that implies that perhaps Dinah was attracted by Shechem’s Papa’s dough.

Everyone surmises what they think Dinah thought, said, and did. But nobody tells us. We don’t know whether she cried out or ran home to ask for help. All we know is what happens next.

Dinah’s brothers aren’t around when the rape happens – they’re away in the fields, taking care of business. Her father hears, but remains silent until his sons return home. Her brothers come back when they hear the news, and are upset, and angered, because “this is not done!”

Her brothers hatch a plot and convince the locals to circumcise themselves with the intention of marrying into the Israelite tribe. Shimon and Levi hot-headedly genocide the entire male population, while the rest of her brothers loot the city.

But we are never told how Dinah feels.

I wonder if she wanted the entire vengeful charade that takes place next, or if she just wanted her family to come protect her, to hold her, to be with her, to see her.

When their father chastises the brothers, and they respond defensively with words of vengeance that speak to family pride and honor, but not the deepest understanding of a woman violated, how did Dinah feel, hearing herself so described:

“Shall he make our sister into a Zonah?”

Zonah, literally meaning “sustenance,” is equally used to refer to an innkeeper and a harlot. It is the word of a woman humiliated for her openness.

Did Dinah feel like a Zonah, or was there a part of her who still felt powerful? Was there shame, guilt, anger or sadness? What became of her, a woman desired, then raped, then trapped, and finally avenged? Where were her feelings in all this?

How did she understand her own curiosity after that—the inquisitiveness that sent her outside her father’s home to find female companions her age, but resulted in a brutal experience? Did she ever trust herself again, or did she shut herself in for eternity?

Decades after first hearing about Shechem raping Dinah, I revisited the story later, layering into my own exploration as woman.

As one who is curious.

As daughter.

As sister.

As a woman abused, tortured, shunned and scorned, in my own way, in different ways, throughout the years.

And now, there are so many women joining the chorus of Dinah.

So many women, crying out, Me Too.

Me too, I was blamed for going outside and being curious, because I was told to shut myself inside to prevent such things happening.

Me too, I thought he loved me and wanted me, but then he tortured me once he had me.

Me too, I was debased into nothing more than a body, and became a Zonah for it.

Dinah’s rape isn’t the only one in the Torah, and it certainly isn’t the only tale of sexual misconduct, vengeance, family intrigue and mass murder. But it’s located at a pivotal place, at the point when the family of Jacob shifts from being a motley group of Hebrews to the nation of Israel, the children of a man who struggled with the Divine all night long and earned his name: Yisroel. He who wrestles with God.

If only in that wrestling, Jacob was more present to his family. If only in his desire to protect his daughter, he’d taught her inner strength rather than hiding her (as the midrash says) in a box. If only the fighting with an angel was about fighting with those instincts to bury deep what we don’t want to look at.

We’ll never know what the historical Dinah thought, nor the many historical Dinah’s in our history who underwent brutalities of rape throughout the millennia. But we can use the Torah to learn for ourselves and wonder—how do we feel about this?

Do we want to kill our abusers, wiping out every memory, emasculate them with circumcision in vengeance? Or do we want to teach them by snipping away that toxic masculinity, the symbolic foreskin, to rectify a society?

We stand today as Dinah’s daughters, and we’re saying Me Too. Can we extend our solidarity to our daughters’ daughters, can we say me too, but please / not you too?


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.