I assign Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent in my Women in the Hebrew Bible course because it helps students learn about the concept of midrash and highlights just how little the biblical text itself centers women’s experiences and relationships. Plus, it’s a fun read! But times have changed in the 22 years since Diamant reimagined the tale of Dinah’s rape (or perhaps, since Biblical Hebrew lacks a word for rape, her “sexual humbling”) in Genesis 34 as a love story. Our societal understanding of rape, rape culture, and consent has evolved, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement calling powerful men to account for sexual harassment and sexual assault. Thus, when I ask students to respond in writing to The Red Tent, one question is, “Is Diamant’s midrash a feminist one? Can the redefinition of (possible) sexual assault as consensual sex be a feminist enterprise?”(Consider the following from Diamant’s website: ‘I could never reconcile the story of Genesis 34 with a rape, because the prince does not behave like a rapist. After the prince is said to have ‘forced’ her (a determination made by her brothers, not by Dinah), he falls in love with her, asks his father to get Jacob’s permission to marry her, and then agrees to the extraordinary demand that he and all the men of his community submit to circumcision.’) Students may respond to their chosen questions in essay format or in another medium, such as poetry or visual art.
When I taught the course in Fall 2018, two students coincidentally chose to write poems addressed to Diamant from Dinah. I was struck by how different their viewpoints were. One student, Muktha Nair, referenced class discussions about whether we can consider what happened to Dinah “rape.” That debate will never be resolved, Nair suggested. In a note accompanying her poem, she wrote, “Would a little girl want her name to be limited to the debates under literary scrutiny among biblical scholars and the clergy? Wouldn’t she much prefer to flourish and become immortal through folktales and mystical stories of being the knowing woman, the skilled midwife, a lover?… And that’s where I concluded that Diamant wasn’t doing a disservice to Dinah! By giving her a form, thoughts, a voice, a life, Diamant is ensuring that Dinah’s name lives through the eras to come. All we can give to Dinah is a lasting place in the thoughts of humanity—not as an object of debate, but as a Woman.” In her poem, Nair, writing as Dinah, thanks Diamant for giving her new life.
The other student, Sara Milic, wrote a poem comparing Diamant’s treatment of Dinah to a second rape. In the note accompanying her poem, Milic wrote, “This poem gives Dinah the opportunity to finally speak and to tell the truth herself. This also gives Dinah the opportunity to address how she might possibly feel about Diamant changing her story of rape into one of love. I felt a poem would be able to match the drama of the actual situation both in Dinah’s rape and in Diamant’s silencing of Dinah’s rape. I’m paralleling Dinah’s rape to Diamant silencing her by making similarities in both attacks (foreign prince, covering mouth, silencing, etc).” Milic’s poem has Diamant taking from Dinah what isn’t hers: Dinah’s story.
When I read these two poems, one right after the other, I immediately thought of seeking to publish them in Lilith. These two college students struggling with questions of sexual assault and female agency in a 2,500-year-old text and a 1990s bestseller have produced powerful poetry.
Caryn Tamber-Rosenau is instructional assistant professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Houston. She is the author of Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (Gorgias Press, 2018). She is a former Lilith intern.
By Muktha Nair
To my daughter
Through whose words,
my soul lives on.
Some say I was raped,
But the world is yet to know the truth,
One that cannot be avenged, in my name.
But you, my Anita,
You have given me voice.
No longer just a forgotten name
Written by men who know not.
You, as a fellow woman,
Have fulfilled the secret womanly vow,
By ensuring utterance of my name
giving a life to my name,
Thoughts to my name,
A voice to my name.
Giving me a place in the hearts of all;
Realizing the debacles of debates
Only wither away at the little felicity
Left for me.
Now my name
will be remembered,
Not as a cursed whore;
But as a knowing Woman.
A Note to Anita by Sara Milic
I am being stripped of my story
You’re covering my mouth
I can’t breathe, I’m panicking
You were supposed to be the knight on the white horse,
The foreign prince coming to save me
You tricked me with your stories of sweet bread
And nights of cuddling in the tent
I trusted you, my sister, to let my soul go free
To unleash me from this burden I’ve been carrying
To tell my truth, to expose my aggressor
Anita, I’m crying – can’t you hear me?
Tell them he raped me, Anita
Are you listening?
You changed my story
I know it’s hard to read
My sister, I wish I could forget it
You’ve taken from me, just as he did,
My voice and my sense of self
Will there ever be justice for me,
Or for the sisters before me?
Will the sisters after me be believed?
Anita, will you be the savior of the silenced?
Or will you lay your hand over their mouth,
And take from them what isn’t yours to keep?
Don’t tell them he loved me,
Don’t lie and say I loved him
Please, don’t tell them I was happy
When will my rape end?