Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
Sponsored by Harriet Train and Geary Shorser, in loving memory of Sydney Shorser.
Is any one story the real truth, or is the truth to be found only by knowing all the varying perspectives?
Lovers of Japanese films fall into two general categories – aficionados of Godzilla movies and fans of the great director Akira Kurosawa. I confess to an affinity for both. A discussion of Godzilla films will have to wait until the next time we read Breishit or Noah. This week, we’re going to look at one of the classics of the cinema – Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
This 1950 film takes place in ancient Japan where a samurai and his wife are attacked by a bandit. The woman is raped and the husband murdered. As the film unfolds, the same story is seen from four perspectives – the bandit’s, the woman’s, the dead man’s, and a woodcutter’s who finds the body. Each story is different. Is any one story the real truth, or is the truth to be found only by knowing all the varying perspectives?
The story of Dinah is a Rashomon-like tale. Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, goes out to visit the daughters of the land (Genesis 34:1). The story of Dinah is a tale of “going out.” Such tales are often associated with romance in the Torah. Both Rebecca and Rachel go out to the well and come back betrothed. In Dinah’s case, her actions are not as clear. The Torah states Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out (va-tetse) (Genesis 34:1). Rashi notes that this verb, va-tetse, is also used in reference to Dinah’s mother, Leah:
Why isn’t she called "the daughter of Jacob?" Because of her "going out" she is called "the daughter of Leah," for Leah too was in the habit of "going out," as it is said, And Leah went out to meet him (Genesis 30:16). From this we get the adage: "Like mother like daughter."
Rashi implies that the daughter is worse than the mother. The mother went out to seek her husband, Jacob. And the unbetrothed daughter sets out for sexual purposes as well.
What happens next depends on your perspective.
Version 1: Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force (Genesis 34:2).
Hamor, the Hivite chief (whose name means "jackass"), tries to right this wrong by negotiating a marriage between his son Shechem and Jacob’s daughter Dinah. But Jacob’s sons now enter the picture. Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he [Shechem] had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done (Genesis 34:7). They insist that in order for the marriage to occur all of Hamor’s clan must be circumcised. The men comply but on the third day after the procedure, Dinah’s full brothers, Simeon and Levi, take vengeance by slaying all the men in the clan. Clearly according to this perspective Dinah was raped.
Version 2: In the Torah, when men "go out" it is destiny. This is even true of those we do not take as role models. Both Esau and Ishmael make gains in their journeys. Even Cain is under God’s protection as he wanders the earth, eventually founding a city.
When women leave home it is to do something useful such as water the flock, as Rebecca does in Genesis 24:15, or welcome guests as modeled by Rachel in Genesis 29:9. When they become wives, they disappear to the women’s world. Recall that Sarah was in the tent when Abraham received visitors (Genesis 18:10).
The roles of men and women clearly differ in the Torah. Men do the falling in love; women are the recipients of that love. Dinah, too, is the object of courtship. Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he [Shechem] spoke to the maiden tenderly (Genesis 34:3).
When Shechem sees Dinah, his reactions are similar to those of Isaac and Jacob upon seeing their besherte for the first time. Remember, in the Torah men are the ones who fall in love.
But what of the preceding verse which states that Shechem took her by force (va-ye'aneha)? According to Moshe Weinfeld the verb va-ye’aneha refers simply to sexual intimacy, not force. If so, Dinah herself is active in this courtship. She is even to be found in Shechem’s house while the marriage negotiations are taking place. Anita Diamant in her midrash The Red Tent also interprets the encounter between Shechem and Dinah as willing participation from both. According to this perspective Dinah is the only woman who "goes out" in the Torah as a man would, and she is thwarted by her family.
Version 3: A very different perspective is provided by Ita Sheres in her book Dinah’s Rebellion. Her interpretation places the redaction of the book of Genesis after the destruction of the First Temple. This was a time when the Jewish people living outside the land of Israel were struggling for survival.
Dinah represents the Jewish community faced with the danger of being among other people. Dinah, meaning Israel, must keep to herself and not assimilate.
…from the redactors' vantage point, the story of Dinah, while intrinsically about a sister who was violated by a strange man--and in that sense not very different from other stories in other traditions about violated and abused women--undertakes to draw the line between an individual's moral behavior and his/her social and political commitments. The story's ultimate premise lies in the redactors' belief that there is a deep link between moral behavior, political commitment, and the individual's position in the universe.Ita Sheres, Dinah's Rebellion, p. 5
Thus we have here three different perspectives on the same story. Where is the truth to be found? However we view it, this is one of the "troubling texts" of the Torah that continue to challenge us.
At the very beginning of Vayishlach, Jacob struggles with a divine being. We no longer wrestle with divine messengers, but we still bear the name that Jacob received after this encounter. We too are called Israel, the one who "struggled with God." Our struggle is not with holy creatures but with holy texts such as the story of Dinah.