Parashat Vayishlah

Friday, December 1, 2017 / 13 Kislev, 5778
Parashat Vayishlah Genesis 32:4-36:43
There are times when the rabbinic wisdom of Rashi and Maimonides falls short.  This week provides a clear example when the scholarly voices of contemporary Jewish women are needed.
Parashat Vayishlah contains a very disturbing episode. Jacob and Leah’s daughter, Dinah, was raped by a man in power-Shechem, son of Hamor, the Hivite chief of the country of Shechem.  After Shechem attacks her, he falls in love with her, and tells his father, “get me this girl as a wife.”  Throughout this episode, Jacob, Dinah’s father, remains strangely and uncomfortably silent.  Dinah’s brothers, however, concoct a plan to take vengeance not only upon Shechem, the perpetrator, but all of the men of the country.

A powerful blog written by Dr. Elana Sztokman Ph.D. entitled, “How do you sing about rape? Chanting the rape of Dina on the International Day against violence against Women, and #MeToo” helps to bring needed and new attention to a difficult story in the Torah:

“And to be quite honest, part of me is grateful to Shimon and Levi [who killed Shechem and his father] for caring. After all, there are a lot of terrible things that happen to women in the bible that barely get noted. Most of the time, the mistreatment of women is treated as par for the course. Grabbing, silencing, using, abusing, ignoring, marrying off against their wills, covering, punishing, blaming, manipulating, hurting, selling off, and yes, raping women and girls are all in the Bible. Just the culture, the way things were done back then, or something.  We read this, we treasure these books, we chant the stories with celebration and fanfare, and move on. So at least here we have this monstrosity of a brutal massacre by brothers who seemed to be genuinely upset about their sister’s rape. It’s as chivalrous as it is horrifying.”

Dr. Sztokman helped me read the Rape of Dinah differently this week. When new revelations of sexual assault by powerful men against vulnerable women are making the news every day, some are news to us while others were known to many behind the scenes and have becomes public to all.  It’s not just men in politics, entertainment or journalism.  Just as horrifying is the number of rabbis who are predators; spiritual leaders who had gained the trust of their congregants and students who then violate them so brazenly and with apparent impunity.
Dr. Sztokman’s difficulty with this episode centers on how we chant it in our synagogues.  Torah trop is uplifting, sung in a major key.  “How can you sing about rape?” she asks.  She takes hold of tradition and takes the three Hebrew words of sexual assault and chants them with the melancholy and minor trop used to chant the Book of Lamentations on Tisha b’Av.  That subtle change in musical tone conveys the horror of the incident and forces us to pay attention. It is a brilliant, important, and powerful lesson.
Yes, we must pay attention.  Disturbing episodes in the Torah often connect us to disturbing episodes in our society today.  Dr. Sztokman begins the conversation.  We must continue it. Men, especially, must listen to the stories of women, become attuned to the pervasive culture of sexual harassment, and recognize the lasting damage that our actions can cause.
When I read the Rape of Dinah last year, I was not attuned to the #MeToo movement.  The Torah narratives do not change, but the way we read and perceive them year after year does.  Pay attention, read Dr. Sztokman’s blog, listen carefully, take responsibility and increase awareness and understanding.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Charles K. Briskin