Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, Nov 27, 2023

The Rape of Dinah, Then and Now

Illustration: Kristi Hart, Bible Study Blog/ Dinah’s #metoo story. Credit: kristihart.com
            When I was a fourth grader in a Jewish parochial school, we studied the Book of Genesis. When we finished chapter 33, our teacher said, without further comment, “we are skipping chapter 34.  Please open to chapter 35.” (Actually, the teacher said that in Hebrew.)  I was so young and naïve that it did not occur to me to wonder what was in the chapter— I only thought that now we would finish the book of Genesis sooner, and somehow that was reward enough.  Only later did I go back on my own and learn that the skipped chapter was the account of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and his first wife, Leah, by the son of a local Canaanite chieftain.
            In 45 years of serving in the pulpit, I cannot recall a Sabbath when I chose to base my teaching on that one chapter.  I now think that I have been guilty of a lapse greater than that of my fourth-grade teacher—after all, he might have been justified, given the age of his students, but I have no such excuse. Of course, there are other texts in the same weekly Bible portion that naturally draw one’s attention…. But even during the #MeToo movement days, I do not recall selecting this chapter.  I now regret that, and I ask the forgiveness of my students for my having missed an opportunity to take a moral stand.  


Illustration: Anita Diament, The Red Tent (1997)
            Perhaps I am not alone in having missed the opportunity.  The Jewish journalist-turned- novelist, Anita Diamant, wrote a stunning retelling of the story of Leah and Dinah, The Red Tent. Published in 1997, it has sold three million copies, inspired a Lifetime movie adaptation, and sparked an entire genre of biblical and rabbinic retellings.  I admired Diamant’s ability to bring the Bible to life with a sensibility appropriate to the post-traditional perspectives of the late-twentieth century. But I disagreed with her central revision of the Dinah story.  She casts it as a love match between Dinah and her Hamor, the Canaanite prince. In the novel, he does not rape her. They elope.
            Today, that revision seems very wrong-headed. In biblical retellings, going all the way back to the Rabbis and even earlier, there are embellishments. These side-bar stories fit naturally, because the Bible’s own narrative aesthetic is minimalist - it leaves a lot to the readers imagination. But there are embellishments and then there are forced readings. The latter usually come about because the later reader had some agenda he was pursuing. In this instance, I suspect that Diamant’s agenda was her desire to celebrate the agency of women. I applaud that. But now, her revision feels like a deliberate ignoring of the biblical story.  The Bible minces no words. It was a rape.   
            Shekhem son of Hamor the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her: he took her and lay with her, forcing her. (Genesis 34:2)
            The reason I bring this up now is that the Jewish world is dealing with the worst instance of mass rape since the Holocaust—and the rest of the world is scarcely taking notice. The lack of condemnation by world bodies of the Hamas atrocity of October 7 adds a chilling dimension of pain to the horror that was perpetrated on the bodies of Jewish women.


Illustration:  Poster in Hadera, Israel, picturing Israeli victims of Hamas kidnapping on Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Levy/ Getty
            On October 7th., Hamas terrorists perpetrated the worst mass murder of Jews in three quarters of a century.  The world is rapidly losing its appreciation of that, as one news story after another either casts Israel as the ultimate cause of the suffering, or else strengthens a false and mendacious moral equivalence between the Hamas attack and the Israeli response. Hamas preaches and practices mass murder of people it deems infidels. Israel is engaged in self-defense.  Hamas deliberately uses Palestinian civilians as shields and cynically calculates on winning world sympathy with their death.  Israel tries to minimize civilian casualties.  
            But at least the news reports mention that this round of fighting began with the Hamas attack.  As for the mass rape carried out in the course of those attacks, there is only scant mention.  On November 26, seven weeks into the war,  when Israel began a formal investigation of the rape campaign, the Washington Post ran a front-page story, “Israel investigates systematic rape as a weapon of war.” But most of what one has been reading for the past seven weeks fails to focus on that aspect of the atrocity committed by Hamas.
            Islamist apologists deny the mass rape. Basem Naim, a Hamas official, said that such behavior is inconsistent with Muslim law.  But these denials are clever lies.  The terrorists asked and received special dispensation from their religious leaders to perpetrate this horror.  What kind of religion grants that?  
            Israeli authorities have produced ample evidence of mass rapes. They have allowed journalists to view a video compilation drawing from over 60,000 clips and more than 1,000 witness statements. At this point, to doubt the veracity of the accusation is simply to prefer Hamas propaganda to truth.
            I will not repeat the graphic details of the accounts of the rapes. If anything, still more horrifying details will begin to emerge as survivors returning to Israel now begin to speak out. 
            But I will call out the world organizations for women who have collectively failed to register protest.  UN Women, The Global Fund for Women, and the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security have all focused either on Palestinian women only, or avoided mentioning Israeli victims by retreating to a blanket condemnation of “the violence of Israel and Hamas against civilians.” The petition calling on UN Women to address the crimes against Israeli women is gaining traction, with hundreds of thousands of signatures; but I do not expect any fair treatment of Israel from the United Nations. Sadly, the hashtag #MeToo Unless UR a Jew seems to be all too accurate.
            The Bible was the very first sacred text to prohibit rape by soldiers—Deuteronomy 21:10-13.  The world has yet to catch up.  Nazis, Russians and Hamas are in the same league—men who perpetrate mass rape as a weapon of war.
            I am not sure if I believe in Hell.  But for such monsters, Hell would be appropriate.
            At the very least, it is our task to honor the surviving victims and the memories of those who did not survive—many were murdered after having been raped. Honoring them means applying the same #MeToo standard to them as to other women—a position of baseline trust rather than baseline skepticism.
            I am confident that Israel is doing and will do the best that world medicine has yet learned to do in terms of counseling and rehabilitation of the victims.  But I call on the world to rise up from its shameful silence and to allow the compassion for the women and girls so cruelly abused to push back against the antisemitism that grows uglier and stronger year by year.
            Now is the time to act.  The world is not at the brink.  The world is already in the abyss. Let us pledge our best efforts to climb back to some level ground of civilized norms. Amen.