Friday, December 16, 2016

Parashat Vayishlach - Revisiting Rape Culture in the Jewish Community

            Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayishlach. In it, Jacob and Esau are reunited. The night before, Jacob wrestles with an angel, earns a blessing and a new name – Israel – and in the morning, his reunion with Esau is better than he could have possibly expected. The brothers embrace and make up for their past discrepancies, their families are introduced to one another, and then they part ways again. Esau takes his family back to Edom, and Jacob takes his to Shechem. In Shechem, the prince of the city, who is also named Shechem, comes upon Dinah and forces himself onto her. After that, we never hear from or about Dinah again. Her brothers avenge her by massacring the entire city, but we don’t know where she is when this is happening or what happens next for her.
            You may recall that a few weeks ago, I came back from my weekend in Philadelphia with some new insights into how internalized antisemitism has simultaneously fed and served to hide toxic masculinity in the Jewish community, and how we often overlook violence within our communities in favor of promoting the narrative of “The Nice Jewish Boy.” Since then, I have seen many friends speak publicly about their own assaults at the hands of Jewish men, including one who said she was prompted to start talking about this issue publicly specifically because of the conversation I had brought up while I was staying with her in Philly, as I was trying to process the insights I was just beginning to develop on this topic.
            Now, Shechem wasn’t Jewish, but he was willing to be. The Torah tells us that after he raped Dinah, his soul cleaved to her and he loved her deeply. He speaks to her heart, and asks her family for her hand in proper marriage, promising an extravagant bride-price. Her brothers, Simeon and Levi, demand that Shechem, both the prince and the whole city, become a part of their family’s covenant with God before they can allow their sister to join their clans. So Shechem, the prince along with all the men of the city, get themselves circumcised, and are slaughtered in their healing beds. Bibllical scholar Yael Shemesh, in her paper “Rape is Rape is Rape: The Story of Dinah and Shechem (Genesis 34),” discusses modern day research on sexual violence and applies it to the Torah text. She says that “injuring another person may violate the moral code of fairness and lead to self-concept distress” and that often times perpetuators of abuse or sexual violence will do mental gymnastics to convince themselves they haven’t really done anything wrong and/or that their actions were justified. In the case of Shechem, Shemesh points out that the Torah only speaks of his love to her, his whispering sweet nothings to her, after he has lain with her. He is now trying to make it all right and legal and family-approved, but that doesn’t mean the initial act, described in a sequence of verbs before these more fully described actions that followed, wasn’t an act of violence.
            I read The Red Tent as an adolescent and was greatly influenced by it. It’s a very well-written novel by Anita Diament, who is an important voice in modern Progressive Judaism. However, as I’ve grown as a person, as a Jewishly-educated woman, and as a feminist, I can no longer accept her midrash as a fair and realistic reading of the text, and I can no longer find feminist empowerment in this romantic re-writing that imagines Dinah loved Shechem back, consented, and ran away from her family after they murdered him. Alice A. Keefe, another feminist Biblical scholar, writes in her paper “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men,” that those who use Dinah’s silence as consent “reveal only their participation in the old masculine fantasy that women enjoy rape.” I’m uncomfortable saying that Diament is actively participating in such a grotesque thing, so I have started re-reading The Red Tent to more fully assess her midrash with adult eyes. Whether or not Diament is perpetuating rape apologia, though, Keefe’s statement that it is dangerous to read consent into Dinah’s silence rings true. The same friend that hosted me in Philadelpia and was willing to talk about her personal experiences with sexual assault within the Jewish community, invoked the famous quote by author Zora Neale Hurston: "If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it."
            If we read complacency into Dinah’s silence, we are doing the same thing to her. We are silencing all the women who had faced this kind of violence and subsequent disbelief. We are perpetuating rape apologia and continue to make it difficult for women to report, for prosecutors to effectively press charges, for justice to be found. And we are better than that. We, as a Jewish community can do better, and I believe that we will only affect change by talking more openly about this problem. We must be willing to confront violence within our sacred texts and within our beloved Jewish community. It can be so uncomfortable and difficult, but I believe it is the only way to make our communities safer for survivors and potential future victims. May there come a time when there is simply no more sexual violence, and may it start with us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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