Friday, December 4, 2009

The forgotten sister

Parashat Vayishlach begins with another familiar episode, that in which Jacob wrestles with an angel.

Really? The Torah text does not say that his opponent is an angel. It says merely “a man.” Admittedly, God’s messengers (melachim) appear in Genesis as ordinary humans, so the version that used to be taught routinely is not automatically ruled out.

Jacob appears to think that the being is a demon, and only as the episode ends and his name is changed to Israel does he change his mind. The name that Jacob/Israel gives the place, Peniel, can be translated as “face of God,” somewhat suggesting that he actually believes that it was God rather than a messenger. It is thinkable that there may have been multiple versions of this story and that God appeared directly in some of them.

The story is troublesome in several ways, and not only because of the identity of the “man.” A different account of the changing of Jacob’s name appears in chapter 35, where God does appear directly. Because of Jacob’s obvious anxiety about the impending reunion with Esau, whom he tries to propitiate with lavish gifts, some commentators have suggested a reading in which the man is Jacob himself, a reflection of his internal struggle.

The episode immediately following the reunion with Esau is, however, even more troubling. In brief, Jacob parts from Esau and arrives at the city of Shechem. The son of the local chief—confusingly, the son is also called Shechem—rapes her, then announces that he wishes to marry her. (According to Deuteronomic law, he would be compelled to marry her and forbidden to divorce her, and would have to pay damages to her father.) The chief proposes that there be general free trade and intermarriage between the peoples of Israel and Shechem. Dinah’s brothers agree on the condition that the men of Shechem all be circumcised. While the men of Shechem are in pain, the brothers kill them all.

Dinah is never mentioned again, not even as an “ancestress.” It is all too easy to imagine that, since Shechem had been killed, that she never married.

Feminists have rightly objected to this story, not only because Dinah is the victim of rape, but also because she appears only as a victim. There are many instances in the Bible of women who make only one appearance, but the text gives more indication of the character and personality of every other woman than it does of Dinah.

Thus, feminist critics ask why this tale is included. As Rabbi Plaut observes, the mere fact that it happened (if it did) is not sufficient: the Torah surely omits many episodes in the lives of the Patriarchs.

One reason for its inclusion may be that it prefigures the massacres of various Canaanite peoples that are described in Joshua and Judges. The anachronistic statement that the brothers were angry because Shechem had committed an “outrage in Israel” (34:7) suggests that this might be a later addition. If this is the case, its purpose would be to justify aggression against the Canaanite tribes by showing not just that they were idolators in the time of the Israelite conquest, but that they had always done evil, even against our ancestors.

The story of Dinah is omitted from most Bible textbooks. Should we consider teaching it?
In most settings the answer will be no, and not only because the subject matter is unsuitable for young children. Even in high-school classes, where we might well choose to teach an episode such as the rape of Tamar, we would have to consider carefully what we hoped to accomplish. It’s never sufficient to teach just the facts of a section of Torah; we should always focus on the meaning that we believe students should draw from it.

In this case, we must reject the surface meaning, because the Torah seems to approve of the brothers’ actions, even the deception, and Jacob, who has some experience with both sides of deception, offers only a practical objection, not a moral one. The underlying meaning seems to have to do with the relationships between Israelites and Canaanites, so we should choose to place it in the Joshua–Judges context.

The child who does not know how to ask

Tractate Avot of the Mishnah specifies this curriculum for Jewish students (boys only):
  • At the age of 5, a boy studies mikra (Scripture).
  • At the age of 10, Mishnah.
  • At the age of 13 he becomes a bar mitzvah.
  • At the age of 15, he begins to study Gemara.
  • At 18 he marries.
  • At 20 (if not destined to become a scholar) he should get a job.
Although modern society disagrees with much of this—the lack of equivalent education for girls, the absence of secular learning, the assumption that studying the Talmud is the goal of all Jewish education—elements of it are still present in Jewish schools.

For example, we certainly teach stories from the Tanakh in kindergarten and first grade, and many Jewish day schools introduce the Mishnah in the fifth grade.

In general, however, religious-school curricula reflect modern beliefs about education. Many of these stem from the pragmatism of John Dewey in the early twentieth century, attempting to balance what students need to learn with what students want to learn.

Considering what students might want to learn is a relative novelty in education, secular as well as Jewish. For centuries, Jewish education followed an entirely prescriptive model in which the goals were mastery of halachah—Jewish law—in order to observe it fully, and, for those capable of more advanced learning, study of the Talmud. In other words, the yeshiva curriculum.

Secular education in the nineteenth century was equally prescriptive. While the goal for a child of the aristocracy might have been to become a learned gentleman or a refined lady, the goal for children of the masses was to acquire of useful skills—basic mathematics, grammar, and penmanship—that had immediate commercial utility. Think of Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times.

With these models, considering what students wanted to learn was an innovation. Actually, recognizing that what students needed to learn and what they wanted to learn might not be identical was the innovation. It embodied the understanding that children are not miniature adults, and that their interests and capacities change as they grow.

About a decade ago, I taught a fifth-grade Hebrew class in which there seemed to be only one topic that students really wanted to study: Pokémon. Pokémon was almost a mania all over the country then, but it is not central to Jewish learning. While a few teachers attempted to use Pokémon to illustrate Jewish values, most felt that it glorified violence and materialism and was, at best, irrelevant to Judaism. (On the other hand, Saudi Arabia banned Pokémon in 2001 because of claims that it had Zionist content.)


Accordingly, students’ interests cannot be the sole criterion. In familiar Jewish terms, students are often like the fourth child in the Passover seder, the child who does not know how to ask. For example, until students have been exposed to Jewish ethics, they are likely to be content with the ethics of secular society. Students who have never attended Shabbat services probably won’t ask to learn the prayers of those services.

Thus, our consideration of students’ interests must be broad, not narrow. For example, we know that young students both need and want to learn how to understand the world around them, and that somewhat older students want to learn how to deal with questions of ethics and morality. By choosing topics that address these concerns, we attempt to draw students into Jewish learning, even if they did not yet know how to ask.