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.

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