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Thursday, November 25, 2004

VaYishlach - The Voice of Dinah

ותצא דינה בת לאה, אשר ילדה ליעקב, לראות בבנות הארץ

(בראשית ל"ד, א')

The story of Dinah is one of the most difficult stories in Bereshit. Dinah "went out to see the daughters of the land", she is raped by Shechem who then falls in love with her and asks to marry her. Shimon and Levi, her brothers, trick the people of Shechem by asking them to circumcize themselves before the wedding can take place, and then come upon the city, kill all the men and capture all the women and property. The attitude of the Torah towards their deeds is summarized by the "blessing" their father, Ya'akov, awards them on his deathbed:

Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

(Bereshit 49, 5-7; KJV)

Throughout the story of Dinah we hear the words and thoughts of her father Ya'akov, her brothers Shimon and Levi, her tormentor Shechem and his father Hamor. But we hear nothing from Dinah, not a single word. We know nothing of her thoughts, what she said, how she felt or what she wanted. Most of the traditional commentators attribute some responsibility to Dinah for what happened, basing their comments on the words "she went out" and implying this venturing outside was improper. This is in line with the traditional view of women: כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה, "The king's daughter is all glorious within" (Tehilim 45, 13).

In our times, several women have proposed a different reading of Dinah's story, by giving Dinah a voice she does not have in Bereshit. First and foremost among these new commentators is Anita Diamant, with her book The Red Tent, published in 1997 and becoming a worldwide bestseller.

I read the book a few years ago and I recall being very annoyed with it. Ms. Diamant takes the story far beyond the facts in the Bible and does so not only by giving Dinah a voice but by turning the Biblical story on its head. She portrays Ya'akov as a violent, lustful father and his sons mostly as inept fools. Joseph, who later becomes the de-facto ruler of Egypt, is described as illiterate. Amazingly, she even turns the rape into a love affair: Dinah's brothers did not resuce her; they snatched her away from the loving embrace of Shechem, with whom she was planning to elope.

Even the eponymous Red Tent is fiction. In the book, women were cast aside to a designated tent during their menstruation cycle. This has no basis in Jewish history or belief. True, the Torah commands us to refrain from contact with our wives during this time of the month, but banishing them to a separate dwelling?

My annoyance was with the "invention" of a new story rather than with the addition of Dinah's voice to the story. With the benefit of hindsight I an now less annoyed. Time heals all wounds. I understand that as a work of fiction, The Red Tent is a compelling read. Unfortunately, I fear that many of the millions who read it will form a distorted view of the Bible and of our forefathers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love the book The Red Tent. I have read it twice and would read it again without hesitation. I really like how Anita Diamont depicts the story of Jacob, his family, and his daughter Dinah. I love hearing the stories of birthing, celebrating womanhood, and how the family persevered. My husband also read the book recently and he was fascinated. A must read!!!