Hearing Dinah’s Silence

The news has been a cascade of allegations, resignations and firings. Men, mostly in the media, have been accused of sexual harassment and assault, and have lost their positions: Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose and others. Political figures have also been accused, though their removal is more difficult.

And following all these accusations have been the statements: denials, apologies, contriteness, acknowledgement of pain, commitment to change. The New York Times even ran an in-depth analysis of all of the apologies and the language used, reading between the lines to get at the real meaning of the statements.

And yet, even as we pore over these statements, we are still only paying attention to the voices of men, of the accused. And that perpetuates the problem.

This week in the Torah portion we have our own story of sexuality and power. Jacob and his family are living in in Canaan on land purchased from the family of Hamor, the leader of the local tribe. Dinah, the one daughter among Jacob’s twelve sons, goes out to visit with the other women of the area. When she does so, Shechem, the son of Hamor, sees her and, as the Torah says, “lays with her and degraded her.” Shechem then realized he had feelings for her, and wanted to marry her.

When they heard the news, Jacob and his sons were furious, and so when Hamor approached Jacob about Shechem marrying Dinah, the sons reply that they can not give her over to marry someone who is not circumcised. If everyone in the tribe is circumcised, then they will agree that Shechem can marry Dinah. They agree, and all the males in the tribe are circumcised. As they are recovering, Simeon and Levi, two of the brothers, entered the city and killed all the men, including Hamor and Shechem, and took Dinah. The other sons then go and plunder the whole city, stealing all of the flocks and wealth, and even the women and children.

When Jacob learns what his sons have done he is upset for he now believes that he will be a target, and that the other residents of the area will turn against him. Simeon and Levi reply, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

It’s a powerful and deeply troubling story. There are multiple layers to this story and it has been read in multiple ways. It is unclear what has even happened at the beginning of the story: was this a case of forcible rape? Or is the source of the “degradation” something else? Are the brothers upset because they feel their sister was sexually violated in general, or because she had sex with someone from outside the tribe, or because they are viewing her as property and that her value has decreased?

All of these are problematic, and yet perhaps the most problematic element of the story is that we can only speculate because the only voice that is not heard is Dinah’s.

What was Dinah’s experience of her relationship with Shechem? What did Dinah want? How did she feel when she was “taken” from Shechem’s house by her brothers (an act which also has overtones of force)? We do not know. All we have is the voices of the men: of Shechem and Hamor, of Simeon and Levi, of Jacob, and of the “objective narrator,” which we can presume to be a man or men.

From the beginning, the perpetrators Shechem and Hamor objectify and characterize Dinah’s experience in a way that suits their frame and their needs. This is to be expected. But the words and actions of Simeon and Levi prove also that even Dinah’s “protectors”—her brothers—act out of their own interest and frame her experience on their terms. It is in their mind that she is “treated like a whore,” Dinah is not given the chance to express her own views of the matter. She is treated as an object by both sides.

That fact reminds us today that all of these apologies issued by these recently accused men, which, even in an attempt to rectify the situations, have the effect of turning the attention away from the women who were harassed and assaulted and puts it squarely back on the men themselves.

With all of these recent stories, it’s quite possible that we have reached a new level in how we as a society talk of sexual assault and the general harassment of women. This week’s Torah portion both reminds us that this is an ancient challenge, and also gives us a means of approaching it in new ways. Dinah’s story reminds us of the need to make space for women to raise up their own voices, and to end—in word and deed—the objectification of women from both the offenders and the defenders.

Moses and Aaron: Allies for Justice

The Inauguration is upon us. The peaceful transfer of power that is a hallmark of our American democracy goes into effect on Friday. Yet this time power is being transferred to a man who enters the office with the lowest approval rating in recent history, who lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, whose entry into office will be marked by protests across the country of unprecedented scale.

There is an intriguing juxtaposition of these events and our Torah reading this week, parashat Shemot. This week we read in the Torah the beginning of the Exodus. As we move from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Exodus, we make the transition to a book of a family’s saga to the book of a national epic. Jacob and his sons have settled in Egypt and have become a people.

This people, however, is seen as a threat to the new Pharaoh. The new Pharaoh who, the text says, did not know Joseph. In other words, he did not know his history, he did not know of the relationship and bond between the majority Egyptians and the minority Israelites. Seeing them as his enemies, as those who could even overthrow him, he enslaves them.

We are introduced to the character of Moses, who will dominate the rest of the Torah. Born a slave, but sent off by his mother, he is raised an Egyptian in the house of the Pharaoh. When as a young man he sees an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave, something stirs in him and he kills the guard, then flees to Midian to escape punishment.

It is there in Midian he makes a new life, a new family. And it is there in Midian that he gets the call that will change the course of his life and of the world.

Tending sheep one day he notices a bush on fire, but the fire is not consuming the bush. From the bush comes a voice, the voice of God, who tells Moses that he is to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites. After some argument—Moses is a reluctant hero—and assurances that God will support him and he will have his brother Aaron as a helper, Moses answers the call and heads back to Egypt.

As the story continues, a story that we know from retelling, from the Passover celebration, or even popular imagination, Moses confronts Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelites. Pharaoh continues to refuse, and Moses exhortations get stronger, more strident and when accompanied by the plagues, more perilous to the Egyptian society.

It is a powerful story of telling truth to power, of standing up to despotism, of making the plea for equality, liberation and justice. It is a story that we know resonated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we celebrated this past week. And it is a powerful story that will hopefully resonate with us as new leadership takes over at the highest levels of our government.

There is, as our Torah teaches in this story, the opportunity and obligation to call out that which we know to be wrong. That we do not need to be nor should we be silent in the face of oppression. And that we have the power to confront our rulers when we seek change.

But in addition to reaching up, we also must reach across. We must reach across to our neighbor, our fellow community members. For what is most important, what forms the strongest society, what allows us to be successful in what we hope to accomplish, are the relationships that we are able to forge.

The Torah models this for us as well. For Moses knows that he can not go it alone. Standing in front of the bush he says in the text that he is “slow of speech,” and asks God for someone else to be the divine emissary. But God insists, and tells him the Aaron his brother will be by his side. We can say that “slow of speech” is up for interpretation, so while it can be interpreted as a speech impediment, or as lack of eloquence, we can also say that Moses understands that one person’s words by themselves may not be that effective. That what is needed is not a soloist, but a chorus.

Aaron’s presence symbolizes the strength in numbers. Aaron’s presence represents the need for allies in the fight for justice.

And how does one be an ally? Aaron and Moses meet for the first time shortly after the episode of the burning bush. Moses returns to his family in Midian, and prepares to return to Egypt. We read in the text, “God said to Aaron, ‘go to meet Moses in the wilderness.’ He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.” (Exodus 4:27)

Aaron doesn’t wait for Moses to return to Egypt. Aaron goes out to meet Moses where he is. And that is how we become allies, how we form strong relationships: we meet people where they are. We go out of our way to connect with them. We recognize that it isn’t about the “I” it is about the “we.” We support each other, we give of ourselves, we uplift each other’s tactics even when they differ. We make sure that challenging external threats is not compromised by needless division and infighting.

We turn towards, and not against each other.

It is through these relationships that we can overthrow the Pharaoh, free the oppressed, envision a better world and climb the mountain of God.