Every year, when I read Parsha Vayishloch, I am left at a loss for words. I’m not referring to the reconciliation between Yaakov and Esov, nor am I talking about Rochel’s death. I’m talking about Dinah. Dinah, who was raped, and ultimately failed- not by her brothers who slaughtered an entire village for her, but by the rabbonim who spent the centuries which followed blaming Dinah for what happened.
It starts with Rashi. Rashi, the trustworthy, respected rabbi, and writer of perhaps the most widely used Torah commentary, who casually drops the following statement; “[Dinah was known as the daughter of Leah, and not the daughter of Yaakov], because of her going out… since she (Leah) too was in the habit of going out, as it is said: ‘and Leah came forth toward him'”. We learn from this, apparently, that Leah’s habit of going out was “immodest” and unbecoming for a Jewish woman. She should have stayed in the tent, like Sarah Imeinu, and it’s heavily implied that had Dinah not gone out so often- and, indeed, had Leah not set this immodest example- she wouldn’t have been raped.
The blame falls on Dinah, and on her mother. Shechem, her rapist, gets his just desserts, when he and his village are killed by Dinah’s brothers, but they defend their decision by saying, “We could not let our sister be like a harlot”, a comparison which to me, in the 21st century, seems completely repulsive. The dismissal of rape victims as promiscuous women is a troubling trend which continues to this very day, and no matter what excuses I hear about it being the attitude of the time, it nonetheless leaves me speechless. The Torah is eternal. It is supposed to be unchangeable. So how can we excuse these statements by simply saying “that’s how things were at the time”?
And then, looking at modern articles and chiddushim on Parshas Vayishloch, the horrifying attitude towards Dinah’s rape continues. One Facebook page dedicated to modesty declares sincerely that Dinah’s rape was due to the fact that she showed her forearm, sending the message that it was her fault for tempting Shechem. If this is the message being sent to our young women, how can we expect them to feel at home in Orhodox Judaism? How can we expect them to feel empowered by their religion and ancestry when messages such as these are commonplace?
And so, after years of being at a loss for words, I’m speaking out.
I can’t change the Torah. None of us can. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that the Torah is emes. It is the truth, and, for better or worse, we humans can’t take parts out, or add things in, or whitewash over the bits which trouble us. What we can do, however, is tackle these things head on; examine them in great detail, from every angle, until we understand them. Additionally, we need to take a look at the messages being sent out by contemporary rabbonim. Quite often, these messages are far from the truth. The “chiddush” about Dinah being raped because she wore short sleeves finds its basis in the words of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, the first to suggest it, but could- and should- have been dismissed long since then. Instead, we find it used as an example of why tznius is important.
I am a huge advocate for tznius, but not in the context of preventing rape. This year, when we read Parshas Vayishloch, we need to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, unaffected by the centuries of misogynistic victim-blaming which surrounds it. We need to put aside what Dinah wore, and how often she went out, and look at what we can do for the millions of Dinahs- rape victims- who have found themselves blamed and criminalised for what happened to them. The women without voices. The women who read these things in Jewish schools or on social media and blame themselves for what happens to them. The women who we, as a community, have failed.