I began this week asking for a volunteer to join me in front of the congregation. When no one volunteered, I picked my husband. I explained we were doing to do something that used to be called Indian wrestling—probably now politically incorrect. The goal is to knock the other person off their footing. Simon won. Then I asked if all the men had been raised with the idea, “Never hit a woman,” as Simon has always said he was. Every single man in the room said yes. Sarah and I used to play a game called Saturday morning wrestling. We stopped when she could beat me consistently. I have a niece who is on her high school wrestling team, still unusual for a girl but allowed, even encouraged under Title IX, but I digress.
Wrestling is different than boxing. The object is different. And wrestling is exactly what this week’s Torah portion is about. Wrestling—as we see in this portion can be with a man, an angel, a messenger, G-d, or yourself.
In Fiddler on the Roof, in the song, “If I were a rich man”, Tevye sings,
“The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them,
Like a Solomon the Wise.
“If you please, Reb Tevye…”
“Pardon me, Reb Tevye…”
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!”
The very first week I was a rabbinical student I started getting those questions that should cross a rabbi’s eyes. That very first question was about mikveh, Jewish ritual bath and about taharat mishpacha, family purity. Seems a local rabbi had just gotten engaged and he was going to require his bride to observe taharat mishpacha and she didn’t want to. Could I convince her to at least try?
Later on in rabbinical school I would get questions about nursing, weaning, circumcision, artificial insemination, rape and domestic violence. Every time I do a sermon about rape and domestic violence I have women lining up to tell me their story. Not one or two. Dozens through the years. This year, we now have a name for those stories, our #MeToo stories. Those stories have been told by women here at CKI every week around the Kiddush or Oneg Shabbat tables. Almost every single woman has some story to share, surprising some of our own men. It seems to be part of our journey as women. Part of our wrestling. Breaking the silence about this takes courage.
Now I didn’t go into the rabbinate to be a woman rabbi, but it seems, in fact, that is what I am. And at some point I realized that many women didn’t want to discuss these topics with their previous rabbis, they came to me precisely because I was a woman.
Today’s Torah portion makes many uncomfortable. It is one we don’t teach in Hebrew School. It is not a pleasant story. It is sandwiched in between Jacob wrestling with an angel when his name is changed from Ya’akov, heal or sneak to Yisrael, One who wrestles with G-d. Then G-d tells him again that his name will now be Yisrael.
So I wrestled. I wrestled with whether to even do this sermon. Too risky. But it is in the text. It begins our reading this morning. It is difficult. Painful. Haunting. Real. People don’t want to hear about it. People have even tried to silence me about speaking about this topic. Yet we are at this precise moment in time. I believe there are no coincidences. This very text at this very moment in time. How could I not?
The next question I wrestled with is why the repetition. Why tell the story of the name change twice? The first time it is in the voice of this shadowy being. Now, as we will read shortly it is in the voice of G-d. I think that lends it gravitas. It is more serious. It leaves no room for doubt. Ya’akov is now Yisrael. G-d himself said so.
But now we have to confront Chapter 34, much like our whole country is doing with sexual harassment and assault.
The Hebrew isn’t so clear as our Chumash translation would make it.
Let’s look at it.
Vayetzei Dinah bat Leah asher yaldah l’yaakov.
And Dinah, daughter of Leah who bore her to Jacob, went out.
L’irot bivnot ha’aretz. To see the daughters of the land.
Seems simple no. Dinah, the only girl in the family, went out to find other women. We don’t know what she was looking for. Companionship? Friendship? Kids her own age outside of her mother’s view?
The traditional Jewish commentaries are not kind to her.
It was immodest to go out. She shouldn’t have wanted to seek out others in land. She was trying to worship foreign, alien gods. She should have stayed at home. Most of us these days, men and women, would reject those commentaries as promoting a blame the victim mentality.
Our own chumash, Etz Hayyim doesn’t site the sources and says as much, yet those notions persist, both about Dinah and about modern victims. What was she wearing? She was asking for it. She was leading him on. She’s not credible. She waited too long. She’s just gold digging. We’ve heard all these comments in the last six weeks, again, about victims, since Harry Weinstein came to light.
They were not appropriate about Dinah and they are not appropriate now.
Vayaraei otah Schem ben Chamor hachivi n’sai ha’aretz, And Shechem, son of Chamor, the Hivite land chief, saw her,
Vayikach otah, and he took her, vayishkav otah, and he lay with her, v’aniyah. And something.
Our translation and the one in the Saint Johns Bible, the New Revised Standard has lay with her by force. Others have argued that this is not a good translation and does not fit with the rest of the text. A better translation might be he shamed her, he humbled her, he put her down.
The text then goes on to give three expressions of affection. He bonded with her (or as our text has is strongly drawn to her), he loved the young woman, and he spoke to the young woman’s heart or as our text says he spoke tenderly to her.
So what happened here? Is this then consensual? He doesn’t actually ask permission and she does not give a verbal consent. In fact, she is silent the entire chapter. Is it one of the original date rapes ever recorded? Is it a she said/he said scenario?
Anita Diamant wrote an entire modern midrash to grapple with that question, called The Red Tent. A New York Times best seller and celebrating its twentieth anniversary, considered revolutionary at the time, just this week it was named by the Reform Movement as one of the top social justice books of all times. That surprised both Anita and me.
Judith Hauptman, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary, and ordained by my seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion, wrote a book called Rereading the Rabbis. Many have said that the rabbis were misogynists. Actually, and she documents it pretty well, they were ahead of their time. Rape is wrong. Marital rape is wrong. Punishable. And ahead of its time.
But what happens next in our text this morning, is even puzzling to our modern ears. He demands that his father get Dinah for him as his wife. And his father, the ruler, does. That is not OK.
And even more puzzling…when Jacob heard what happened he was silent. In that sentence we learned that Shechem defiled Jacob’s daughter, making it clearer what happened. By which I think the text means she is no longer a virgin so no longer eligible for the premium bride price. Our chumash justifies the silence by saying that he needed to exercise restraint.
So two examples of silence. Dinah has no voice in the text at all. And Jacob is silent.
Jacob’s son on the other hand want to exact revenge, but it is not clear whether it is because she is harmed or because as others have suggested they are trying to protect the boundaries of marriage and Shechem is an outsider. Is this the ultimate anti-intermarriage text? They negotiate Shechem becoming an Israelite, by circumcision, which maybe they believe Shechem won’t agree to, being too painful to even consider.
Yet, everyone agrees to the circumcisions and then on the third day, when they were in pain—obviously no bags of frozen peas back then—Simeon and Levi, killed all the males. It can only be described as brutal.
And only then does Jacob speak. He worries that the remaining people will unite against him, and attack and he and his house will be destroyed. I want to scream. What about Dinah? What happens to Dinah? How does Dinah feel? But again, silence.
The next scene G-d again speaks to Jacob. This time directly. No room for ambiguity. G-d tells him to get up and go. Back to Beth El—the House of G-d. And so Jacob does. And again we are told that Jacob is blessed by G-d and told his name will be Yisrael. One who wrestles with G-d and man and prevails. Persists.
On Friday night, as part of the coming attractions, I read three poems. Merle Feld’s poem, “We all stood at Sinai,” http://www.on1foot.org/text/merle-feld-%E2%80%9Cwe-all-stood-together%E2%80%9D-spiritual-life-jewish-feminist-journey-p-205 about recapturing women’s voices and together with the men we could capture holy time, sparks flying. I read that one a lot.
I read Rabbi Jill Hammer’s agonizing poem about Dinah for Adar Aleph, the Hidden Month of a leap year. https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/dinahs-month Each Hebrew month is ascribed to one of the 12 tribes, but Adar Aleph is ascribed to Dinah. Then I read my own.
“I wrestled too”
G-d called to you and you heard
G-d appeared to you and you answered
You lay your head on a rock
And you dreamed
Of a ladder extending to heaven
With angels ascending and descending
You knew then that G-d was in that place
G-d called to you again and you heard.
You went to reconcile with your brother.
When you went to meet Esau.
First you protected your family.
Put them on the other side of the river.
It was a long night.
You wrestled with an angel, a man, a messenger.
Maybe with G-d. Maybe with yourself.
Were you afraid?
Your body sweaty. You persisted.
And your name was changed.
To Yisrael, One who wrestles with G-d.
I told you my story
And you were silent.
You waited for your sons to come home
You didn’t know what to do
I wrestled too that long night.
I was alone. I was afraid.
I called out and you did not hear.
I called out and you did not answer.
You were silent.
Then after my brothers tried to defend me
Defend my honor but it was too late.
Only then did you speak.
You told them, but not me
That they had ruined your reputation.
That Shechem might attack you
That your house might be destroyed.
What about me? Was I destroyed?
Was my reputation ruined?
Was I destined to wrestle for the rest of my life?
Was I a victim or a survivor?
Was I willing?
Did I want it? Lead him on?
If I hadn’t gone out into the field would it never have happened?
God called to you again and you heard.
You arose and left Shechem.
To go the BethEl, the House of G-d.
God blessed you on your journey.
God changed your name
From Jacob to Yisrael
That long night, I was not alone.
God was in that place and I knew it not.
Father, do not remain silent.
Speak to me.
Look at me.
Father, do you have a blessing for me?
What is my name?
What is my destiny?
For surely I have wrestled and persisted.
I wrestle still.
So men, at this crossroads in American history, remember what your mothers taught you. Don’t hit a woman. And women, if you have a #MeToo story, I, as your rabbi, not just a woman rabbi, support you, believe you, will listen to you and add my voice to yours. I will not be silent. Our tradition demands more.