A story we often don’t study in religious school

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.


I have one sister and three brothers. My brothers and I were fiercely protective of our sister, especially when she came of age to date. Her dates would have to run the gauntlet! 

During her high school years, I don’t believe that there was a single one whom we would trust with her. It was not because she made poor choices; it was because we were boys, who thought like boys, and we didn’t want anyone thinking of our sister in that manner!

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, there is a story we never studied in religious school. Sure, we knew of the famous wrestling match between Jacob and the mysterious night stranger and of the tense meeting of Jacob and Esau about 20 years after the latter swore to kill his brother. 

However, somehow we skipped over the story of Dinah, who went out one day with a group of girlfriends and caught the eye of a young man who charmed her and then sexually assaulted her. Now, Dinah had 11 brothers, so one can only imagine how they felt when they heard the news. 

The surprise in this story is that the rapist wanted to marry Dinah. So, he and his father approached Jacob and his sons in a bid for Dinah’s hand in marriage. The sons refused to give permission unless the young man and every man in the community submit to circumcision. Only then would they allow Dinah to marry and merge the two groups of people. 

Surprisingly, this did not deter the young man at all, and he and all the men complied. When their pain had reached its most intense, two of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, took their swords and killed all of the men, not just the one who had dishonored their sister, and took everything and everyone else as booty. 

Jacob was horrified. This would really hurt his reputation among the other peoples. But his sons responded that treating their sister in this manner was unacceptable.

As the rabbis read this tale of Dinah, they pointed out that she is called “Leah’s daughter,” as if to say that Leah, because she was not the favorite, was too forward in her desire to be with Jacob. They indicted Leah for going out with the local girls, idolators  who lacked the morality that was taught in Jacob’s family who followed the One God and Torah. They accused her of wearing makeup and jewelry in order to attract one of the local men. 

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Dinah never said a word in her story; the men did all of the talking. Too often, women today are afraid to report rapes  because they are aware that they will be put on trial as well as the men who assaulted them: 

What were you wearing? How much alcohol had you consumed? Were you flirting? Why were you there (wherever there is) in the first place? What is your sexual history? Did you say, ‘No!’ Did you fight back? Were there any witnesses? Isn’t it just your word against his? Why did you wait so long to report this?

It is long past time for men to assume responsibility for their actions, for their responses, for their objectification of women, and for their sexuality and respect for boundaries. It is never right to force someone to do something which s/he does not consent to doing, whether it’s a couple on a date, in a hookup in a bar or in a marriage. It is never right to use another as a means towards one’s own ends. And it is never right to blame the victim.

In the 21st century, relationships between men and women can be different. In the Midrash, it is said that Eve was created from Adam’s side so as not to dominate or to be dominated, but to be a coequal partner. We can and must work to achieve this ideal. Men and women should be able to be partners in the workplace, in school, in the home, in all arenas of life without fear. We have to learn that just because we have a thought, a feeling, an urge, it is not necessary to follow through with it, especially if it will cause harm. 

For Hamor, Dinah was the object of his desire. No person should be treated as an object.