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St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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In Judaism, faith is fed by questions, challenges

Occasionally there are moments in Torah that are extremely difficult, and this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, offers us one such moment.

Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, is noticed by Shechem, a prince of the area, and the text tells us that he lies with her by force. He decides that he loves her, wants to marry her and asks his father, Hamor, to get her as his wife.

Dinah’s brothers decide that in order for Dinah to marry Shechem, all the men of Shechem must become circumcised, and an agreement is made. While the men of Shechem are recovering from their circumcisions, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, kill all the men of Shechem and plunder the area.

Jacob’s response is puzzling, and the chapter ends with a question by Simeon and Levi: “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?”

What is missing from this section of the text are voices — the voice of Dinah, Jacob, Shechem, and even Leah and the other members of Jacob’s household beyond Simeon and Levi. I think because of this, for generations the commentators haven’t really known what to do with this section of our text.

It is as if they aren’t sure about how to deal with rape committed by an outsider and with revenge killing when one of their own is defiled and harmed. The commentators seem hesitant to comment, and I’m struck by the fact that a section that brings up many more questions than answers simply ends with a question.     I can’t help but wonder: Why?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, teaches, “Judaism is a religion of questions. Where did it come from, this Jewish passion for questions? Clearly it owes much to the fact that three times in the Torah, Moses speaks of children asking for an explanation of religious practice, and in another place, it says, ‘On that day you shall tell your son.’ …  To ask is to grow. But questioning goes deeper than this in Judaism.  The heroes of faith asked questions of God, and the greater the prophet, the harder the question.  Questioning is at the heart of Jewish spirituality. Religious faith has often been seen as naïve, blind, accepting. That is not the Jewish way.

This teaching of the importance of questioning, and the recognition that there is a lack of “voices” in this section of Torah, suggests to me that there are infinite answers and ways to consider and tackle this particular text. Is Dinah the only victim?  Does Shechem, the initial perpetrator, become a victim? What do we do with revenge that leads to killing? Are there historical implications to this text, i.e., there are two groups of people, Israelites and Shechemites with differing laws and rules about what is OK. How do we deal with this? What does Dinah think?  And how do we look at this text within the context of midrash, such as a book like “The Red Tent,” which seeks to give Dinah voice and make this a love story?

Perhaps the intent of the question is to point to the very fact that there are no simple answers within this story. Each of us, reading the text in whatever time and generation, and with whatever life experience we have, may find different answers on  how to deal with topics at hand.

This, as Rabbi Sacks teaches, is the essence of Judaism. We don’t accept just one answer; rather, we question, we challenge, we turn the story round and round, recognizing that even though it may not be a story we want to read, there is still much to be learned from it.

This is true of Judaism as a whole. We don’t just accept, we question, we challenge, and in so doing we connect with not only a rich tradition of stories and laws, but we also connect on a spiritual level with God, recognizing that questioning sometimes leads to more questions as opposed to answers.

This is the essence of faith: finding meaning in those things for which we sometimes cannot find answers or at least simple answers.

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg serves United Hebrew Congregation and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.


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