It’s All About Who Tells the Story

One of the storylines in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is about the violation of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter. Remarkably enough, the story does not focus on Dinah. It gives her no voice of her own; her perspective is not discussed. The story centers on Dinah’s male relatives – their reactions to Dinah’s ‘defilement’, their negotiations with Dinah’s ‘violator’ Shechem, and the revenge they exact on Shechem and his entire city.

In the novel The Red Tent, author Anita Diamant takes a very different approach to this biblical tale. The story of The Red Tent is told in Dinah’s voice, and focuses on the lives of the women. It is an example of what the Bible might have been if it had been written by Israel’s daughters. 

In the Bible, the one written by Israel’s sons, Dinah’s encounter with Shechem is described thusly: “One day Dinah, Leah’s daughter whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the locality, and Shechem son of Hamor, the local prince, saw her: he took her and lay her down and raped her. He was then captivated by Jacob’s daughter Dinah and, falling in love with the young woman, spoke tenderly to the young woman.” Further references to their encounter include: “Jacob heard that his daughter Dinah had been defiled”, and “He had defiled their sister Dinah”.

In The Red Tent, the story of Dinah is vastly different. Here, Dinah is depicted as being deeply and passionately in love with the prince, in whose arms she lay as Dinah’s brothers slaughter him. She is horrified by her brothers’ murderous rampage, and stricken by grief at losing her beloved.

It is entirely plausible that the truth is likely closer to the story told in The Red Tent, rather than the story told in the Bible. Even the biblical version of the story states that Shechem offers Dinah’s male relatives a bride price fit for a queen; that he speaks tenderly to Dinah; that he is, in fact, in love with Dinah.

Her father and brothers’ references to her as having been ‘defiled’ would pertain to a young woman in this society who has sex before marriage, consensual or not. Her primary value is derived from her intact virginity, and its loss is viewed as a pox on her father’s house. In this culture, her brothers’ outrage is focused on the affront to family honor, not the potential emotional and psychological damage done to Dinah. “When they heard, the men were grieved and became extremely angry, for [Shechem] had committed an outrage against Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter – such things were not done”.  At issue here is a dispute among men, with Dinah’s body serving as the basis for the dispute.

In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, it is argued that the use of the verb ‘innah’ in these verses means ‘violate’, not ‘rape’, and that what happened to Dinah should not be understood as an act of rape in the modern sense of the word. 
If in fact Dinah was considered ‘defiled’ or ‘violated’ because she lost her virginity to Shechem without benefit of marriage, the story is not at all about a young woman being forced against her will, about a case of rape as what we understand ‘rape’ to mean. This is a completely different story!  From this new vantage point, the revenge taken by Dinah’s brothers against Shechem and his city is truly horrific.

So much of what we accept as the mainstream or only view of a particular story is in fact just one perspective on the subject – the perspective of the person who put pen to paper. The United States is currently grappling with this very issue with regard to Black American history. There are potentially hundreds of potential ‘stories’ for any given event depending on who is doing the telling. 

History itself is recorded in the same manner.  Historical renderings depend greatly on who controls the printing press. Herstory, a word first coined by feminists in the 1970s, is the telling of history from the viewpoint of women.  My computer has just underlined the word herstory in red, not recognizing it as acceptable terminology. Here, let me add it to the computer’s electronic dictionary.  There, now it’s official.  If only it were so easy to add herstory and minority perspective to the annals of history.  How many unique stories have gone missing, how much unique perspective has been lost, throughout humankind’s recorded time here on earth?

Imagine if women had authored all the stories in the Bible.  Would the stories even be recognizable as compared to the Bible in its current form?  It would be fascinating if two complete sets of the Bible had been written and were available for study today – one set written by women and one set written by men.  How much more wisdom would they have to offer when taken together, compared to the one Bible we have today?  

Twofold as much, I imagine. 

Double the number of lessons … two times the amount of insight … twice the wisdom.

“We All Stood Together”

My brother and I were at Sinai

He kept a journal

Of what he saw

Of what he heard

Of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record

Of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to writeI can’t

I’m always holding a baby

One of my own

Or one of a friend

Always holding a baby

So my hands are never free

To write things down

And then

As time passes

The particulars

The hard data

The who what when where why

Slip away from me

And all I’m left with is

The feeling

But feelings are just sounds

The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard

After all he’s got a record of it

Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together

We could recreate holy time

Sparks flying

(Merle Feld, A Spiritual Life [New York: State University of New York Press, 2000])

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s