"Voice, Justice, and Reconciliation"

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on November 30, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

In her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, one of the foundational works of 3rd wave feminism, Susan Brownmiller writes: "A female definition of rape can be contained in a single sentence. If a woman chooses not to have intercourse with a specific man and the man chooses to proceed against her will, that is a criminal act of rape." However, she then must add in the very next sentence, "Through no fault of woman, this is not and never has been the legal definition." (8)

Is what happens to Dinah - the daughter of Jacob and Leah - in Genesis 34 a rape according to the "female definition" - The language of verse 2 seems to suggest so, but much hinges on how one term in particular is to be understood:


וירא אתה שכם בן חמור החוי נשיא הארץ ויקח אתה וישכב אתה ויענה

And Shekhem the son of Hamor the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, and lay with her, v'ya'neha.

At the moment I have several different translations open in front of me, and in them I find the following for that last word, from the root i,n,h: "forcing her" (Everett Fox), "by force" (Etz Hayim; W. Gunther Plaut, who adds "Literally, '...and forced her'"), and "and raped her" (The Torah: A Women's Commentary). But then there's the Hertz/Soncino version (which many of us grew up with in our Conservative synagogues pre-Etz Hayim): "and humbled her." Now, perhaps this is meant to be a somewhat euphemistic, more "genteel" way of saying the same thing as the other translations suggest, but it is also worth noting the notes that appear with this verse in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, which otherwise seems to have the most blunt translation:


From the usage in Deuteronomy one can conclude that innah means 'violate,' not 'rape' (22:23-24). Consequently, the word innah should not be translated as rape, and what happened to Dinah certainly should not to be understood as an act of rape in the modern sense of the word. Rather, the term demonstrates in this passage a downward movement in a social sense, meaning to 'debase' or to 'humiliate'. In this particular text, the woman has no voice, and the narrator has no interest in whether or not she consented to the sexual act. Dinah would have been considered to have been disgraced even if she had consented. (191-92)

The question of whether Dinah might have consented is apparently immaterial to the biblical narrator. What is of concern is the disgrace to her family, and more specifically to the male members thereof, her father and her brothers.

In fact, no other clue whatsoever exists in the text to indicate how Dinah might have experienced events. She does not speak or act, except to go out to "see the daughters of the land" at the outset of the chapter/story, and from there on out it is men who speak about her and act upon her as an object. Throughout the chapter, she is described almost exclusively as she relates to and is seen through the eyes of others: "Leah's daughter whom she bore to Jacob" (v. 1), "Jacob's daughter" (v. 3, 7, 18; similarly 5, 8), "sister" (v. 13, 14, 27, 31), and - particularly in Shekhem's eyes, "young woman" or even "girl" (v, 3, 4, 12).

In her discussion of this parashah and the women featured in it, Ellen Frankel, in The Five Books of Miriam, emphasizes the silence of Dinah, and notes that she does not speak a word, not only here but in all of Torah.


... from the moment of my birth, I was fated to remain silent. When I was born, my name, unlike my brothers', was announced without interpretation. When I was raped, my cries went unrecorded. When my brothers negotiated with Hamor for my hand, my wishes were not considered. And when my father, Jacob, bestowed blessings upon his children, I received none. (65-66).

Dinah is left out of the count of Jacob's children not once but twice in the course of this parashah, in 32:23 and 35:22. She is mentioned only once more in Torah, in Genesis 46:15, as the Torah enumerates the descendants of Jacob as they prepare to move to Egypt, where Joseph serves as second in power only to Pharaoh.

And yet herein, in the process of Jacob's family journey to Egypt, lays perhaps a small measure of justice and redemption for Dinah. For while the etymology of her name may not be explained in Torah, its connection to the word din, meaning judgment or justice, seems obvious, and surely it is some justice that she deserves.

What became of Dinah after the events of Genesis 34 - As in so many instances, what the Torah did not see fit to relate, the rabbis later imagined and expanded and elucidated through the process of midrash. According to one tradition, related in Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer and further elaborated on by later commentators, Dinah became pregnant by Shekhem, and gave birth to a daughter. The child, however, was to Dinah's brothers a constant, shameful reminder of the events that had led to her birth (and their role in the events which followed), and they thus sought to kill her. Jacob saved her by placing a protective amulet around her neck, and she was transported by the angel Michael to Egypt. There she was adopted by a childless Egyptian priest - that is, she is one and the same as "Asenat daughter of Potiphera, priest of On" (Genesis 41:45) - eventually becoming the wife of her uncle Joseph (the rabbis actually heartily approved of such inter-family matches) who recognized her as his kin because of her amulet. Asenat is the mother of Efraim and Menasheh. And according to this midrashic version of events, then, Dinah is their grandmother, and like her brothers stands among the progenitors of the tribes of Israel - indeed, is restored to our sacred ancestry twice over, since her grandsons generate not one but two of the eventual tribes of Israel. "So Dinah is doubly blessed" (Frankel, 71).

To which I would add one more observation that occurred to me as I was preparing to write this drasha: If we accept this midrash into our sacred narrative, we can also see Dinah as achieving a much needed reconciliation within the Israelite family. This family is one that is regularly described in Genesis as divided, wife against husband, wife against wife, sibling against sibling. Jacob, whose parents (and grandparents) played favorites among their children continues the pattern himself, favoring Rachel over Leah (and both over Bilhah and Zilpah; see 33:2), and (as a consequence) the children of one over the children of the other(s). But when we restore Dinah as the (grand)mother of two of our tribes, Leah (as Asenat's grandmother) reunites with Rachel (as Joseph's mother) and together, through Dinah, the sisters produce Efraim and Menashah - the two siblings in Genesis who are not ever depicted as being in conflict with each other.

May we strive towards a sacred narrative in which all have a voice, and in doing so, may we find a measure of justice and reconciliation for all who need it in our broken world.

Shabbat shalom!