Thursday, November 29, 2012

Attitudes to sexual abuse and women: the case of Dina

The crime of sexual abuse and religious institutional responses to it is on the agenda in Australia. On a practical level, abuse must be dealt with by reporting alleged perpetrators to the police, following due process and unequivocal support for victims. There must also be a willingness to confront past wrongs, not a whitewash. This post is not about the practices or prevailing attitudes in the Jewish community in the 21st century on this issue, nor is it a commentary on the position of women in traditional Jewish communities today. Rather, this is an examination, mainly, of our centuries’ old texts as these relate to current issues. 

There are four main elements explored in this post. 1) The repugnant suggestion that abuse or rape should be linked to the victim’s behaviour or dress. 2) The attitude to women’s participation in society. 3) The degree to which the needs of victims are prioritised over other concerns. 4) Whether religious communities are prepared to trust outside authorities to deal with abuse. This is an exploration of these issues in Jewish sources mostly related to the rape of Dina who by some accounts was only 8[i] or even 6[ii] at the time.

The Torah text seems straight forward enough. “Dina, the daughter of Leah, that she bore to Jacob, went out to see with the daughters of the land. Shchem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he took her, “laid her[iii]” and tormented her[iv]”.

Leaving the Home
One anomaly in this text is the way that Dina is introduced with an emphasis first on being a daughter of Leah then Jacob. One interpretation of this seems to blame Dina for her ordeal. “The text connects [Dinah] to her mother to teach: Just as Leah was an “out-going” person, so too [Dinah] was an “out-going” person[v]”. Her going out to see the daughters of the land, is taken to mean that she went out not just to see, but “to be seen[vi]”, to show off her beauty[vii], adorned like a prostitute, for promiscuity[viii]. There are references to uncovered meat being grabbed by either a bird[ix] or a dog[x] that also encourage women not to be seen. In these early sources, the story of Dina becomes a morality tale with a message that “every woman that goes out to the market place, in the end she will stumble (morally)[xi]”.

While the form of this guidance in blaming a rape victim is highly problematic, I think there are some benefits to dramatically less draconian ideas of modesty as well as some downsides to an “anything” goes attitudes. A silly example is a year 7 girl (aged 11-12) that I taught some years ago who told me she and a boy in the class have been sniping at each other ever since “they broke up” when they were in year 6 (aged 10-11).    

Well intentioned home-girl
Abarbanel, a 15th century scholar, rejects any blame being placed on Dina, based on his understanding of the story and her character. “This [rape] did not happen to Dinah because she was an “outgoing” girl by nature; (on the contrary)she was Leah's daughter and [Leah] was the one who stayed home all day whereas Rachel was the (outgoing) shepherdess… This teaches that [Dinah] didn't go out for wrong reasons, G-d forbid. [She went out] only to see the girls in the land… since there were no other girls except her in Jacob’s house, and she wanted to learn from them… as young girls tend to do[xii]”.

Gender Roles
Another source also defends Dina as a person ‘who would normally stay at home’, but Shchem enticed her out by organising musicians to play outside her house[xiii]. A third view is that Dina was essentially male, based on a teaching that her mother was originally destined to have a son but prayed for the sex of the child to change to female[xiv]. While these early teaching do not blame the victim for her rape, they do reinforce restrictive gender roles.  

Outgoing is good!
The idea that women should be confined to the home is strongly rejected by recent commentary, most creatively by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson. As leader of the Chabad movement he advocated for women to have an influence beyond the conduct of the home to draw other Jewish women closer to Judaism. He argues that the characterisation of Dina as “outgoing” is meant as praise, and that her intention of leaving the home was to be a positive influence on the local young women[xv].  A similar argument is made by a recent article from another school within Orthodox Judaism[xvi]. Timeless principles of respect and ‘treating others as we would want to be treated’ are applied differently in our modern context to the way they were many centuries ago.

Putting aside questions of blaming the victim, a key issue is how people respond to reports of abuse. Some religious leaders have rightly been criticized for putting other considerations ahead of the needs of the victims. In some cases people known to have abused children were not reported to police. This was probably prompted at least in part by concern to the welfare of the perpetrator or their families. In terms of Jewish law, the over-riding concern would surely be the protection of the innocent and vulnerable[xvii]. This principle is expressed in the Torah itself in the words “do not stand (idly) by, on your brother blood[xviii]”.

In the case of Dina’s attacker, Shchem, his father, Hamor, the local ruler is indifferent to the crime. The failure to bring Shchem to justice is seen by Maimonides as a grave offense, not just on the part of Hamor but of all the people of the town. He even goes so far as to justify the killing of the townspeople by the sons of Jacob as a fitting punishment for their failure[xix]. While the idea of collective culpability is disputed[xx] and Simon and Levi’s anger is eventually cursed by their father[xxi], the principle of communal responsibility for justice is not.  

One respected Australian Rabbi addressed one obstacle to reporting suspected offenders, namely traditional mistrust of the non-Jewish authorities. The authority insisted that laws against handing over a Jew to the authorities (Moser) were based on completely corrupt anti-Semitic governments officials in other times and places. There can be no justification of this mistrust in a modern context in countries that have essentially sound criminal justice systems. 

In practice, Sexual abuse of any form must be countered as effectively and forcefully as possible within the constraints of the law. We must utilise the secular institutions best placed to handle these matters including the police and we must confront the past honestly. The victim is to be supported, the responsibility and blame rests with the perpetrators and with those who could have prevented these crimes. There are a range of teachings from earlier times that do not sit well with the modern reader.  Creative ways of applying these teachings are leading to more open attitudes toward women.

[i] R. Bachai, Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1319, note 13
[ii] Pirkey d’Rabbi Eliezer, Mecheta Sofrim 21, in notes to Meam Loez (Engish translation) there is a calculation based on some earlier sources  that she was 15½
[iii] The common translation is “he lay with her”, which implies two people doing something “with” each other.  The Hebrew text does not have this connotation, the words are וישכב = “and he lay” אותה = “her”, which can be taken to mean that he acted on her. 
[iv] Genesis 34:2
[v] Midrash Tanchuma – Vayishlach 7
[vi] Old Midrash Tanchuma Vayishlach 10
[vii] Midrash Agada, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1317, note 3
[viii] Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima p.1317, note 2
[ix] Bereshit Rabba 80, A few years ago there was uproar in response to Media reports that a Sydney based Imam implied that the way women dress was a factor in a rape case. He was said to have used an analogy of “uncovered meat” that is eaten by a cat. Yet, my own tradition seems to include teachings that echo that very sentiment.
[x] Old Midrash Tanchuma Vayishlach 19
[xi] Bereshit Rabba 8:12
[xii] Abarbanel – Genesis 34:1, translation adapted from Coppersmith D,
[xiii] Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer 38
[xiv] Rashi commentary relating to Genesis 30:21 “And then [Leah] had a daughter and she named her Dinah.” Leah judged (din) herself, saying: “If this is a male, Rachel will not even be equal to the maidservants.” So Leah prayed and he turned into a female.
[xv] Likutei Sichos vol. 35, p.150-155
[xvi] Coppersmith D,
[xvii] I am challenged by the inferences that can be drawn to the contrary - that protection of the innocent is not to be the overriding priority- from the following midrash. "And he got up that night and took his two wives and two maidservants and his eleven sons" (Genesis 32:33). Where was Dinah? [Yaakov] placed her in a box and locked her in. He said, “This evil man (Esav) has a haughty eye – lest he see her and take her from me.” God said: “You prevented kindness from your brother and as a result you suffered. Because if she had married Esav, she would not have been raped,” as it says later (Genesis 34:1) “And Dinah went out." (Breishit Rabba – Vayishlach 77:9), translation from
[xviii] Leviticus 19:16
[xix] Maimonides Yad Hachazaka, laws of kings, 9
[xx] Ramban commentary to Genesis 34:13
[xxi] Genesis 49:7, Jacob’s last messages to his sons on his deathbed

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