Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Can We Please Lay Off Dina Already?

I’m referring to the biblical Dina, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who had the misfortune to be abducted and raped by Shekhem, the son of the local chieftain Hamor. Her story was part of last week’s Torah portion, and last Shabbat it made me do something I rarely do: lose my temper.

I was staying with old and dear friends, and it was lunchtime. Another guest and good friend of theirs, a teacher, sought to begin a conversation about Dina, citing the well-known commentary by Rashi on the first few words of her story, which begins “And Dina the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne unto Jacob, went out. ...” Rashi draws a parallel between Dina and her mother Leah, who had “gone out” a few chapters earlier to meet her husband Jacob. Like mother, like daughter, as the saying goes.

Commentators note that Dina is referred to both as Leah’s daughter and as Jacob’s daughter. The traditional take on this is that as Leah’s daughter, Dina was a yatz’anit (a gadabout), who went outside when she should have remained modestly at home. However, later on in the episode, when Dina’s brothers rescue her, she is referred to as Jacob’s daughter, meaning that though her body had been dishonored, her soul was intact and her allegiance was still to her father’s home. Well and good, but the implication is that what happened to her was her own fault. Had she stayed at home as a good girl should, this terrible thing would not have happened to her.

It’s the classic trial of the rape victim rather than the perpetrator. Shekhem? Oh, he wasn’t responsible. He saw a beautiful, holy young woman and couldn’t help himself. It was Dina’s responsibility to keep out of sight, and Jacob’s responsibility to make sure she stayed hidden. A well-known midrash even says that Jacob kept Dina in a special box for this purpose. (I strongly doubt that. Try getting into a box in this climate; with all the air-holes in the world, you wouldn’t last five minutes.)

Oh, did I mention that I lost my temper? Well, now you know why. I’d heard and read all this stuff before and had no desire to hear it again. Knowing that young girls are taught this in school as a matter of course didn’t help me to stay calm, either.

It will not be lost on students of the Torah that the reason Leah went out to meet her husband was specifically sexual—to tell him that he was to spend that night with her in exchange for a bargain she had made with her sister Rachel, who was also her co-wife. Leah’s reason for going out was completely legitimate; Jacob, after all, was her lawful husband and the father of her children.

Still, this unfortunate parallel between the mother and daughter who went out has lasted for generations and is still taken for granted. Leah went outside for a sexual reason; therefore her daughter, in taking after her mother, imbued her own going out with a sexual context whether she meant to or not. (And considering that she went out to visit the women of the land, it is clear that she did not.) In other words, according to this teaching, Dina was responsible on some level for Shekhem’s crime.

What’s the logic here? Do we say that theft victims subconsciously wanted to rid themselves of their possessions or that murder victims had a death wish? Of course not. Likewise the Torah, in exonerating a rape victim of all blame, explicitly compares the crime committed against her to murder :

But if the man comes upon the engaged girl in open country, and the man lies with her by force, only the man who lay with her shall die, but you shall do nothing to the girl. The girl did not incur the death penalty, for this case is like that of a man attacking another and murdering him (JPS translation).

“But you shall do nothing to the girl.” I wish the Torah had added: That includes bad-mouthing her for her misfortune over and over, for more than three thousand years after the fact.

The Torah’s analogy between rape and murder strengthens the assertion that rape is not a crime of uncontrolled sexual desire but rather one of violence. We also know that the reason abusers mistreat others has nothing to do with anything their victims may or may not have done. There is no issue of “deserving” here. Abusers abuse because they can.

In this case, Shekhem was the son of the local ruler, the equivalent of a prince. As such he had privileged status and could do whatever he wanted. In his time and place, women were considered fair game or, at best, were only as safe as their menfolk were powerful, a fact which unfortunately is still true in this very region. Shekhem saw Dina, wanted her and simply took what he wanted, knowing that his high status would protect him from punishment. The fact that his victim’s father was himself a man of rank may have added to the thrill: not only was he taking what he wanted, but he was taking a neighboring chieftain’s daughter to boot! An act that would mean death for any other man was just a youthful prank to him, one that he would certainly get away with. Boys will be boys, after all, and princes princes.

(The obvious modern parallel here is Qusay Hussein, younger son of Saddam, who used to order his guards to snatch young women off the street so he could rape them. He too was the son of a local ruler, and he too knew that he would never be called to account for his crimes against those unfortunate girls.)

What message are we giving to young Jewish women when we teach them that Dina was in any way responsible for the crime committed against her?

Make no mistake; we are doing exactly that. Young Jewish women are taught today that they must dress modestly lest they arouse men. Recently I heard the word “co-responsibility” used in this context; the idea being put forth was that women are “co-responsible” with men to make sure that the latter remain able to control their sexual impulses. Oh, really? Are men such poor, helpless creatures? Do they suffer from some inherent lack of self-control? Mature, sensible, decent people would never countenance such an idea. Impulses are one thing; actions are another.

Look at it this way. If a man is fired from his job because he performed badly or broke the rules, no one would disagree that he alone is responsible for his dismissal. If he has a gambling or drinking problem, we hold him responsible for his debts and behavior. Why are we so willing to diminish his responsibility if he violates another human being?

Here’s another point. Remember what I said about the attack in Beslan? Evil exists, people have free will and they can and do choose to do evil. But so great is our need for some sort of logic in our world that we figure there must be some justification for evil acts. For example, I have heard people say that Cain had a reason, however weak, for killing his brother. After all, you don’t kill someone for nothing. Abel must have done something—however small, however unwittingly—to provoke Cain to murder. Likewise the Jews of Europe must have committed some terrible sin in order to deserve what befell them during the Holocaust, and the United States must have done something bad to deserve the horror of 9/11.

Nonsense. Evil acts happen because people choose to commit them.

Judaism teaches that every person is responsible for his or her own actions. Therefore, when we seek to diminish Shekhem’s responsibility for his attack on Dina, we go against Jewish teaching. We also slander Dina and all victims of rape, and give a pass to Shekhem and all perpetrators. Shekhem chose to commit a crime of his own free will. Dina had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is unfortunate, even dangerous, but it is not a crime. Like so very many people throughout history, Dina suffered unjustly.

Shame on us that more than three thousand years later, we still haven’t figured that out. And shame on us that in the year 2004, we still can’t tell a victim from a perpetrator.

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