“The Rape of Dinah: Impossible to Fathom!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we learn of the brutal abduction and rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah.

The Bible in Genesis 34:1 tells us: “Va’tay’tzay Dinah bat Leah, ah’sher yal’dah l’Yaakov, lir’oht biv’noht ha’ah’retz,” Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to look over the daughters of the land. Shechem, the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, who was then the prince of the region, saw her, abducted, raped and violated her.

Professing deep love for Dinah, Shechem attempted to appeal to her emotions to become his wife. When that failed, he demanded that his father, Hamor, negotiate with Dinah’s family that she become his wife. Hamor and Shechem go to speak to Jacob. When Dinah’s brothers hear the proposal they are outraged and answer Shechem and his father deceitfully, insisting that the only way Dinah could marry Shechem would be if all the men of the city of Shechem would undergo circumcision.

Obsessed with Dinah, Shechem convinces the men to undergo circumcision. On the third day after the circumcision, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, attack the ailing men and murder all the males of the city. Jacob’s remaining sons then arrive to plunder the city, taking all the people’s wealth, including their flocks and cattle, children and wives.

Jacob is profoundly upset with Simeon and Levi, accusing them of making him odious among the inhabitants of the land and opening the whole family up to attack by the Canaanite nations. Simeon and Levi simply respond (Genesis 34:31), “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?” When Jacob’s family eventually leaves Shechem, Scripture (Genesis 35:5) testifies that G-d’s fear was on the local people, and they did not pursue Jacob and his family.

The episode of the rape of Dinah raises many questions. One prominent issue is whether the actions of Simeon and Levi were in any way justified. From Jacob’s reaction to Simeon and Levi, they seem to be entirely unjustified. However, since G-d put dread in the local population, it appears that their actions were indeed justified.

An even more formidable question, is the issue of Dinah herself. What could Dinah have possibly done to bring upon herself this horrific attack? Even asking such a question in this day and age is considered entirely inappropriate–as this may imply blaming the victim. However, since this question was raised by the Bible commentators of old, who viewed everything as coming from G-d, their views must be discussed even if they are disturbing.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) comments on the verse in Genesis 34:1, that states that Dinah “went out to look at the daughters of the land.” Noting that the verse specifically refers to Dinah as the “daughter of Leah,” and not the daughter of Jacob, indicates, says Rashi, that Dina was a “yatzaneet,” excessively outgoing, and extremely forward, very much like her mother Leah.

On what occasion was Dina’s mother, Leah, excessively outgoing? In parashat Vayeitzei, (Genesis 30:14), we learn that Reuven finds duddaim–mandrakes, a fertility drug or an aphrodisiac, and brings them to his mother, Leah. Rachel, who is barren and desperate for a child, insists on having them, and trades her night with Jacob for the mandrakes. That evening, when Jacob returned from the field, he is met by Leah who brazenly insists that Jacob spend the night with her, since she has “hired him” with her son’s duddaim. The commentators suggest that this immodest behavior proved ruinous for her daughter, Dinah, who, following her mother’s example, went out into the lawless city of Shechem, and as a result was attacked.

However, Rashi’s comments in a previous episode, suggest still another reason for the rape of Dinah. Before confronting his brother Esau after many years of estrangement, Jacob quietly transfers his family to the other side of the river Jabbok. Scripture notes in Genesis 32:23 that Jacob arose that night, took his two wives, his two handmaids and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. Rashi famously asks, “V’Dinah hay’chahn hay’tah?” Why does the verse mention eleven sons, but not Jacob’s daughter, Dinah? Rashi, citing the Midrash, maintains that Jacob had placed Dinah in a sealed box so that Esau would not lay his lecherous eyes on her and seek to marry the lovely girl. Despite the fact that Jacob was trying to protect Dinah from Esau, says Rashi, Jacob was punished, because by keeping Dinah from his brother, he prevented Dinah from possibly influencing Esau and perhaps returning him to goodness. Instead, she fell into the hands of Shechem.

As opposed to his comments in Vayishlach, Rashi’s approach here suggests that the rape of Dinah was not punishment for Dinah’s actions, but rather for Jacob’s failure to allow Dinah to positively influence his brother Esau.

To many observers, both answers cited by Rashi are highly unsatisfactory. After all, our bible in Deuteronomy 24:16 states emphatically, “Ish b’chet’oh yu’mah’too,” every person is responsible for his own sin! Judaism does not countenance an innocent person being punished for the sin of another person.

Rejecting the possibility that the “reason” for Dinah’s rape was possibly due to her own dealings or Jacob’s inappropriate actions, leaves the entire issue unresolved.

Sidestepping the issue of cause or guilt, the rabbis of the Midrash seem to assert that this entire episode was not at all a punishment, but simply the playing out of Jewish destiny. According to the Midrash, Dinah becomes pregnant and gives birth to a girl, named Osnat. Dinah’s brothers are very unhappy to have the child of a rape in their home, and demand that the child be expelled. This troubled Jacob very much. Without going into the details that may be found in the Midrash, Osnat ultimately winds up in the house of Potiphar, where she saves Joseph’s life and eventually marries him. She bears him two children, Ephraim and Menashe, whose great loyalty to Jewish tradition merits them the distinction of becoming the progenitors of two full-fledged tribes of Israel. The reason for Dinah’s pain and trauma is unaddressed, but the end result is a dramatic change in the destiny of the Jewish people.

When all is said and done, for many students of the Bible there are no adequate answers, and the episode of Dinah’s rape remains unfathomable and impossible to understand. It is another chapter in the never-ending quest to make sense of human suffering.

My son, Naphtali Buchwald, shared with me an interesting insight concerning Rashi’s second opinion that states that Jacob hid Dinah in the box preventing her from influencing Esau. Naphtali notes that by the Midrashic account, Dinah at that time should be about six years old and Esau 97 years old. How would it be possible for such a young girl to influence a grown man whose fierce attitudes had already been shaped? After all, his own father Isaac was not able to influence Esau, nor was his mother Rebecca, or his brother Jacob? How then could this little child be expected to influence Esau? Naphtali cited the opinion of the Darshan of Jerusalem who answered that question with three simple Yiddish words, “A Yiddishe veib!” a Jewish wife, implying that when a Jewish woman puts her mind to something she can surely achieve it. If she wishes to influence her husband, she can have more influence on him than even Abraham, Isaac or Rebecca. That is the power of Jewish wives.

There are a lot of Jewish men who can testify to the fact that there is much truth to this claim. I am surely one of them.

May you be blessed.