Friday, November 15, 2013

Shabbat Dinah - Ending Violence Against Women

Parshat VaYishlah
12 Kislev, 5774
Novemebr 15th, 5774

Ovid, the brilliant, absolutely filthy Roman poet, once wrote, "Let others praise ancient times; I'm glad I was born in these." More often than not, I find myself agreeing with him. 

My colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, and a number of others call this Shabbat, "Shabbos Dinah" because this week we read the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, and her rape. 

Jacob and his family settled near the town of Shechem, and the eponymous prince of that town saw Dinah and took a fancy to her. So he decided just to take her. Most of the sources teach that the sex was not consensual.

Afterwards, he negotiated with her father to marry her (it was pretty common back then for the victim to be forced to marry her rapist). Jacob's sons Shimon and Levi deceived Shechem and all the male inhabitants of his city to circumcise themselves in order to be worthy of Dina. While recovering, Shimon and Levi swept in and killed them all in revenge for their sister's dishonor.

Violence, especially sexual violence, against women remains one of our world's great sins.The justification of that violence is also on the list of our travesties. Shmuly writes eloquently on the topic and upon the relevant Torah. 

For my part, I am quite grateful that my cultural niche teaches against violence against women in the strongest terms. It certainly wasn't always that way. No less a tzaddik (righteous man) than Maimonides taught in the early medieval period that smacking one's wife around was an acceptable form of discipline.* Let others praise times past; I prefer my own.

There is, however, no cause for self congratulation. We effete liberals aren't spared from the vicissitudes of psychology and biology. Even when we don't justify human darkness, it still seeks dark corners in which to live. Especially as a biological male, I easily feel the connection between anger and violence. I once explained to an awestruck friend of a different sex (and gender) that occasionally wanting to mess someone up for no good reason is part of what it means to be an adolescent male. I'm sure there are exceptions, but most cis-gendered guys know what I mean. It is incredibly rare that our projections of violence upon another person come from a worthwhile place.

So for us, or for anyone who has ever felt the lure of violence, there is another story from the parsha. And that is the story of Jacob. Jacob who was worried both that his estranged brother Esav kill him, or that he kill Esav.** Jacob, who wrestled all night with the angels until he found himself and met his brother in peace. And from him we learn that honor is not found in violence towards others; honor is found in the fight within oneself. Jacob's message is one worth spreading.

*Rambam, Hilkhot Isshut
** Rashi ad loc.

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