This winter of our discontent continues to be marked by stories of women that are difficult to hear. Each day brings more reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. The rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, which we read again this week, is just such a story and serves as a painful reminder that these narratives are nothing new.
Two similarities between Dinah’s story and what we have been witnessing the last few weeks are particularly striking. First is the brazen nature of aggression. Those who participate in these behaviors toward women act with a deeply disturbing sense of entitlement. Neither Dinah’s victimizer, Schehem, nor those of today see anything wrong with what they have done until it is too late. Second is the way women are shamed into silence while powerful men continue to enjoy the privilege of speech. Dinah is seen but not heard. She gets not one word of dialogue with her attacker, her father, her brothers or anyone else. Just like our viewing of the subject of Edvard Munch’s haunting masterpiece, all we can do is to imagine what her scream might sound like. We never get to hear it. If we could, the outcry of degradation experienced by Dinah and women throughout time might be known as the scream heard around the world.
The collective courage to break the silence, the readiness of victims to cry out in their hurt and outrage, has brought us to what many are calling “a reckoning.” (1)
Let’s hope they’re right. Better yet, let’s act like it. We no more can change the biblical narrative itself than we can undo the injustices done to countless mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, aunts and friends. What we can do, as our ancestor Jacob does in this week’s portion, is stop running and start confronting the truth no matter how painful it might be. The time for a sacred wrestling match with our conscience, with our failures and our flaws, is long overdue. The text itself cannot change, but not so the context in which we study it. As the poet Maya Angelou wrote: “History, despite its wrenching pain/ Cannot be unlived, but if faced / With courage, need not be lived again.” (2)
The Women’s Torah Commentary, and essential feminist works like it provide us with perspective we can bring to this week’s reading of a story that must be read each year and countless more stories like it that unfold each day.
(1) Caitlin Flanagan, “Bill Clinton: A Reckoning,”The Atlantic Magazine, November 13, 2017.
(2) “On the Pulse of Morning,” Maya Angelou, 1993. Capitalization and punctuation here is as it appears in the original.