#MeToo: Dinah’s Story

Rabbi Berkowitz’s drash on this week’s Torah portion. Cross-posted to the This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Genesis 34 is the ultimate revenge fantasy. After the son of a local tribal head assaults Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, concoct a plot to retaliate. The attacker, Shechem, professes his love for their sister, and his desire to marry her, no matter what bride price they ask. Simeon and Levi respond that it would be disgusting for their sister to marry an uncircumcised man. “Only on this condition will we consent to you: if you become like us by having everyone of your males circumcised. Then we would give you our daughters and would take your daughters and settle among you and become one people” (Gen. 34:15-16). Poor Shechem, he must really have wanted to marry Dinah. He convinces all the men in his clan to be circumcised. Then, three days later, while the men are still recuperating, Simeon and Levi attack. They kill all of the men in Shechem, and take their women, children, property and livestock as spoil. Their father Jacob is horrified, fearful that this will make it impossible to live peacefully among their neighbors. But Simeon and Levi are unrepentant. Nobody treats their sister this way and gets away with it.

In light of recent events, it wouldn’t be wrong to indulge ourselves in a little revenge fantasy. How much would we enjoy seeing the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore go under the knife for what they’ve done? Sadly, it is still somewhat of a fantasy to imagine even Simeon and Levi’s bold statement: that their sister’s honor is worth fighting for.

Genesis 34 is a revenge fantasy, but unfortunately, it is also a mirror, and we aren’t going to like what we see when we take a look in the glass.

First of all, we see that the impulse to “take” women is as old as the Bible. Three times in this narrative, the word lakach is used, the Hebrew word for “take.” First, Shechem “takes” Dinah sexually (34:1). Then he asks his father to “take” Dinah for him as a wife (34:4), perhaps thinking that a high bride-price will undo his previous wrongs. Later, after killing all the men in Shechem, Simeon and Levi “take” Dinah back home (34:26).

Even Jewish texts that discuss the consequences of sexual violence do little to dispel the notion that a woman is an object to be “taken.” The punishment, in all but a few cases, is either marriage to the victim—clearly not a desirable outcome for her—or a payment to her father, who now has the burden of marrying off a daughter whose value has depreciated. The woman’s suffering is not addressed. She is only her father’s property, until she is her husband’s, even if her husband became so by assaulting her.

Shechem’s offer to pay for what he’s taken reinforces the idea that she is property of her family, not an independent individual. We may think we’re past that, but how many times in recent weeks have we seen a price put on the suffering of a woman, after she was violated. Is $100,000 enough? A million? The price is immaterial.

This idea of “taking” is still prevalent in our culture today. Even in benign settings, we often portray women as prizes to be won, commodities to be traded, or worse, territory to be conquered. This strips women, not only of their dignity, but of their agency. When a woman is an object to be “taken,” she is not an individual capable of self-determination.

In fact, there is only one place in the biblical narrative where Dinah has any agency at all. At the very beginning, we learn that Dinah, “went out to see the daughters of the land” (34:1). There is a subtle implication that this is not the proper way for a good Israelite girl to behave. She is leaving the safety of her family compound, and mingling with the common folk in Canaan. Maybe if she’d stayed at home this wouldn’t have happened. Even in the Bible, we already have the propensity to blame the victim.

This line of thinking is still common today. How often do we ask the victim, “What were you wearing?” or “Why did you invite him into your house?” or, “Why didn’t you leave when he started acting strange?” How many of the women in this room have gotten the email forwarded list of “safety tips,” telling us not to wear our hair in ponytails, or sit in our car in a dark parking lot, because this makes us easy prey?

There is a story about Golda Meir, the first female Prime Minister of Israel, in the wake of several sexual assaults during her tenure. When asked if she would impose a curfew on women for their safety, Meir replied, “But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.”

Unfortunately, Meir’s thinking is still in the minority. While it is good to teach women how to protect themselves, the only way we are ever going to bring an end to sexual violence is by addressing the behavior of men. And we need to start very young.

I’d love to say I’m delighted to see that powerful men are finally being held accountable for decades of harassment, intimidation, and sexual violence. However, as the rash of accusations grew and spread, I began to feel queasy. Not only because it revealed the bad behavior of people I admire and respect very much. But because I don’t think that firing every accused news anchor, actor, or politician will do one iota of good.

This isn’t to say that I think this people deserve to keep their jobs. I want every single one of them to be held accountable for what they did, through a thorough investigation, a fair trial, and appropriate consequences. But at this point, we are just playing whack-a-mole. We know that for every powerful man we topple, there is another man behind him about to fall. And for every powerful man revealed to be a threat to women, there are dozens more, harassing and even attacking women and going unpunished, often in lower-status positions that don’t make them newsworthy. We have created—or at the very least, permitted—a culture in which this kind of behavior is normal.

Roy Moore likely knew what he was doing was wrong. But he also is the product of a culture that didn’t bat an eyelash at a 30-year-old man dating a teenager, hence he thought he could do if only her mother gave permission. Harvey Weinstein probably also knew that his actions would be considered disgusting by most. But he is also the product of a culture that allows powerful men to prey on vulnerable women, and then to pay to make their problems go away. Dozens of people enabled him, and it’s impossible that none of them knew what was happening.

Both men were also part of a culture that silenced women who spoke up against powerful men, such that many women were, and still are, afraid to come forward and tell the truth. Even though the proclivities of these men were an open secret, women who spoke out against them were not always believed, or their accusations were laughed off as typical gross male behavior, endemic to the profession they had chosen. Which meant that a lot of women chose to leave their profession. And that’s not fair.

So what do we need to do? We need to change the culture. I would argue that, no matter how many politicians and producers there are still to be voted out or fired, changing the culture is going to be harder.

Changing the culture means holding people accountable for their actions, giving both accuser and accused their day in court. It means breaking down the wall of non-disclosure agreements and making it easier for people to report harassment and assault. It means believing women. But it also means teaching our children to think differently about sex, about their bodies, and about their relationships.

It means teaching our children that harassment is not a form of affection. Saying, “He teases you because he likes you,” teaches girls (and boys) to tolerate bad behavior, and honestly, it teaches both genders that it’s okay to make someone uncomfortable in the pursuit of pleasure or love.

It means teaching our children about consent. I now have this talk with students prior to bnai mitzvah, telling them that I will ask if it’s okay to hug them because they are in charge of their bodies. I realized the other day that it starts much younger. I was visiting my friends and their children and I started tickling their five year old’s belly. He squirmed and giggled hysterically. But the minute he said, “Stop!” I held up both hands and said, “You said stop, so I’m stopping.” Because learning about consent and bodily autonomy starts that young.

It means teaching our children that sex is not a conquest. It is not progress for women to become more like men in this regard. Both genders need to understand that sex is something that should be desired, and enjoyed, by both parties. This means that both parties have the right to say, “No,” if they aren’t enjoying themselves. It means that both parties have the obligation to secure an enthusiastic “Yes,” to any physical contact.

In the Talmud, the rabbis have an argument over the phrase zeh dor dorshav m’vakshei panecha from Psalms (24:6). “Such is the generation [and] its leaders that seek Your face.” One said that this means, “The character of the generation parallels that of its leader,” while the other says, “The character of a leader parallels that of their generation.” Finally, they agree that both are true. The leader is responsible for setting an example for the people, while the people are responsible for holding their leader accountable for their actions. If one of these were to fail to do their part, they are to blame when the other is not righteous (Arakhin 17a, as interpreted in Rabbi Sam Feinsmith, “Making a Window for the World,” IJS Torah Study Vayishlach, 2017).

If we are to root out harassment and assault in our communities, we need to take a good look in the mirror. Only when we, personally, take responsibility, can we hope to see any change. We need to be the ones who hold our leaders accountable, and we need to be the ones who raise up the next generation to be righteous.


By Rabbi Annie Lewis

Me too, Dinah,
me too.
If only you could
see us now,
all the great men falling
like the idols of your
great, great grandfather,
egos slain
like the men of Shechem.

If only you could
see us now,
your sisters
taught to make nice,
take care –
me too.
No more.

All your sisters trained
to harbor shame
for going out,
claiming space,
craving more.
Because we asked for it
so we deserved it.

If only you could
see us now, Dinah,
our truth
rising up like song.