Dinah, The Yatzanit – Vayishlach 5775

There is a current trend in Hollywood of making epic movies based on stories from the Torah.  Earlier this year, we saw the release of Noah, by Darren Aronofsky.  Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings opens next weekend.  This Sunday night is the premier on Lifetime of a mini-series adaptation of Anita Diamant’s biblical-historical novel, The Red Tent.  I can only assume that it has been timed for release with this morning’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, in which we read the story of the book and mini-series’ central character, Dinah.

I saw the trailer for the miniseries.  It is what I would have expected: stunning desert scenes, dramatic music, beautiful actors, violence, and quite a bit of skin.  According to the journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen, “the miniseries provides Lifetime’s heavily female audience with gauzy love scenes that verge on soft porn.”

When the novel, The Red Tent, was first published in 1997, it had no advertising budget and did not attract much attention.  Anita Diamant, however, wisely hit the synagogue lecture circuit, and by 2001, it had become a New York Times bestseller.  It has since sold over 3 million copies.

It also pioneered a literary trend of Jewish female-centered novels set in times in which women’s voices have rarely been recorded.  Maggie Anton wrote her Rashi’s daughters trilogy, and is now two thirds of the way through her Rav Hisda’s daughters trilogy, for example.

Anita Diamant was prompted to write The Red Tent by Dinah’s total silence in the biblical text.  Dinah does not get a single word in the thirty one verses that describe her ordeal.

Many readers have described The Red Tent as a modern midrash, an effort to fill in the gaps and thereby describe what happened then in a way that also connects with our view of the world today.

Interestingly, the author disagrees.  She writes the following:

The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction. Its perspective and focus—by and about the female characters—distinguishes it from the biblical account, in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical descriptions, my book is a radical departure from the historical text.

Simply put, The Red Tent is a novel based on a biblical story.  But for the millions of people who have read it, especially Jewish women, it has been a powerful and religiously meaningful suggestion of what life might have been like for the women who lived in our Patriarchs’ households.

The Red Tent makes significant, and intentional, departures from the text.  It describes what the Torah depicts as Shechem’s rape of Dinah instead as a consensual, loving marriage that Dinah freely enters.  It presents the women of Jacob’s household as idol-worshipping pagans.  And of course, it gives Dinah voice and volition, both of which are absent in the text itself.

The language in chapter 34 is extremely deliberate.  Let’s focus on some of the verbs.  Dinah is the subject of exactly one verb in the entire story.  Ironically, her verb is the opening word of the chapter.  Vatetze Dinah.  “And Dinah, Leah’s daughter,whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land.”  (Genesis 34:1, Translation by Robert Alter)

For all other verbs in this story, Dinah is an object to be seen, taken, slept with, abused, defiled, and given away.

The medieval commentator Rashi records a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 80:1) that asks why Dinah is described as Leah’s daughter rather than Jacob’s daughter.  It is because her “going out” is similar to something her mother, Leah, had done a few chapters earlier.  After making a deal with her sister and co-wife Rachel, Leah goes out into the field to inform their husband Jacob that he must sleep with her that night.  Thus “going out” is associated with wantonness and promiscuity.  “Like mother like daughter,” as the Prophet Ezekiel states (Ezekiel 16:44).  Dinah, says Rashi, is a Yatzanit.

While there are other commentators that do not find fault with either Dinah or Leah, and indeed praise them both, we see in the midrash that Rashi chooses to cite the sexist and dangerous attitude that seeks to blame the victim.  “She was asking for it.”  “She should have known better than to go out looking like that.”  And so on.

How sad that the one verb attributed to Dinah in the entire Torah is interpreted so horribly!

Indeed, the verbs in the rest of the story also reflect the classic misogyny in which women are not seen as agents who can determine their own fate, but rather as property to be owned and traded.

Two verbs that occur numerous times are lakach and natan – take and give.  There is nothing unusual about these two words.  Both are ubiquitous and among the most common words in Hebrew.  In this story, these words are used almost exclusively to describe the transferring of possession of females by males.

Here are a few of the many examples:  Shechem takes Dinah and rapes her after he sees her.  Later, in love with Dinah, Shechem begs his father Chamor to “take for me this girl as a wife.”  When Chamor speaks to Jacob about it, he asks him to “Please give her to him as a wife.”  Chamor then suggests that the two tribes should intermarry with each other.  “You give your daughters to us, and our daughters you shall take for yourselves.”

When they hear about it, Dinah’s brothers are unhappy.  “We cannot do such a thing,” they say, “to give our sister to a man who has a foreskin…”  Negotiations go back and forth.  Eventually, the men of the town agree to be circumcised so that their respective daughters can be given and taken accordingly.  As per the agreement, Dinah is sent to Shechem’s house.  But it is all a ruse.  Shimon and Levi sneak into town and slaughter all of the men.  “Then they take Dinah from the house of Shechem and they leave.”

While incredibly upsetting, it should not surprise us that this ancient text presents women as passive chattel.  That was the social structure in the Ancient Near East.

These texts are part of our holy Torah, however.  Our tradition considers these words to be sacred, and insists that they contain ultimate Truth.  As Jews, we have to find how these words speak to us today.  In some cases, as in this story, there are elements both of the story itself and of how it has been traditionally understood, which many of us find deeply problematic.

That does not mean there is not a Truth that can speak to us from this text.

At this moment, a national conversation is taking place, primarily on college campuses, about what constitutes consent.  The old adage was “no means no.”  Now there are those who advocate a higher standard of “yes means yes.”  In other words, if both parties do not verbally consent, a sexual act may be considered rape.

In the course of this national conversation, attitudes are emerging that suggest that the clothing a person chooses to wear, or the decision to attend a fraternity party, for example, makes a victim at least partly responsible for the sexual assault she suffers.

While we as a society have come far in terms of promoting gender equality, and creating equal space for women’s voices, it is clear that we still have a way to go.  The way that we speak about gender and equality in religion is a central part of that progress.  Religion both reflects and, in some cases, leads the progress that society makes.

Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent has been a very important step that is both symbolic of and has inspired the embrace of women’s experiences and voices in Jewish tradition.

I am not suggesting that we should all go out and watch the Lifetime miniseries.  It will probably be entertaining, as well as “gauzy,” but I am not expecting any fabulous new insights.  Personally, I will not be watching it because I do not subscribe to cable.  I will just have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

But I see the trend of creatively considering how we might understand the voices of previously-silenced Jewish women to be an important one, whether in a miniseries, in a novel, or even more importantly, whenever we read our ancient holy texts.

Starting with Leviticus – Vayikra 5773

I just saw the documentary from a few years ago, Waiting for Superman. It notes that American students’ rankings have been falling precipitously in math and science over the past few decades. It also notes that every President since Eisenhower has claimed to be the Education President. As our nation struggles to get back on track, education is once again brought out as a key concern. Universal access to quality education has been an important principle since our nation’s founding. Nowadays, everyone recognizes that a failing educational system will have economic and social impacts down the road, but we can’t come together on the best way to fix our broken system.

The emphasis on education is an aspect of Jewish culture in which we take great pride. From our people’s beginnings, education has been considered to be of utmost importance. Our tradition does not entrust the transmission of knowledge to an intellectual or religious elite. Since the days of the Torah itself, the importance of passing on knowledge to one’s child has been a primary religious obligation.

It is not only an individual responsibility. We can even identify in our sources an obligation to entire communities to provide universal education. With one caveat: as anyone who has seen Yentl knows, until modern times, the focus was on educating boys, and girls were often an afterthought.

The Shulchan Arukh, the great sixteenth century law code, lays out specific instructions about public education. While it is true that parents have to teach Torah to their own children, the community as a whole also bears responsibility. The Shulchan Arukh*1* teaches that a community is obligated to hire a melamed, a teacher, for its children. The men in any community that does not have a melamed are to be excommunicated until they hire someone.

Children are supposed to start learning the aleph bet when they are 3, and then start school at 5 or 6 years old, beginning with the study of Torah.

An ancient midrash reports the custom of beginning a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus. Then it asks the question: Why do children begin their learning with the Book of Leviticus rather than the Book of Genesis?

After all, for a young child, the laws of sacrifices seem like a strange place to begin. If I was designing a curriculum for Torah study, I might choose to start somewhere different. Perhaps Genesis, as the midrash asks about. After all, it is the beginning. It describes the creation of the world. It is full of stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs…

Or, maybe we might choose to begin with the Book of Exodus. It describes the beginnings of the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt, and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

But no. The tradition was to begin with Leviticus. To teach children about different categories of sin, and the respective types of offerings that had to be brought for each one. To memorize the techniques of slaughtering animals and sprinkling blood on the altar. To learn how to distinguish between the various offerings that were brought at different times of the year. And all of these details about a way of worshipping God that had ceased entirely when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. Why, the midrash asks, would we start children’s education here?

The answer, as taught by Rabbi Asi, has to do with a certain similiarity between children and sacrifices. All of the sacrifices written in Leviticus have to do with purity. Children are pure, and have not yet experienced sin. Therefore, the Holy One said, ‘let the pure ones come and engage with matters of purity, and I will consider it as if you were standing before Me and offering sacrifices.’ It is children continuing to learn the laws of sacrifices that enables the world to continue to stand.*2*

Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen, a mid-seventeenth century Ashkenazi Rabbi reports that the custom of starting a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus was still being practiced in his day.*3*

I don’t know of any Jewish schools that continue this tradition, although I bet there is at least one yeshivah in Brooklyn that does. I am not endorsing a change in our curriculum that would have us teaching the laws of sacrifices to 5 year olds.

But I like the idea expressed in the midrash that God considers children learning to be the equivalent of worship in the Holy Temple. And that the world itself is sustained on the merit of children learning.

Those have certainly been core values in Judaism.

But let’s look at where things stand now. In California, between 1981 and 2011, higher education spending has decreased by 13% in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the same time period, spending on prisons has increased by 436%.*4* The state Legislative Analysts Office reported that in 2011-2012, the state spent $179,000 per incarcerated youth. For every child in Kindergarten through 12th grade, the state spent $7,500 per year.*5*

Nationally, as an overall percentage of all federal spending, children account for about 10%. Over the next ten years, that is expected to fall to 8%, with the biggest drops expected to be in education.*6*

If the world stands on the learning of children, we need to do something radically different with regard to our priorities.


*1* Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 245:7,8

*2* Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 14

*3* Siftei Kohen on Yoreh Deah 245:8

*4* http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/california-prisons-colleges_n_1863101.html

*5* http://www.cjcj.org/post/juvenile/justice/misplaced/priorities/california/s/spending/prisons/vs/higher/education

*6* http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/15/feds-spend-7-on-elderly-for-every-1-on-kids/


Connecting the Dots – Vayigash 5773

We would expect Joseph to be furious with his brothers. Several parashiyot ago we hear them say “come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!”*1*

It is only thanks to Reuben and Judah’s desperate intervention that Joseph is sold into slavery instead.

Even though things eventually turn out pretty good for Joseph, just try, for a moment, to imagine what it must have been like for him when his brothers threw him into that pit so many years ago. Imagine the insults they must have shouted. The taunts. The hatred.

Even if, physically, Joseph comes out on top, I can’t imagine the emotional trauma that a younger brother would experience when his older siblings abuse him like that. We would expect that rejection to stick with Joseph throughout his life.

That is why his reaction to his brothers in this morning’s Torah portion is so remarkable.

When he finally reveals himself, listen to what he says: “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth… it was not you who sent me here, but God…”*2*

Just contrast Joseph’s attitude to the brothers’ attitude years before. They are extremely short-sighted. They are thinking only in the moment. Here is this annoying little brother of ours. He thinks he’s so great. Just look at that ornamented tunic that he is always prancing about in. Father loves him best.

The brothers are stuck in their own anger, in the moment. When they act, they don’t consider the repercussions.

Not so Joseph. He is focused on the big picture. If there are any leftover emotions of anger, or desire for revenge, we do not see them.

Instead of his brothers comforting him and apologizing to him, it is Joseph who is doing the comforting! They don’t even have a chance to apologize. He absolves them of guilt, explaining their horrible behavior as God’s plan. It had to happen that way so that Joseph could be brought to Egypt, become vizier to Pharaoh, and save their lives.

The entire Joseph story is marked by peaks and valleys. Joseph rises to the top, and then is cast down, only to rise again in most remarkable fashion. We see this pattern repeat itself in his father’s house, Potiphar’s estate, and Pharaoh’s court. Throughout, Joseph sees the active hand of God in his life. We, the readers, do not see God’s direct intervention in Joseph’s life at any point in this story.

It is Joseph himself who connects the dots. He chooses to see a pattern in the random events that befall him. That pattern points to a Divine purpose. A purpose that is first foretold in his boyhood dreams of his brothers bowing down to him. Now we discover that those dreams have been fulfilled, in the most extraordinary way.

Unlike the rest of the Book of Genesis, in which God’s hand is much more apparent, the Joseph saga is like the world we know. We, like Joseph and his brothers, choose how to see the peaks and valleys of our lives.

Are they a series of random dots, ultimately patternless and meaningless. Are we alone to make decisions by ourselves? When outside forces impinge on our lives for good or for bad, are they essentially random and unpredictable?

Or, do we connect those dots in a way that points to a purpose for our existence? Do we see the things that happen to us in the context of Jewish history? Do Jewish beliefs, traditions, and practices help us contextualize the blessings and tragedies that we all face? In short, is God involved in a purposeful way in our lives?

*1*Genesis 37:20

*2*Genesis 45:4-8

I got some ideas from a D’var Torah called Unanticipated Consequences, by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Vice Chancellor and Director of Community Engagement for the Jewish Theological Seminary

Joseph’s Land Reform – Vayigash 5771

Wherever you see yourself on the political spectrum, I think you will probably agree with me that we are facing serious economic problems that need to be addressed.  Problems of long term debt, of expenditures that are far exceeding revenues.  Our elected leaders are going to have to do something pretty dramatic to deal with these problems.

And it has been so frustrating watching both parties in Congress  quibble over politics.  First the Republicans promise to block anything that President Obama sends their way, even if it is an idea that originated in the Republican Party, and then when he finally gets them to agree to a compromise, the Democrats refuse to accept it.

California is even worse.  We have seen the budgetary problems pushed off from one year to the next, with the State Legislature refusing to ever actually address the real issues.

Perhaps there is some wisdom to be gleaned from an ancient source.  We read this morning of one of the most remarkable, peaceful, successful, and well thought out national economic transformations in history.  And it all happens in just fourteen years.

7 years of plenty, 7 years of famine

Joseph was appointed as Prime Minister because of the plan that he outlined to Pharaoh after he interpreted his dreams

Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities.  Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.  (41:35-36)

When the famine hits after seven years, Joseph, and the Egyptian government, are ready for it.  People start flocking in from all over the Egyptian empire, and even from surrounding lands.  Enough food was saved to feed everyone, even the foreigners.

The Torah describes how it played out.  First, the people bring their money to pay for the food.  When the money runs out, they pay for food with their livestock.  When the livestock all belong to Pharaoh, the people beg Joseph to feed them in exchange for their land and their selves.  They ask to become serfs to Pharaoh.  As part of this plan, the population of Egypt is resettled, town by town.    Joseph then gives the people seed to plant their crops, and requests that they turn over twenty percent of their yield to Pharaoh.  Only the Egyptian priests are allowed to keep their land, along with receiving their food allotment from the government.  The end of the account informs us of the Egyptian people’s gratefulness to Joseph for his successful guidance of them through the famine.  In a postscript, we are told that it is still the law “today” that one fifth of the produce belongs to Pharaoh, except that which is owned by the priests.

How do we read this story today?  One twentieth century Israeli writer called it “State Communism.”  “Control, centralization of food supply, and equal distribution accompanied by the nationalization of private property, first of money, then cattle, and finally, land.  Henceforth all the lessees of Pharaoh’s lands pay him “the state” ground rent, and live on the residue.”  (Nehama Leibovitch, New Studies in Bereshit, p. 525)

I think there is a modern tendency to read this story too negatively.  To blame Joseph for strengthening the power of the central government, and for ultimately turning the Egyptian people against the Israelites.  This sets the stage for the eventual enslavement of the Israelites by a populist, and possibly fascist Pharaoh who the Torah reports “did not know Joseph.”

Of course, interpretations like this reflect more about twentieth century political discourse than they do about the ancient world.  If we want to understand Jewish values, then we have to look at how this episode has been understood by our tradition.  We will find that the tradition views Joseph’s actions quite favorably.  It suggests something about the values that society and its leaders ought to bring to public crises such as the famine in ancient Egypt, and perhaps even the economic situation that we are facing today in California and in the United States.

There are some interesting details of Joseph’s plan that the midrash and commentators do not overlook, and nor should we.  The Torah notes that he had the grain collected and deposited “in the cities.”  The midrash explains that Joseph decentralized the food distribution system by locating the storehouses in local cities and towns.  That way, people did not have to travel all the way to the capital for food.

Another midrash describes how he collected all sorts of different kinds of foods, from various grains, to raisins and figs.  And each type was stored in a way that was most appropriate to avoid spoilage.

Joseph oversees the rationing system to make sure that everyone in society is able to get through the lean times.  Most of us in this room have not had to live through periods of food rationing.  The great twentieth Israeli Bible commentator, Nechama Leibowitz,  who knew scarcity, writes, “For those who have experienced one and even two world wars, Joseph’s rationing operations are no novelty, but for previous generations they were, and we may presume that they constituted something entirely revolutionary in his own time.”  (New Studies in Bereshit, p. 520)

Without the rationing, I think it is safe to assume that the wealthy would have gotten through ok, and the poor would have starved.  It seems to be the way of the world.

And without careful administration, profiteering would have been rampant.  Indeed, a midrash explains how Joseph prevented price gouging by restricting people to enough food for their own needs, but not extra that they would be able to sell on the black market.  Further, nobody was allowed to enter the country without first registering his name and that of his father and grandfather.  In other words, he established a passport control system.

But if everything was organized so well that nobody was left to starve, why does the Torah describe the Egyptians as crying “out to Pharaoh for bread”?  (41:55)  The 18th century commentary Or-Ha-hayyim answers that the cries were more for psychological reasons than for physical ones.  And Joseph responds to their cries appropriately:

Since a person who has bread in his or her basket cannot be compared to one who has not.  [Joseph] therefore meant to satisfy the psychological feeling of want by opening the granaries for them to see the plenty garnered there and rest secure .

Now one might be inclined to assume that Joseph reserved special treatment for his own family.  After all, the Torah describes how he gave them the best land for raising livestock.  Not so, says the commentator Sforno.  The Torah states that “Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones.”  But Sforno quotes the Talmud to explain Joseph’s honesty.  “When the public experiences calamity, let no person say, I shall betake myself to eat and drink and couldn’t care less.”  (BT Ta’anit 11a)

Furthermore, the text describes how Joseph collects all of the money, and brought it faithfully to the house of Pharaoh.  He does not skim anything off the top to build up his own private hoard, explains medieval Spanish commentator Ramban.  Joseph is an honest civil servant.

When the Egyptian people beg to sell themselves into slavery, Ramban explains, Joseph actually refuses.  He purchases the land from them, but not their bodies.  Normally, Ramban claims, the King would keep eighty percent and the serf only twenty percent.  But he treats the Egyptian people like landowners, and the Pharaoh like the serf, reversing the relative percentages.

Ramban’s numbers are a bit exaggerated, but we do have some data from the ancient world.  A tax rate of twenty percent would not at all have been considered excessive.  During the reign of Hammurabi, the state received between half and two thirds of the net produce, after deduction of expenses.  Interest rates in Babylon for loans of produce were thirty three percent.(Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary:  Genesis, p. 322)  It seems that Joseph’s economic policies, in light of the times, were quite reasonable.

And I think we have to take the Torah at its word when it says that the Egyptian people were grateful to Joseph.

But is this the Torah’s final word?  Is it presenting for us an ideal model of the economic makeup of a society, or of how to get through a national crisis?  Is this a model that we ought to be looking at for moral guidance today?

There are some internal hints that suggest that the answer is no.    That the Israelite approach is different than the Egyptian one.  The first hint is in the role of the priests.  The Egyptian priests come off as a privileged elite.  They get to keep their land, and they continue to receive their regular allotment from Pharaoh.  Compare this to the tribe of the Levites, about whom it is written, “they shall have no territorial share among the Israelites.”  (Num. 18:23-24)  In exchange for their service on behalf of the nation, they receive tithe payments, but they do not get to own land.  So what is their inheritance?  According to Deuteronomy, “the Lord is their inheritance.”  (Deut. 10:9)  The Torah seems to be concerned with not allowing them to take advantage of their status to become overly powerful.

Another way in which the Torah signals that this is not the ideal is in subtly emphasizing the role of the Egyptian people in the economic transformation.  It is the people who offer themselves to be serfs to Pharaoh.  Rather than take responsibility for their own redemption, they willingly turn over responsibility to the state.  As Nahum Sarna explains:  “The peasants initiate the idea of their own enslavement and even express gratitude when it is implemented.”  (Ibid., p. 323)

In contrast, what does the Torah say about land ownership and serfdom in the land of Israel?  In Leviticus, God states:  “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”  (Lev. 25:23)

And regarding serfdom, it states:  “for they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.”  (Lev. 25:42)

The ancient Israelite economic model is based on private ownership, with limits.  And it works pretty strongly to prevent citizens from becoming enslaved to one another.

Where does this leave us?  Do we find anything in Joseph’s shrewd leadership that might help us in our current predicament?

Well, everything I have been reading seems to suggest that the only way to really solve our economic woes is through pretty radical changes to some very expensive programs, as well as a significant reworking of our taxation system.  I don’t think anything that is currently before Congress or the State Legislature comes close.  When you compare it to about what Joseph managed to accomplish over a fourteen year period of time, it seems pretty remarkable.

The important thing to remember is that Joseph, at least the version of him that is presented by the Jewish interpretive tradition, is being guided by certain core values:  That nobody will be left to starve.  That regulation should prevent profiteers from taking advantage of the system.  And that special interests are not given special treatment.

It is also important for us to remember that the Torah’s ideal is  ultimately not what is to be found in Egypt, but rather that which is to be found in the Promised Land.  It is the establishment of a society in which the fundamental equality of all human life is valued, regardless of one’s socioeconomic status, and in which freedom is a core right.

I pray that sooner, rather than later, we will be able to responsibly, and effectively, address the current problems in our society with the same kind of courage, commitment to morals, and compassion for all human beings that our ancestor Joseph once did in Egypt.