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.