Conversion and the Jews

The lessons of the ‘rape’ of Dinah.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Understanding the saga of Dinah, Shekhem, Hamor, Shimon, and Levi hinges on the last word of Genesis 34:2.
Translators usually render this word “vaye’aneha” as “and lay with her by force.” With this interpretation, the story is about the rape of Dinah, and Shimon and Levi’s defense of their sister. However, one of the earliest commentators, Saadiah Gaon, simply translates the word as “and he had relations with her” – a meaning that corresponds with its use in Deuteronomy 22:24. Many modern scholars have interpreted the word in the same way, reading the story as having nothing to do with rape.
While it is commonplace to read the chapter from a feminist perspective as a story of rape, this might not necessarily be the p’shat, or simple explanation. There is indeed a reading that shows a more active, daring and less victimized female character.
Accepting this interpretation – Dinah willingly taking up with Shekhem and intentionally going out “to visit the daughters of the land” – sheds an entirely different meaning on the entire story, placing it within an eternal, even existential, Jewish debate.
Dinah knows how her parents met – Jacob was sent all the way to Haran to find a wife from Rebekah’s family, instructed by his father, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite family.” Dinah, the third generation to be born into the “Abrahamic” family, wants no part of this xenophobic view of the local population.
She feels at home in Canaan and is no longer the immigrant her great-grandparents were. She is attracted to the local men, perhaps even more if they are “the forbidden fruit.” She is not an innocent young girl who foolishly wanders outside the safety of her clan and meets with violent consequences. Rather, like any teenaged girl, she knows the best way to attract attention is to be seen with the other girls.
She sets out looking for this attention and is successful at getting it.
If we follow this logic, Shimon and Levi’s ruse against Shekhemites cannot be interpreted as a means to punish them for Shekhem’s rape of their sister. Rather, it is a violent demonstration to the local population as to what they must do to join the new clan in town.
Shimon and Levi suggest that the only thing barring Dinah from marrying Shekhem is circumcision. Undergo this right, they say, and we can all happily intermarry. “We will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred” (34:16). In other words, in order for us to intermarry, all you have to do is accept this one central custom, connected to both covenant and marriage. Take upon yourselves the covenant of circumcision and nothing will distinguish you from us.
Remarkably, Hamor convinces his people to accept the terms (adult circumcision with flint knives!). Had the story ended here, with the people of Shekhem circumcising themselves and marrying the daughters of Abraham’s descendants, the lesson would have been that the only barrier to joining Israel is circumcision.
But of course, Shimon and Levi end up teaching the exact opposite lesson. On the third day, when the Shekhemites were sore, “Dinah’s brothers took their swords and came upon the city unawares, and killed all the males” and plundered the city. Even after circumcision, they seem to be saying, you Shekhem, Hamor and townsmen are not part of us. You can never be part of us. There is no joining our family, not even through circumcision. Their anger is not that Dinah has been raped; their anger is that she and they thought that intermarriage was ever possible.
Shimon and Levi, however, do not have the last word. At first Jacob censures them for bringing their small clan into danger. But on his deathbed, Jacob offers a moral condemnation of their acts. “Let my person not be included in their council,” Jacob laments. The vision of the budding Israelite faith espoused by these two men is rejected.
Their descendants lose any future leadership role to which they may have been entitled. Instead, Judah, Jacob’s fourth, is to inherit the kingship.
As Jacob says two verses later, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.” From Judah eventually will come David. In between, of course, lies Ruth the Moabitess. The eternal royal line and the eventual Messiah will be filtered through the blood of a foreigner. The Israelite faith eventually will become “Judaism” – literally the religion of the clan of Judah.
Shimon and Levi propose a closed familial religion totally impermeable to foreigners. Women might be able to marry Israelite men, but no one can actually become Israelite. Instead of religion, this is pure ethnicity. But “Shimonism” or “Levism” did not survive.
Conversion through circumcision became not only a means through which a non-Jew could cross the border and become a Jew; it became one of the central tenets on which the entire Jewish (“Judahish”) tradition is founded.  Joshua Kulp is the co-author of ‘Reconstructing the Talmud’ and the ‘Schechter Haggadah.’ He teaches Talmud at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem