Vayetze: A ladder of connection
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Vayetze: A ladder of connection

Parashat Vayishlach: Women as equals

Shomrei Torah – Wayne Conservative Congregation

Jacob wrestling, transforming, and becoming Israel is by far the most famous part of this week’s Torah portion. However, I want to focus on what may be the least discussed part of the parsha: the rape of Dinah. Violence against women has existed from time immemorial and sadly continues in our day. The focus of the text and for that matter the rabbinic commentators is upon the men of the story, what they thought, what they said, what they did; but throughout Dinah is silent. We are not told what transpired, how she reacted, what she said, or what she felt. She is not only a victim, but in many ways an object rather than a subject. In the words of Martin Buber, this entire episode is an I-It encounter. Shechem does not treat Dinah as a person, she is only the object of his desire. There is no evidence in the text that her family is concerned about her needs. No one takes the time to explore with her what happened, what she felt, what she wanted.

Dinah’s brothers “defend her honor” but we don’t know if that is what she wanted or simply how they reacted. They don’t just seek justice, but vengeance; and not only against the perpetrator, but every man in the town. It brings to mind the adage that two wrongs don’t make a right. Assuming the traditional understanding of what transpired to be correct, what Shechem did to Dinah is horrible, he deserves to be punished, but more importantly, she deserves to be seen, heard, respected. As we have moved from a patriarchal society to one that is more egalitarian we have learned the importance of listening to the voices of women and giving heed to their wisdom.

While the role of women in today’s society is much better than it once was, yet it is still a far cry from where it could be, where it should be. I am often amazed that so many people fight against what seems obvious to me and many others: that men and women are equals. And yet in the workplace it is still so much harder for women, economically they are disadvantaged, opportunities for advancement are fewer. In spite of all the achievements, there are so many ways that their lives are made more challenging.

As a man, I cannot be more than an ally. I can’t know what it is like for a woman in our society. But from a young age, my mother sought to expose the men in our family with the struggle for women’s equality. She had a mother who was strong, independent, and successful in a man’s world. However, her goal was to help women in general. She ran a program that retrained women who had been homemakers to enter or re-enter the workforce. She was an advocate for women, seeking to help them help themselves. And she taught us to be sensitive and caring, to encourage and empower.

Judaism teaches respect for others and yet even in the world of religion where we have women rabbis, synagogue presidents, Torah readers and tutors, we still have allowed an environment where women are often not paid the same as men, do not have the same access to jobs, and are not treated the same way as their male counterparts. We have so much more to do create the kind of world that should already exist.

At the most basic level, we have to teach men that “No means no,” that violence against women is never acceptable, that one cannot act upon their desires, as Shechem is described as doing the Torah portion, without consent. Relationships must always be consensual. Too often we think we know what someone else wants: We must ask, we must clarify. Greater physical strength, positions of power and authority should never be used to fulfill ones needs at the expense of another. The fact that there is a need to say these things even today, saddens me. I am dismayed at the lack of progress and development towards something so basic and essential that it should be axiomatic, but it is not.

Let us work together to create a more perfect union – both on a macro and on a micro level. Let us make sure that we treat everyone fairly regardless of gender. Let’s do our part make sure that we treat both men and women with equal respect. It is everyone’s due. We can help to create a better world.

Shabbat Shalom.

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