Jews: The Essence and Character of a People

Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Publisher: Harper Collins

Midrashim, interpretive teachings often written in the form of legends, fill in gaps or expand on the biblical narrative. As the most terse and abbreviated biblical stories are often about women, many contemporary women writers have turned to the art of midrash-making to cast new light on figures such as Lilith (Adam’s first wife and the one created as his equal), Serah bat Asher (a descendant of Jacob who leads Moses to Joseph’s coffin prior to the Exodus), Miriam (a prophetess in her own right), and now Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah.

In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant, author of several popular guides to Jewish living (Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding Book, Saying Kaddish), has transformed Dinah’s story into a full-length novel. “I did not set out to explain or rewrite the biblical text,” says Diamant, “but to use Dinah’s silence to try to imagine what life was like for women in this historical period.”

This act of midrash-making, says Professor Howard Schwartz of the University of Missouri, is “a continuing process of the reintegration of the past into the present. Each time this takes place, the tradition is transformed and must be reimagined. And it is this very process that keeps the tradition vital and perpetuates it.”

To understand Diamant’s creative use of midrash, it is best to begin with the biblical narrative itself: Shortly after Jacob’s reunion with Esau, Jacob settles his household in the town of Shechem. There, his daughter Dinah meets the son of Hamor, the prince of the land. The Bible tells us: “He took her and lay with her, forcing her” (Genesis 34:2). This sounds like a rape, but the narrative continues: “His emotions clung to Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. He loved the girl and he spoke to the heart of the girl” (Genesis 34:3). How does Dinah feel about these events? The Bible does not say.

In Genesis 34, all the attention focuses on the actions of the men around Dinah. Eager to set things right and make an alliance with Jacob’s tribe, Shechem and his father visit Jacob and offer an elaborate brideprice for Dinah. Jacob and his sons make another demand before they will agree to marriages between the children of Israel and Shechem: that all the men of Shechem, including the prince and his son, be circumcised, in accordance with God’s command to Abraham: “This is my covenant which you are to keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:10). The lovestruck son consents, and the entire male community performs the ritual. But Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, renege on Jacob’s word to give his daughter in marriage if the men of Shechem enter the covenant through circumcision; instead, they slaughter the men of Shechem in their weakened state, including Dinah’s lover. On his deathbed, Jacob curses his sons for their treachery (Genesis 49:5-7). Dinah is never mentioned again.

Writing Dinah’s story from Dinah’s point of view, Diamant explores the relationships of mothers, sisters, and daughters, who teach each other the mysteries of women’s lives in the “red tent,” where women retreat at times of menstruation and childbirth. As Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah listens to the stories of her mother Leah and the other mothers of Jacob’s children — Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. In Dinah’s voice, Diamant gives an original interpretation of how Leah came to replace Rachel under the chupah with Jacob. Dinah’s own sensuality blossoms in her impetuous love affair with the young prince of Shechem. After her brothers’ violence against the men of Shechem, she leaves with the mother of her slain lover for Egypt, where she bears Shechem’s child and begins a career as a trusted midwife. Preceding her brothers’ sojourn in Egypt, she builds a new life in a strange land, as does her favorite brother Joseph, with whom she is eventually reunited. Unlike the biblical narrative, which depicts her solely as a victim and a pawn, Diamant’s midrash portrays Dinah as a woman with a will of her own.

(Reprinted from Reform Judaism Magazine with permission.)

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