Implications of an Unviolated Dinah

Elizabeth Dunoff , University of Pennsylvania 

In the early 2000s, a few years after it had been published, The Red Tent, written by Anita Diament, first reached the New York Times bestseller list.[1] This rise was due in no small part to the many women’s book groups and reading circles that embraced the book. The book was especially beloved in liberal Jewish circles, and my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt all read it in their respective synagogue book groups. I grew up with a copy of it around the house, and first read the book in high school, a few years after it trended. That first time I read it, I felt inspired and deeply connected to my Israelite foremothers whose stories were recounted in the novel. It seemed like a perfect feminist novel, the counterpoint to the patriarchal Biblical texts we read in shul on Saturday mornings. Rereading the book as a college student, having become more deeply involved both observant Judaism and feminist activism since that first reading, I was struck by my own intense, negative reaction to the novel. This is my attempt to explain why.

The Red Tent tells the life story of Dinah, the daughter of the patriarch Jacob. Diamant draws on and adds to the biblical narrative found in the book of Genesis.[2] The most significant plot difference between the novel and the original biblical passage – one that sets up the trajectory of The Red Tent – occupies only one line in the Torah: “Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force” (Gen 34:2 NJPS). In Jewish tradition, this episode is known as “the rape of Dinah.” In The Red Tent, by contrast, Dinah is a willing participant, excited to go to bed with Shechem (named Shalem in the novel) and thoroughly enjoying the act.[3] This imaginative change turns Dinah from a passive object who is acted upon to an agentive subject who is able to act. However, in the larger context of the novel, Diament’s rereading supports a narrative where gendered and sexual violence is consistently displaced from the Israelite women and enacted on the bodies of non-Israelite women, while  women who have suffered sexual violence are excluded from the tribe of Israel. The story of Dinah as told in The Red Tent creates a dichotomy whereby women can either be empowered agentive characters or victims of sexual violence. In contrast, many of the rabbinic midrashim which tell of Dinah’s life after the fall of Shechem show her both as having been victimized and as later taking an active role in the course of Jewish history.

To explore this difference, we must first turn to the Hebrew text to figure out whether the incident in the Torah between Dinah and Shechem was indeed rape. In the original Hebrew, three verses describe “the rape of Dinah.” The first verb, וַיִּקַּ֥ח (“he took”) occurs many times throughout the bible, and can signify taking  or fetching an object or taking a wife.[4] The second verb, וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב, (“and he lay”) also occurs numerous times, and can imply lying to sleep or lying with one’s spouse to conceive a child.[5] Both of the previous verbs occur elsewhere in the Torah in consensual situations. Only through the final verb, וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ, we fully come to understand that this interaction between Dinah and Shechem was against Dinah’s will. The word in this form is literally translated as “and he defiled,” or “and he violated,” but many modern translations use it to modify the previous verb: “lay with her by force.” The only other such occurrence of this verb is in 2 Samuel 13:14: Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, overpowering her even as she vocally begs him not to.[6] These parallel uses of וַיְעַנֶּֽה fill in the blanks in the story of Dinah, attributing to Dinah the same resistance found in the case of Tamar.

In The Red Tent, the sexual violence Dinah experienced at the hands of Shechem is transformed into a mutual, loving encounter. However, Diamant did not create a world entirely without sexual violence, and Dinah is the only woman whose violent encounter is transformed. This is in marked contrast to the case of Ruti, the youngest and final wife of Laban. Ruti is purchased by Laban, brought to the camp in exchange for only “a bag of coins.”[7] Laban is an abusive drunk who spends the night of Jacob and Leah’s marriage with “his hand up poor Ruti’s dress.”[8] Ruti bears Laban two sons, and although in the immediate aftermath of their births he treats her well, his normal course of action is “to hit her and call her names so ugly my mothers would not repeat them to me [Dinah].”[9] Dinah describes her physical appearance, saying, “Ruti’s shoulders stooped with despair, and several of her teeth we broken from the force of Laban’s fists.” Nevertheless Ruti’s broken appearance did not prevent Laban from continuing, “to use her body for his own pleasure.”[10] Diamant clearly describes the disapproval and distaste of Dinah’s mothers, the Israelite women, for the victimized Ruti. She writes that the Israelite women distances themselves so harshly from Ruti that the rest of the household followed suit, until Ruti “became such a ragged, battered misery to look at that no one saw her.”[11] When Jacob’s family eventually leaves Laban’s camp, Ruti disappears and is finally found dead in a ditch by Dinah and Joseph. The sad story of Ruti demonstrates that in Diamant’s world, women who have suffered sexual violence are eternally outside of the tribe of Israel and unable to create lives after their victimizations.

In contrast, rabbinic midrash conceives of Dinah as being victimized, but also as existing after her victimization in a role as Israelite matriarch. One version of the midrash describes Dinah’s marriage to her brother Shimeon, extrapolating from the Gen 34:26, which says that Shimeon and Levi “took” Dinah out of the house of Shechem that Shimeon also “took” her for a wife.[12] In this version, Dinah is the mother of Shimeon’s son “Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman” (Gen 46:10 NJPS), and she is called a Canaanite due to her eventual burial in the land of Canaan.[13] In another version, Dinah marries Job and converts him to the Israelite tradition, thus using her own personal attributes to influence one of the most righteous male converts in Jewish history.[14] Finally, in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Dinah is said to have conceived a child by Shechem, a daughter who would grow up to be Asenath, the eventual wife of Joseph and mother of Ephraim and Menashe.[15] In this way, she becomes the foremother of two of the major Israelite tribes.

While in The Red Tent, Diamant attempts to “redeem” the story of Dinah by turning her rape into a love story, Diamant ultimately establishes a dangerous dichotomy between “the women of Israel” and “women who have suffered sexual violence,” a model that writes many Jewish women, both historical and contemporary, out of the tribe. For Jewish women who have been victimized in the past, the traditional story of Dinah offers hope that not only will the violence done to them be regarded seriously by the men of Israel, but that they will have a life, purpose, and historical role beyond their victimization. Diamant, unable to envision a situation where a woman can both have been raped and exist as an agentive being, offers only Ruti, an outsider who dies a sad and beaten woman, as a model for survivorship. While the model offered by rabbinic literature is not necessarily in line with modern feminist of empowered womanhood, it shows Jewish women that they do not lose their tribal membership as a consequence of their victimhood. Instead, like the rabbinic Dinah, they are able to regain their agency and take their part in the history of the Jewish people.

[1] 3. Patricia Holt, “The Red Tide,” Ms. Magazine, October-November 2001,

[2] Anita Diamant, The Red Tent (New York: Picador USA, 1997).

[3] Diamant, 190-191.

[4] For this sense of “and he took” see Gen 24:67 where Isaac takes Rivka for a wife.

[5] For this second meaning, see Gen 30:16-17 where Leah and Rachel trade mandrakes for a night with Jacob, and Jacob lies with Leah and conceives Issachar.

[6] See 2 Samuel 13:11-14.

[7] Diamant, 22.

[8] Diamant, 32.

[9] Diamant, 63.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tamar Kadari, “Dinah: Midrash and Aggadah” The Jewish Women’s Archive: Encyclopedia,; Bereshit Rabbah 80:11.

[13] Kadari, “Dinah.”

[14] Kadari, “Dinah;” Bereshit Rabbah 19:12.

[15] Pirkei d’ Rabbi Eliezer, 50b.