I was preparing for my layning, my turn at chanting the Torah portion, when I stopped short. I could not get the words out. The melody of the chanting, the “trop”, is joyful, uplifting, and in a major key. But I couldn’t do it. Because the words I was chanting in that normal trop were about rape – specifically, the rape of Dina by Shechem, the non-Israelite son of Ham the Hivite.
V’yishkav otah vaye’aneha – And he laid her down and tortured her. (Genesis 24;2)
How do you chant about rape? How do you sing in the normal uplifting tune, as if everything is normal, when the story is about this awful violence against a girl?
One more moment of being a woman entering a man's world, a reminder that everything we know and do, pretty much, was constructed by a male perspective. For thousands of years, when chanting the Torah was the realm of men’s work, these words were chanted just as all other words in the Bible. Because, of course they were.
To be fair, the bible does not exactly condone the rape of Dina. On the contrary, the entire story that follows is about the rage of Dina’s brothers at such an awful thing, the vengeance they sought, and the way they suffered in the long term because of their uncontrolled anger. And while the reader is led to believe initially that their rage was about the fact that Shechem was uncircumcised and therefore impure, we soon realize that this was just a ruse. After all, every man in the town went through circumcision in order to make the rape palatable to the Israelite brothers, but the two of them massacred the entire town anyway. So, it is safe to assume that the brothers were pretty angry about what Shechem did to their sister, and not merely because his penis had a foreskin.
And to be quite honest, part of me is grateful to Shimon and Levi for caring. After all, there are a lot of terrible things that happen to women in the bible that barely get noted. Most of the time, the mistreatment of women is treated as par for the course. Grabbing, silencing, using, abusing, ignoring, marrying off against their wills, covering, punishing, blaming, manipulating, hurting, selling off, and yes, raping women and girls are all in the Bible.Just the culture, the way things were done back then, or something. We read this, we treasure these books, we chant the stories with celebration and fanfare, and move on.So at least here we have this monstrosity of a brutal massacre by brothers who seemed to be genuinely upset about their sister's rape. It’s as chivalrous as it is horrifying.
For the most part, the Jewish tradition reads all these texts with the same tune. A recitation of our history for the purpose of remembering. The good and the bad. But I couldn’t do that this week.
This was a big responsibility for me. I am figuring out how to be loyal to the tradition while being loyal to my own experience and knowledge as a woman in the world, and this posed a challenge.
There is still a newness for me in getting up to the podium and taking that space of leading the entire congregation. In the scheme of things, women have not been in charge of the rituals like layning or deciding on the trop or leading the prayer services for very long. It has only been a generation or two, really, since the 1970s and 1980s, that women have been in this position of getting up to the Torah and reading. And for me, even though I was involved in women’s prayer groups and partnership minyans for the past 15-20 years where there are some specific, contained opportunities for women to take on these roles, until now what that has meant for me is that I am allowed to do what men have been doing for thousands of years. Being allowed to layn has meant adopting the men’s decisions about what is correct trop and what is the correct way to read from the Torah.
But that wasn’t working for me. Especially not at moments like these. I needed to do something else. I needed to acknowledge that there is another way to read these texts. It is no longer satisfying for me to simply do what men have been doing all along. Because it is very possible that the way men have decided to do some of this is wrong. Yes, wrong. If you read the story about Dina being raped with the same melody that you read everything else, you’re doing something wrong.
Of course you are. It’s the same error that comes from excluding women to begin with. It is the mistake of thinking that you can deprive half the population of the right to speak freely and think that you are doing God’s work. The same mistake. If you think you can know the right way to read the Torah while you’re proclaiming that half the population has no right to read it, then you are by definition going to be reading it wrong.
I needed to do something differently. I needed to acknowledge that we are reading about the rape of a girl -- yes, the text calls her a girl! Shechem called her a girl! -- the violent taking and torturing of her, and the pain that such a thing involves. I needed to take a little moment – for myself, for Dina, and for every single other woman and girl today and throughout history who has been taken against her will, tortured, abused, or raped – and read this in a different tune, a different voice.
So I decided to read these words with a different trop. There are certain occasions in the Jewish calendar which are marked by the use of different tunes, even if only for a small verse. So i decided to do that. I used the trop of Eichah, Lamentations. It is the saddest, most mournful trop we have. It is reserved for the events that are considered the worst events to happen in our history. For these three words about the rape of Dina, I chanted as if it was Lamentations.
You can hear it here. It’s slight and it’s subtle. But it’s there.
I used the tools at my disposal, the tradition itself, to bring a woman’s perspective into the ritual here.
It took me two days of practicing to feel comfortable and confident about this. It’s only three words, but I was still nervous. I am changing something. I am doing something publicly. I am challenging the standard practice. And I am bringing to the fore the reality of rape. In the middle of the sanctuary. I was really nervous.
And then something extraordinary happened.
On that Monday morning, my friend and classmate Osnat Eldar, leading the service, was talking about sexual abuse. It was November 27, the day following the International Day against Violence against Women. She decided to dedicate the prayer that day to victims of sexual violence.
She was talking about #MeToo.
She was talking about statistics of rape.
And she was talking about Dina. The history of sexual violence within our own heritage.
She was connecting it all, and devoting the entire service to this work.
She brought in series of additions and changes that were really meaningful and powerful, songs and verses to help us connect to this issue. For example, when we recited the blessings on the Torah, instead of reading the standard verses from the Bible and Mishna, we read the verses about the rape of Dina. The very same verses that I would be chanting to the tune of Lamentations in just a few moments. It was so powerful.
Osnat and I were thinking the same thing without discussing it first – that if we are going to lead the service, we are not going to just do what men have been doing all along. We are going to bring our experiences and insights as women. And right now, the dominant feature of that experience is sexual abuse. I was so grateful that Osnat had the wisdom and courage to do this. And I felt like I was in the right place, in the right company, and that my three-word chant of the rape to the tune of Lamentations was exactly right.
I went up to chant my portion, and I could feel the weight of all the eyes on me. I could feel my grandmothers and their grandmothers watching me, encouraging me, nodding to me, validating what I was about to do. I could feel Dina, Batsheba, Tamar, Esther, and all the other often unnamed and unnoticed biblical women and girls who experienced sexual violence, walking with me, surrounding me. And I knew that the hundreds – thousands, millions – of women who have been sharing #MeToo stories were with me as well. It is time for us to speak out and say, this is not a tradition to chant with joy. We are mourning.
I read it, and then my body started shaking. I felt my knees weaken. I grabbed on to the table because I was afraid I was going to fall over. It was only three words, and the change was almost unnoticeable. But it was also huge. My knees understood how huge this was. The speaking out of women. The talking back. The saying, HEY! This is how WOMEN experience this. We are hurt! It was little and yet it was so big.
And in the end, it was just one little piece of something much bigger that Osnat did. What I did with three little words she did with the entire service. It was incredible. A little-big repair for women, hopefully one of many.
This is why I am here, at the Reform movement. This is the place where it is safe for me to do this, where I can use the tools of the tradition to fix itself. Judaism has some beautiful aspects to it, but it also has a lot of mistakes. I am here to embrace the tradition and be a vehicle for Judaism to repair itself in order to be able to repair the world. This is what I am doing right now.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org