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How do you sing about rape? Chanting the rape of Dina on the International Day against violence against Women, and #MeToo


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...

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Simchat Torah as an entrypoint for women's ritual inclusion in Judaism

[CROSSPOSTED FROM TIMES OF ISRAEL] This week marks the ten year anniversary since the first time I read Torah in public. Simchat Torah 2002, my family and I had just moved to Melbourne, Australia, for three years, and I quickly found a warm home with the Orthodox Women’s Network. Dr. Jordy Hyman, Naomi Dessauer and Janet Belleli ran the group with skill and aplomb, and generously asked me if I would like to read the third aliyah on the holiday. It was thrilling and enthralling. To this day, whenever I get stuck on a cantillation, I think back to the passage I read then – “U’l’Yosef amar” – knowing that it’s all ingrained in my consciousness and my spirit from that very first Simchat Torah. That Simchat Torah was a watershed moment for me. Even if it took me three decades to go from passive listener to active leader, I love layning, and I always have. I can still recall sitting in the women’s section of The Young Israel of Flatbush when I was a teenager, listening to the Torah reading and trying to match the marks on the letters to the sounds I was hearing. (When I eventually learned to read Torah, I did it via tape recorder, and that’s why to this day, I have no idea what people mean when they refer to a “pashta” or “zakef katan,” but I can tell you how a little chupchik over the letter is meant to sound.) The cantillations have always been a vital part of understanding the text. I have given numerous divrei torah over the years using textual insights based on cantillations. When, in Megillat Esther, for example, Esther is called to the king during the beauty pageant – “Ub’hagiya tor Esther bat Avihail dod Mordechai,” the music brilliant reflects her hesitation with a pausing, haunting, aching melody. I love that. I love reading the Torah with its transmitted music. It brings the whole heritage to life for me, and makes the narratives real. Anat Hoffman of the Women of the Wall reads from the Torah at Robinson’s Arch outside of the Western Wall (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90) Still, until I actually learned to layn myself, I didn’t fully own the text as my own. It created a whole new set of connections for me. It was a crucial step for me in feeling like I was truly part of the community. For this, I would always be eternally indebted to the women of OWN Australia. I wouldn’t be who I am without the opportunities they gave me. I have layned many times since then and listened proudly to my children – both genders – layn. The layning has inspired in me hope that there is an active place for women in Orthodox life. It has inspired me to keep fighting for a better Orthodoxy, for one that fully appreciates the value of the women in the community.   [READ MORE AT THE TIMES OF ISRAEL]

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