December 4, 2014

Time to tell the truth about biblical movies: In general, they are pretty poor. I know that I might be trampling on some toes here, and I hope that I am not insulting some of my readers who might be movie producers, but really: “The Ten Commandments” — a little cheesy, don't you think? Has there ever been a good movie about, say, Samson, or David (I expect that the future film based on David Wolpe's new book about David will be the exception). Last year's “Noah” had its moments, but some of it was just too bizarre. The Coen Brothers' “A Serious Man” was a good midrash on the book of Job, but in terms of biblical epics, that's about as far as it goes. 

For that reason, I am very eager to see Lifetime's miniseries “The Red Tent,” which airs Sunday and Monday evenings. “The Red Tent” is an adaptation of Anita Diamant's novel of the same name, which is itself an adaptation and intepretation of the biblical story of Dinah. Dinah was the daughter of Jacob and Leah, who is raped (or seduced?) by an impetuous Canaanite prince, Shechem. 

DInah and I go way back. When I was in my final year at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I was searching for a thesis topic. My advisor. Norman Cohen, suggested that I write about a forgotten woman in the Torah — Dinah. I jumped in to the tale, surrounding myself with biblical texts and midrashic intepretations that spanned more than fifteen hundred years. By the time I was done, I was in love. I became a Dinah-ologist, and I continue to research the implications of her story. To read a great book by Norman Cohen, check this out. “>http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/12/03/368008742/cdc-considers-counseling-males-of-all-ages-on-circumcisionDinah's brothers go on a rampage. They rescue Dinah, and they kill all of the men. 

This is bad stuff. On his deathbed, Jacob condemns Simeon and Levi, the brothers who were in charge of Operation Get Our Sister Back From The Pagans. But in the moment itself, what does Jacob say when he finds out about the atrocity? “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land…my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” (Gen. 34: 30). In other words, this is bad for my reputation. Moreover, I am weak and powerless.

And how do the brothers respond? “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Gen. 34: 31). The boys are not only overdosing on testosterone here; they are saying that no one is going to treat us as victims. We are taking charge of ourselves. 

Jacob sees himself as a victim — both of popular opinion and of the relative strength of others. The sons reject victim status. 

I submit to you that herein we find one of the most pertinent and powerful conversations that are happening in the Jewish world right now. The conversation is about Israel. 

Are we victims? Are we powerless? Do we worry about how the nations of the world view us?

Or: do we, even beligerently, declare our independence from world opinion and simply do what we think we have to do?

I am suggesting that the entire contemporary srael conversation can be encapsulated in simply that couplet of conversation between Jacob and his sons. Jacob whines. The sons roar. 

Oh, one more thing to contemplate. 

Was Dinah raped? Which is to ask: is the outside, gentile world a threat?

Or was she seduced? Which is to ask: is the outside, gentile world a seduction?

I mean, seriously: a few days ago, a Jewish woman was raped in Paris. The Jewish consciousness sees rape as an eternal metaphor for Jewish powerlessness. Even a cursory investigation of Eastern European Jewish literature reveals rape evoking Jewish vulnerability.

In Lamed Shapiro's short story “White Challah” (1919), a young Russian soldier rapes and even bites into the shoulder of his Jewish victim. 

Recall the painful verses of Bialik's epic poem “City of Slaughter,” in which the Jewish men creep forth from the pogrom, having witnessed the rape of their wives, only to ask the rabbi if their wives are now permitted to them…or had they become (as Dinah is called in the bibilcal text) “defiled?” 

The parallel question appears in Reb Oshry's tragic responsa from the Shoah: can a Jewish husband resume sexual relations with a wife who had been coerced into service at the brothels of the S.S., and whose arm now bears a tattoo attesting to her degradation? (Oshry permitted the husband and wife to resume sexual relations).

Watch the series. And for more, especially the part about “The Red Tent” and contemporary rape culture click here. “>http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-364-4

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