Feminist Reading, Parshat HaShavua

Dinah and Feminist Reading (Vayechi)

Last Sunday, Rabbi Nicki Greninger and I gathered with thirty members of Temple Isaiah and explored some of the theory and tools of feminist reading practices. At the heart of our inquiry was the question: How do we relate to a text written by and for men, in ways that often diminish women’s full humanity? 

In some ways, we have only half a Torah. Proverbs 6:20 tells us: “My son, keep your father’s commandment; do not forsake your mother’s teaching (torah).” Already we see the bias – the proverb is addressed to a son, not a daughter. But if we utilize one of our reading strategies and assume that the text is addressing us regardless of who the text thinks it is addressing, we have another problem. Since very few of our traditional texts that were preserved directly record women’s voices, we don’t have easy access to our foremothers’ torah. As a rabbi, I deeply believe in the beauty of our Torah, but I also recognize its incompleteness. As Rebecca Solnit poignantly says, “The stories we have are haunted by the ghosts of the stories we never got.”

The scholar Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza offers a double-edged tool for reading our sacred texts. She describes a hermeneutics of suspicion combined with a hermeneutics of remembrance. (Hermeneutics is just a fancy term for how we think about interpreting something.) We can read a text through a lens of suspicion, and assume “that biblical texts and their interpretations are androcentric and serve patriarchal functions.” In other words, to read as a feminist is to identify what in the text is problematic for how women are viewed and treated. This tool helps us see more clearly, but alone is not sufficient to make us want to do anything but walk away from the text. 

Reading the text through the lens of remembrance, however, we “insist that the same sources that are regarded with suspicion can also be used to reconstruct Jewish women’s history.” We can learn in an indirect manner how real women in Jewish history may have lived, what they may have thought and believed, and in that way reconstruct a portion of our missing Torah. 

In this week’s Torah portion, the book of Genesis comes to a close. For a story that documents sibling rivalries and tensions, the thematic arc culminates beautifully in two key moments. In the first, Jacob blesses his grandsons, Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Menasheh. Jacob blesses them together, and although he still inserts a moment of hierarchy (switching the younger to his right hand side, which implies leadership), what matters is that he blesses them simultaneously. For the first time in the entire book of Genesis, blessing is not scarce, divisive, or competitive. Ephraim and Menasheh represent a first generation of true sibling solidarity. 

The second key moment is when Jacob blesses each of his twelve sons. Through all of their conflict, they have managed to come together in Egypt. The midrashic tradition understands Jacob’s distinction as being the first patriarch to transmit Judaism to all of his children. Abraham transmits the covenant to Isaac, but not to Ishmael. Isaac transmits the covenant to Jacob, but not Esau. Jacob transmits the covenant to all of his children, and that is why Jews from that point on are called Children of Israel (Jacob’s other name). 

Alas, the text as we have received it only records Jacob’s blessings for his sons. What happened to his daughter, Dinah? We know she is present in Egypt (Genesis 46:15). Yet she does not receive a blessing from Jacob. Perhaps she actually did, and those who passed down the written text left it out. Perhaps the blessings were only for men and reveal the assumptions of leadership and ownership that were reserved for men. When we are reading through a lens of suspicion, we notice Dinah’s absence and complicate the idea of blessing as a form of patriarchal power. When we read the same story through a lens of remembrance, we start to wonder about what blessing Dinah would have merited, or if perhaps mothers gave blessings to daughters and fathers gave blessings to sons. Should blessing be gendered? What is the purpose of a generational blessing? 

There are many ways to wrestle with what is invisible in the text. But this week, for Dinah, I hear the Torah calling us to offer her a blessing. What words might you offer to Dinah, to women past and present, to insist on full humanity, wise teaching, and the wild creative energy to keep transforming our sacred text from an ancient record into a living tree of life that truly nurtures our highest ideals.