“Dina, daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Yaakov, went out to see the daughters of the land. Shechem, son of Chamor the Hivite, prince of the land, saw her. He took her, and lay with her, and raped her.” (Bereishit 34:1-2)

The story of the abduction and rape of Yaakov’s daughter, Dina, is one of the most painful episodes in the Genesis narrative. When Yaakov learned what had happened, he remained silent until his sons returned from tending the livestock in the fields. Dina’s brothers were not quite as sanguine (ibid verse 7), “And the sons of Yaakov came from the field when they heard it; and the men were saddened and they became very angry, as he [Shechem] had performed an abomination in Israel to lie with Yaakov’s daughter; and so shall not be done!” The young prince became besotted with Dinah and asked his father to arrange for him to marry her. Chamor and Shechem went to Yaakov and put their case to him and his sons. They stated that a marriage between their clans would be mutually beneficial and would lead to further matches, and to trade and commerce between Yaakov’s people and the Hivites. Shechem was so infatuated with Dinah that he promised to pay whatever “bridal payment and gift” Yaakov would ask of him. At this point in the discussion, the Torah (verse 13) tells us that “the sons of Yaakov answered with guile and spoke as he [Shechem] had defiled Dina their sister.” They proposed a counter-offer but their intentions were not honourable.  Their plan was a trap to punish Shechem for what he had done and to free Dinah from his clutches. The sons of Yaakov responded that, in principle, they accepted Chamor’s offer, but (verse 14), “we cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who has a foreskin, as it is a disgrace for us.” They insisted that Shechem and his tribe undergo circumcision and, only then, would they consider intermarriage and open trade. Chamor and Shechem acceded to the offer and went to fulfill it immediately. They explained to the members of their clan the benefits of the alliance between themselves and Yaakov’s family and they told them that the only condition was for all the males to be circumcised. The townsfolk agreed and all the males underwent circumcision.

But the story did not have a happy ending for Shechem and his people (verses 25-26), “It was on the third day, when they were in pain that the two sons of Yaakov, Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came upon the city confidently and killed all the males. And they killed Chamor and Shechem his son by the sword and they took Dinah from the house of Shechem and departed.” Yaakov did not look favourably upon what his sons had done. He said to them (verse 30), “You have sullied me, to render me loathsome to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizites. I am few in number. They will mobilize against me and smite me, and I and my household shall be destroyed.” But Shimon and Levi had an answer (verse 31), “They said: Shall he render our sister as a harlot?”

Note that Yaakov did not criticise them for their act per se. He seemed to have no moral qualms that they wiped out an entire town. Rather, his concern was for his safety and the safety of his family. He was worried that the other tribes in the area would seek revenge for the Hivites. Shimon and Levi felt that, regardless of the consequences, a statement had to be made: our sister is no Harlot! What, if any, is the justification for the behaviour of Shimon and Levi? My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi AC Goldfein, of blessed memory, whose sixteenth yahrzeit took place of the 14th Kislev, would always cite the opinion of three great commentators on the matter. The first is the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 9:14). In his discussion of the seven universal Noachide Laws, the Rambam explains that one of the laws applicable to gentiles is to set up courts in every district and to prosecute those who transgress the other six laws. Transgression of any of the Noachide Laws is a capital offence, including failure to prosecute wrongdoers. Thus, “Because of this, all of the people of Shechem were liable for the death penalty because Shechem stole Dinah and they saw it, knew about it but did not bring him to justice.”

Nachmanides (Bereishit 34:14) disagrees with the Rambam for a number of reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay. He writes that the Rambam did not have to look for reasons why the people of Shechem deserved to be put to death: they were all idolaters who engaged in immoral acts, as the Torah often states regarding the inhabitants of Canaan. Nonetheless, it was not Yaakov or his sons’ duty to eliminate them for their misdeeds. “Rather, this is the matter of Shechem: the sons of Yaakov wanted to take vengeance against the people of Shechem because they were wicked… They killed the king and all the townsfolk because they were his servants and listened to him. Moreover, the circumcision they underwent had no value in their eyes and was only done to flatter their leader.”  

Maharal (in Gur Aryeh) has a completely different take on this episode. He cites the Rambam but cannot agree with him that the people of Shechem should be held accountable for failing to prosecute their leader, “how could they possibly judge the son of the king, of whom they were afraid? And even though they are commanded regarding the setting up of courts of law, that only applies when it is feasible but here they were under duress.” The people of Shechem did not live in a modern democracy where leaders are held accountable. They lived under a monarch who ruled with fear and force. The Maharal then provides a fascinating explanation: Shechem and Yaakov represented two nations, two tribes or clans. In fact, when Chamor and Shechem spoke to their subjects, they said (verse 22), “Only with this condition will the men [Yaakov and his sons] accede to us, to live with us, to become one nation, with every male being circumcised, as they are circumcised.” When Shechem, the prince, abducted and raped Dinah he was committing an act of war against another nation. Shechem was not some private citizen; he was the king’s son.  Consequently, Yaakov’s family had every right to wage war against Shechem and his people and to free Dinah in the process. Unfortunately, in war innocent people die. Clearly the sons of Yaakov, who were small in number, realised that the only way they would emerge victorious against Shechem was to act with subterfuge. If this meant the death of innocent people, so be it.

The Maharal’s remarks have a chilling resonance now, with the current Gaza war in full swing. Terrorists from Hamas, the ruling party of Gaza, perpetrated an act of war against Israel when they shot, burned, tortured and raped Israelis on the seventh of October. There is no doubt in my mind that Israel has every right to wage war against Hamas even if innocent Palestinians will die. Naturally the IDF must do whatever they can to minimise collateral damage but if the only way they can defat Hamas involves the death of non-combatants, then so be it. This is how war has been fought since time immemorial and it is congruent with the Geneva Convention. It is only the State of Israel that is not permitted to wage war and is told to always show restraint. This is a reprehensible double-standard.

I conclude with the powerful words of Rabbi SR Hirsch (Germany, 1800-1888) in his comments on the response of Shimon and Levi to their father. Their one reply, “Shall he render our sister as a harlot?” reveals their whole motive.  The lord of the manor would never have taken such liberties if the maiden in question had not been a foreign, friendless Jewish girl. This thought makes Shimon and Levi realise that there are times when even the family of Yaakov must take up the sword in defence of purity and honour. As long as men on earth will respect the rights of only those who have the power, Yaakov will have to know how to wield the sword. Yaakov’s sons did not want to act prudently. They wanted to make others fear them, so that no one would ever dare do such a thing to them again.  Yaakov’s daughters are not to be left vulnerable, at the mercy of others.”  

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Liebenberg

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