This semester I’m teaching a course titled “The Abrahamic Traditions: Women and Society.” Because I believe story is one of the best ways to understand a point of view, I use a novel or memoir to accompany each tradition. The novel I use in the Judaism unit is Anita Diamant’s, The Red Tent.
The Red Tent focuses on Dinah, Leah and Jacob’s daughter. Early in the novel, the narrator says, “My name [Dinah] means nothing to you. My memory is dust….The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men who had no way of knowing.”
The biblical account (Genesis 34) tells us that Shechem, King Hamor’s son, “seized her [Dinah] and lay with her by force.” It also says that Shechem’s “soul was drawn to Dinah” and “he loved the girl,” and insisted that his father arrange things so Dinah could be his wife. Nowhere in the biblical account do we hear Dinah’s voice. She’s portrayed as a victim and used as a bartering tool by Jacob and his sons in their attempt to gain power in the region. Jacob and his sons required that Hamor and all the men within his kingdom be circumcised as a condition for the marriage between Dinah and Shechem. King Hamor agreed, but on the third day after the men were circumcised and in pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, entered the city “and killed all the males,” for “defiling” their sister. “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” Dinah then disappears from the narrative.
Anita Diamant tells the story differently. Dinah and King Hamor’s son, Shalem—as Diamant calls him—fall in love. Shalem’s mother, Re-nefer, encourages the relationship, providing the space and time for Dinah and Shalem to get to know each other including exploring their sexuality. Diamant gives Dinah agency. She is the subject of the story, not an object manipulated by Jacob and his sons. When Shalem, King Hamor, and the men of the city are murdered after their circumcisions in fulfillment of Dinah’s bride-price, Dinah curses Jacob and his sons before walking “away from my brothers and my father and everything that had been home. I walked away from love as well, never again to see my reflection in my mothers’ eyes. But I could not live among them.” Dinah, now pregnant, escapes to Egypt with Re-nefer and Re-nefer’s slave, Nefesi, and there she creates a new life for herself.
Diamant contextualizes Dinah within the world of women, putting women’s day-to-day experiences front and center. We learn from the outset that Dinah has four mothers—Leah birthed her, Rachel taught her midwifery, Zilpah made Dinah think, and Bilhah listened. These four women were sisters, Laban’s daughters, by different wives. Dinah is privy from an early age to the happenings in the red tent where the women of Jacob’s tribe retreat once a month to celebrate the new moon. Stories are told, songs are sung, menstruating women sit upon the straw, babies are birthed and sometimes die along with their mothers. It’s a community solely comprised of women. Men do not enter this space.
The introductory material we use in class shows the androcentrism of the biblical text–narratives written by men, focusing on men and their experiences. Women may appear in a story, but most of the time she’s object, not subject. We also learn that all theology (interpreted and codified story/narrative) is based on human experience. The question, of course, is: Whose experience? Women and their experiences have been ignored in favor of the “important” experiences of men. In a refreshing change, Diamant puts women’s experiences front and center as she tells us the story of Dinah.
Menstruation is a holy experience for Dinah and the women of Jacob’s tribe. These women celebrate their “first blood” by giving it back to the earth during an elaborate ceremony. Dinah, surrounded by her four mothers during the celebration, was given fortified wine “in a polished metal cup,” painted with henna, her eyes decorated with kohl, and parts of her body perfumed. They massaged her and sang songs. As Dinah is prepared and positioned on the ground to allow her “first blood” to flow back to the land, Rachel says, “Mother! Innana! Queen of the Night! Accept the blood offering of your daughter, in her mother’s name, in your name. In her blood may she live, in her blood may she give life.” Rachel then uses an obsidian figure (teraphim) in the shape of a grinning frog to unlock Dinah’s womb.
When we discussed Dinah’s “first blood” ceremony as a holy and, therefore, empowering experience, I noticed several women students in the class sit up a little taller, apparently surprised and somewhat incredulous that menstruation, not usually thought of as a joyful experience, is reason for celebration.
Some students share their “first blood” experience in class. A few refer to the matter-of-fact “talk” their mothers gave before equipping them with birth control paraphernalia. Other students remember being admonished to remain “pure” for their husband-to-be. “No man wants ‘used’ equipment.” One student said, “In India, my mother experienced menstruation positively, but I didn’t realize it was a ‘thing.’” Some students said they never considered the sign of a women’s ability to produce life as celebratory since they (for a myriad of reasons) eschew pregnancy.
Stories written by men, reflecting men’s experiences, have taken center stage for millennia as those stories have become codified in Abrahamic scriptures. Judith Plaskow writes, “To accept androcentric texts…as the whole of Jewish history is to enter into a secret collusion with those who would exclude us from full membership in the Jewish community” (Standing Again at Sinai). That exclusion affects women in Christianity and Islam as well.
Foundational stories/narrative (Scripture) that shape a religion’s belief and practice must include women’s experiences. Those new stories must then be woven into a religion’s history and mythology. Nothing less than that will move us forward.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.
18 thoughts on ““First Blood” Celebration by Esther Nelson”
Your class sounds wonderful and life-changing, Esther! Lucky students!
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Thanks, Elizabeth. I have a positive experience teaching this class. I hope my students do as well.
Yes, yes and more yes! This book was so pivotal for me and many others to start seeing the ‘other side’ of so many patriarchal stories that we grew up with. I always had a positive experience with menstruation, but a positive, ‘solitary’ experience. What I would not have given for a communal celebration like this. As I have come to know the Divine Feminine more and more in the past six years, my relationship with menstruation changed as well (also thanks to the incredible Diva cup!), just in enough time to say ‘goodbye’ to menstruation as I enter menopause. Now I intend to shift my thinking on this as well: instead of the cultural dried up, worthless old woman to a powerful, wise crone. ;) <3 Enjoyed your article! – Karen Moon, the divine feminine app.
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Thank you, Karen. Hopefully, your thinking on menopause will make its way onto this blog!
I remember reading both versions of Dinah’s story and much preferring The Red Tent because, even as naive as I was about religion, I wanted to see what was going on with Dinah. I’m sure your students will be learning quite a lot, not only about the religious aspects of female life but also about themselves. After all, they’re real young women, and they deserve to be heard and taught.
Religions’ foundational myths are, indeed, mostly about vigorous men and invisible women. It’s time for that to change. Good for you for doing good work.
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Thank you, Barbara. I like this thought: “…your students will be learning quite a lot, not only about the religious aspects of female life but also about themselves.” That’s the goal–having students do a form of alchemy as they integrate whatever material is used with their own thinking and experience.
Excellent article – the thing that bothers me about these patriarchal texts is that our interpretations are just that – interpretations – while the original text is the backdrop – influencing/objectifying behind the scenes…How do we deal with that?… Unconscious messages can be more deadly than overt ones don’t you think?
Great question, Sara. Thanks for commenting. If I understand correctly, you’re concerned with the original biblical text reaching out its patriarchal tentacles and enveloping (unconsciously) the text that Diamant offers. Since we all swim in the waters of patriarchy, we absorb values and perspectives that are not in the best interests of most people–in this case–women. I think it’s important to understand that the original stories were created by people–mostly men–using their imaginations based on their own experience. The stories did not fall into our laps from some divine source as some students believe. I mention Judith Plaskow’s excellent work, STANDING AGAIN AT SINAI, in my essay. She calls Exodus 19:15 “disturbing” because when Moses talks to the people, he really addresses all of the people as if they are men. So, the TEXT erases women from the narrative. Plaskow does not accept this. She reaffirms to herself and others her own Jewishness–she knows her women ancestors were at Sinai at the pivotal moment when the covenant was re-affirmed and she refuses to accept the text dismissing her. Plaskow thinks Jewish women need to re-shape Torah by including stories of women and their experiences. Are those new stories so tainted with patriarchy that they cannot be trusted? I don’t know. I suppose that’s up to us to decide. Many of us do know that the official, authoritative text(s) that are called Scripture are unjust.
I may or may not have answered your question! ;-)
But … what does Anita Diamant’s novel have to do with Judaism?
Well, on a very basic level, Diamant re-shapes Torah–something Plaskow asserts must be done in order for justice to prevail as Judaism manifests itself in society.
Thank you for sharing , Esther, I have read the “Red Tent” years ago and was mesmerized by the story and it’s characters, one of my most favorite books. I shall read it again
Thank you for your comment. So many of my students tell me, “I just could not put the book down once I started it.”
Thanks so much for this!! The last period I had, I felt empowered enough to post on social media “I’m off to the Red Tent if y’all need me.” To that I received many endearing messages from female friends. One then brought me her copy of the Red Tent, which I’m even more excited to read now thanks to your post. Lucky students indeed. If their are professors like you, that gives me great hope for the future! I’m also going to post this on our FreeSophia Facebook page.
Appreciate your kind words, Colette.
Thank you for this powerful essay, one that I was glad to read. One of the reasons I love the Craft of the Wise is that it’s so female-centered. Women’s lives and experience are paramount in Witchcraft. I think a girl’s coming of age through menstruation should be a major celebration. I even wrote a short story about such a ritual, when a 12-year-old experiences menarche and joins her mother’s coven. I plan to have a little ceremony for my granddaughter when it happens to her, even if it involves only the two of us. Her mother is nominally Christian, so she wouldn’t be interested in participating in such a ritual and probably wouldn’t approve, anyway.
One of the things that puzzles me about the ritual described in “The Red Tent” is how they knew the sacred moon time was about to happen. My own menarche was a complete surprise to me–it was Midsummer Day and I was eleven. There were no cramps or other pains to warn me it was coming, so how did they know when it was about to happen to Dinah?
Thank you goddessfiction for reading and commenting. I don’t know the answer to your specific question. According to the story, even though Dinah knew about women’s monthly cycles, when it happened to her she was a little surprised. She didn’t tell her mothers immediately, but savored the experience for a short time before revealing the news. I do think much has been lost to us in modernity. My sense is that our ancestors understood the natural world of cycles–birthing, growing, maturing, and dying–so much better than we do today and therefore better attuned to natural happenings.
Hi Esther —
I just got back from a 2-week vacation that ended at the “Women Rising! New Visions for a Post-Patriarchal Culture” conference in San Francisco. There were lots of new feminist stories there, stories that support and celebrate women as well as great critical analyses of why patriarchy fails us. So…that’s a long explanation for why I haven’t commented until now.
I loved _The Red Tend_ when it came out years ago. And I love the movement it spawned, the Red Tent Movement. For an old second-wave feminist like me, this movement looks like a great new opportunity for younger women to have consciousness-raising, like the c-r groups that launched the second wave of the women’s movement. Women get together at a specified time during the month (not necessarily during their menses) and talk about their lives together. There’s even been a documentary filmed about it: “Things We Don’t Talk About.” I’m surprised that no one mentioned it here in the comments section.
Thanks, Nancy, for reading and commenting. Was intrigued with one of your take-aways from San Francisco. “There were lots of new feminist stories there, stories that support and celebrate women as well as great critical analyses of why patriarchy fails us.” Are these stories in a collection somewhere? What I love so much about Diamant’s story is that she basically does what the rabbis have done all along with their use of midrash. Filling in the blanks of the story with their imaginations. Story is so foundational to our existence, but when the stories don’t include us, they stop connecting and therefore lose meaning. Diamant’s book has the potential to bring meaning back into the lives of Jewish women who feel excluded by Torah. The conference in San Francisco sounds as though it was a wonderful experience.