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.