Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thoughts on Vayishlach

Shall our sister be treated like a prostitute? (34:31)

A prostitute is generally understood to be someone who takes money in return for sex. True, the word "znut" can refer to promiscuity in general, but one might still wonder whether "zonah" is the most appropriate term for an unwilling rape victim.

But if we look closer at the proposal the city offered to Yaakov's family, perhaps we can understand why Dina's case was in fact similar to prostitution, and why the rhetorical question was not just imprecise rhetoric by angry young men.

The proposal goes as follows: "Please give [Dina] to [Shechem] as a wife. And marry among us: your daughters will be given to us and our daughters you will take for yourselves. And dwell with us: the land will be before you, dwell and do business and take hold of it." (34:8-10)

Besides the part about marrying together, this proposal contains two parts: Shechem gets Dina, and Yaakov's family gets the opportunity to do business.

A trade of Dina for business opportunities does look exactly like prostitution. No wonder, then, why Yaakov's sons reply so viciously to the deal, and why they killed the entire male population, not just Shechem. They were reacting to the proposal just as much as the act of rape itself.

This logic does not mean the mass killing was necessarily correct - for one thing, Yaakov objects to it (and at the end of his life, apparently not only on practical grounds) - but it does allow us to understand where the motivation for the killing came from.

Yaakov said to his household and all who were with him: "Remove the foreign gods that are among you." (35:2)
They gave to Yaakov all the foreign gods that were in their hands, and the earrings that were in their ears, and Yaakov buried them.... (35:4)

These verses raise two questions with me. 1) Why would Yaakov's household, which one would assume to be monotheistic, be in possession of idols? 2) Yaakov asked for the destruction of idols; why did the group give up their earrings as well, which Yaakov apparently did not ask for?

I think there is a common answer to both questions. It flows from the fact that at this point, Yaakov's sons had just conquered the city of Shechem, and (34:27) taken its plunder. One would expect that that plunder included any valuable objects in the city - and idols, often made out of precious metals, would certainly seem worth taking.

The Torah's attitude toward this, though, is not approving. Speaking of the later conquest by the Israelites, the Torah says: "The idols of their gods you shall burn in fire. You shall not desire gold and silver upon them and take for yourself, lest you be ensnared in it, for it is an abomination of Hashem your God." (Devarim 7:25) One might be tempted to take gold and silver idols in order to use the gold and silver, but the Torah later prohibits this.

Perhaps, then, Yaakov's sons took whatever idols they found in Shechem. As members of a third-generation monotheistic family, it would have been obvious to them that idols were not for worshipping, but not so obvious that idols could not be melted down and used for other purposes. Perhaps, of the idols they found, they took a few of them and fashioned their gold or silver into earrings, while holding onto the remaining idols until a good use for them could be found.

Yaakov may not have known what jewelry his family wore or where it came from. But when his family was implicitly told that not only worship but use of idols was forbidden, they realized that their jewelry had to be given up along with the intact idols.

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