A Lack of Empathy

Jacob's reaction to Dinah's rape is puzzling and disturbing.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In Parashat Vayishlah, Dinah is captured and raped by Shechem, a local prince. Her father Jacob’s reaction is both puzzling and disturbing; he does nothing. Silent, he sits and waits for his sons to return from the pasture, where they are tending the family flocks.
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We can conceive of reasonable ways to explain Jacob’s behavior. Perhaps he wishes to confer with his family before entering a tricky, potentially danger-fraught negotiation or retaliation. Perhaps Jacob feels too weak to counter his daughter’s attacker alone, and so waits for his sons to produce a show of strength.

Out of Character

But these explanations seem out of character for the patriarch, for whom self-assured, individual action is the norm. Earlier in Vayishlah, when Esau confronts him with an army, Jacob acts decisively, strategically and without conferencing with his sons. In the following chapter, Jacob battles a Divine being entirely alone, and though he is injured in the process, Jacob wins, suggesting a great personal power. And if we should think that Jacob’s injuries weakened him, leaving him unable to face Dinah’s attacker, the text informs us that “Jacob came complete to the city of Shechem.”

Given his history, it seems unlikely that, in the case of Dinah, Jacob feels the need for counsel or fears a lack of strength. This suggests another, more troubling reason for Jacob’s lack of response. Perhaps he simply does not care enough for Dinah to feel responsible for acting on her behalf. The text’s introduction of Dinah as “the daughter of Leah” hints at Jacob’s indifference towards her. Though outside her family she is viewed as Jacob’s daughter, perhaps Jacob did not feel compelled to defend the daughter of Leah, a wife he did not want and did not love.

Jacob’s apparent lack of empathy is not reserved exclusively for Dinah. He regularly disregards the safety of Leah’s other children. When Jacob is faced with famine, he sends her sons on a dangerous mission to acquire food, but does not send Benjamin, Rachel’s son. Later in the narrative, when Leah’s son Simon is taken captive in Egypt, Jacob leaves him to his fate, rather than complying with the demand to send Benjamin in order to save Simon. Jacob’s apparent indifference to these children of his unloved wife can explain his silence in the face of Dinah’s rape. He does not feel the empathy and connection that would have forced him to respond.

Sexual Violence Today

This deeply upsetting apathy is a challenge that still faces humanity today, enabling the prevalent sexual violence we observe in the modern world. The number of worldwide victims of sexual violence is incredibly high. In South Africa, a recent study suggests that in some provinces, 25 percent of men admit to rape. In Sudan, an estimated hundreds of women face sexual violence each day. Playwright and activist Eve Ensler writes that “the women of eastern Congo are enduring their 12th year of sexual terrorism.

The girl children born of rape are now being raped.” According to the UN, 200,000 women, from very little girls to old women, have been raped during the ongoing violence there, and often without consequences. A fifteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped and raped for a month in the Congo describes that "No one came for me... No one from my family looked for me." And rape is not a crisis only in the Global South. Nearly 100,000 women in the United States are raped each year. Per capita, more than double that number are raped annually in Canada.

Like Jacob, many of us remain, at least relatively, silent. Yet there are individuals who have broken Jacob’s age-old silence by devoting their lives and careers to addressing sexual violence. For a generation, Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, has been a leader in treating women who have been raped at the Panzi hospital in the eastern DRC. Eric Reeve, a professor of English literature at Smith College, has spent the last decade researching the violence in Sudan and has been a passionate national and international advocate for women there.

Finding our own empathy is a tremendous challenge. The world is a very big place, and it is hard to feel a personal bond and responsibility for every contemporary Dinah around the globe. But our indignation at Jacob’s silence should be instructive, urging us to speak out in the face of the sexual violence in our time. It is an accident of birth that one of these girls is not personally beloved to us. Let us work to ensure they stay safe.  
 

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Aviva Presser Aiden

Aviva Presser Aiden is a student at Harvard Medical School. She co-founded Bears Without Borders, an organization fostering economic opportunities among developing-world artisans, and is co-founder and CTO of Lebone, a social enterprise developing microbial fuel cells as an off-grid energy and lighting solution for Africa.