Author Archives: Rabbi Laura Geller

Rabbi Laura Geller

About Rabbi Laura Geller

Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. She is the first woman to be selected to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. Prior to being chosen for this position in 1994, she served as the Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, Pacific Southwest Region.

Blessing Our Daughters

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Vayehi speaks of blessings, of a grandfather blessing his grandsons, a father blessing his sons. Imagine the scene at the end of the Torah portion: Jacob, whose name has been changed to Israel, calls his twelve sons to his deathbed and blesses each one of them. But his real concern, according to our rabbis, is that his sons will abandon his God after he has died. In the Midrash, his sons respond to this unstated fear with words that have become familiar to us: “Shema Yisrael (Listen, [Dad–whose name is] Israel!): Hashem is our God, only Hashem” Hearing this, the dying patriarch sighs quietly: “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto I’olam va’ed {Blessed is the glorious Name whose kingdom is forever and ever)!” (Midrash B’reishii Rabbah 98-4).
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Each time we say the Shema, we are rehearsing this moment. We are the children acknowledging the God of our own father, and we are pledging our own loyalty to the tradition of ancestors.

This farewell scene cannot fail to move us. But it is also confusing. Jacob also has daughters, and the one named Dinah is no longer in the story. Is she not worthy of blessing?

An Omission

The question of blessing our daughters emerges by way of omission. Jacob and the rest of his family have been reunited with Joseph after many years (Genesis 46). The beloved child Joseph, whom Jacob thought was dead, is not only still alive, but he is a father, with children of his own!

Now, facing death, Jacob says: “I never thought I’d see your face again, and look, God has enabled me to see the face of your children!” (48:8-12). Joseph brings his sons close to his father, with Manasseh, the elder, first. Jacob crosses his arms, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head, and his left on Manasseh’s. Joseph intervenes, “Not that way, Father! This is my firstborn; put your right hand on his head.” But Jacob wants to put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. Then Jacob blesses them both together with these words: “By you shall the people of Israel give their blessing, saying, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” (48:18-20).

The Silence of Dina and Other Rape Victims

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

After 20 years, Jacob is coming home. Anticipating that the reunion with the brother he cheated all those years ago will be disastrous, he sends messengers laden with presents ahead to his brother.

urj women's commentaryBut just to be on the safe side, he divides his camp in order to minimize the losses should he come under attack. The story continues: “That same night, he got up, took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his 11 children, and crossed at a ford of the Jabbok [river]. … Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him” (32:23-25). The nocturnal wrestler wounds and blesses him and gives him a new name–our name: Yisrael, one who wrestles with God. Jacob’s wrestling with God is a powerful image and legacy. We never know with whom Jacob is wrestling: is it himself, his conscience, his brother, God, or all of these parts of himself and of his life? Jacob names the place “Peniel,” meaning “Face of God,” for, as he states, “I have seen God face-to-face” (32:31). Somehow, alone, separated from his “two wives” and his “eleven children,” Jacob discovers the face of God in his adversary — and Jacob is blessed.

Eleven children cross the river? But Jacob already at this point has 12 children. What about Dina, his daughter? What happened to her? Rashi, quoting a midrash, explains: “He placed her in a chest and locked her in.” While many commentaries understand that by locking Dina in a box Jacob intends to protect her from marrying his brother Esau, we know the truth of the story. Hiding Dinah — locking her up — is a powerful image about silencing women. And that silence echoes loudly through the rest of the Torah.

What happens next? Dina gets an ultimate act of silencing: The commentaries understand Dina’s rape as Jacob’s punishment for withholding her from Esau. Dina’s rape is Jacob’s punishment? What about Dina? What has she done? How does she feel? Out text is silent. We only know what her brothers and father think: that she has been defiled (34:5-7), that she must not be treated as a whore (34:31). No one in the Torah or the midrashic accounts asks her what she wants, what she needs, or how she can be comforted.