Honour is a very amorphous concept whose exercise is often guided by very subjective determinants. In Parsha VaYishluch, the idea of honour; what it is and to whom does it belong, is illustrated by two incidents that stand apart from the main narrative. Though somewhat dissimilar, they both reek of false honour and actual dishonour, and prima facie impart messages seemingly at odds with the order of the Torah.
In the first, and the second chronologically, the Torah reports, in an almost off-handed manner, that Reuben cuckolded his father by having intimate relations with his concubine Bilhah, the mother of his brothers Dan and Naphtali: “And it was during the stay of Israel in that land, and Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Jacob heard.” No context is given for the incident, so we are left completely unawares why Reuben behaved in such fashion. There had been no suggestion, or even the merest of allusions, that Reuben bore ill well to Jacob. However, both Rashi and Rambam have suggested that Reuben’s actions were motivated by an alleged slight to his mother Leah’s honour, yet any consideration for his father’s honour seems absent, especially when it was apparently a profound act of public humiliation and Freudian castration.
Reuben ought to have been (at the very least) shunned by his family for his treacherous interpitude, as suggested by the laws outlined in Sefer VaYikra, but he wasn’t, and indeed it was Jacob who was forced to bear the shame and his disgrace for all the days of his life. Bilha’s dishonour appears of no consequence. Indeed, when he blessed Reuben from his deathbed, his anger still glowed hot at his son’s betrayal: “Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it.” No mention is made of the wrong done to Bilhah.
The second narrative and the first recorded, is much more complex. In addition to touching upon honour and dishonour, the report raises serious questions concerning collective guilt and disproportionate response.
The narrative initially concerns Dinah, Jacob’s only (named) daughter, born to Leah. Briefly, she leaves her encampment and goes out, unbidden and alone, to visit in a neighbouring camp belonging to one of the Canaanite tribes. There, she was spotted by Shechem, local “prince” and they had carnal relations with her: “And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and humbled her”. Markedly, he also became infatuated with Dinah, suggesting that there must have been time and opportunities of acquaintance to produce the strong attachment that Shechem had for her: “And Shechem said unto her father and unto her brethren: ‘Let me find favour in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me I will give. Ask me never so much dowry and gift, and I will give according as ye shall say unto me; but give me the damsel to wife.’”.
According to the mores of the day, Shechem acted in a very salutary fashion and unknowingly conducted himself in accordance with the law as set in Sefer Devarim: “If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, that is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he hath humbled her; he may not put her away all his days. However, while the proposal was apparently acceptable to Jacob, his sons did not respond in kind.”
The Torah describes the ensuing events in a very candid fashion: “And the sons of Jacob answered Shechem and Hamor his father with deception”. They prevailed on Shechem to accept the sign of the covenant and undergo, along with his kinsmen, the painful act of circumcision. On the third day after the procedure the immobilized men were set upon by Dinah’s full brothers, Simon and Levi, who coldly slaughtered the defenceless men. To add insult to injury Jacob’s other sons’ did not recoil in horror the deceitful deed of their two brothers, nor did any of them attempt to console Jacob’s horror at the shame brought to his name. The Children of Israel saw an easy opportunity and took full advantage of the situation. They proceeded to plunder the wealth of the dead nd took the women and children captive.
In a misguided effort to protect the honour of Dinah; more precisely their family honour, Jacob’s children dishonoured the sign of the Covenant, held Shechem’s entire clan collectively responsible for what was very probably a youthful indiscretion and callously murdered the men, enslaved the women and children and stuffed their own pockets with booty of war, bring dishonour upon themselves. Jacob, whose counsel was rebuffed, could only admonish his children: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land”. Dinah, is lost to history.