In her book, The Red Tent, Anita Diamant attempts to expound upon the foundations laid by the Torah by way of midrashim. In doing so, parts of her stories tend to stray from the original biblical text. The following essay will explore this and several other aspects of the book as they relate to the Torah and modern midrash.
One of the first differences I recognized was the description of Leah’s eyes. In Genesis 29:17, Leah’s eyes are described as weak. Diamant dispels this rumor’, saying that Leah’s eyes, one blue and one green, “made others weak” because most people had difficulty looking her in the face. By making this small adjustment, Diamant is able to create a connection between Jacob and Leah that the Bible neglects. The Bible says only that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, which tends to give the impression that Leah was unloved. Diamant says that Jacob was able to look Leah in the eye without any trouble and never made any comment regarding them. This is significant because it shows that Jacob overlooked a flaw in Leah that most others seemed unable to ignore, and the physical attraction between them that she later addressed in the seven days following their marriage (which was a single night in the Bible) seems to make more sense. In addition, their discussion in the tent concluding that Jacob was to emerge after the week “feigning anger ” is a midrash provides an explanation as to why Jacob slept with Leah and still complained to Laban that he had been tricked. Diamant makes Jacob appear to be more of a gentleman than the Bible does, and thus, a more likeable main character in her novel.
In The Red Tent, Diamant created people not mentioned in the Torah. One such person was Ruti, Laban’s last wife. Laban beat Ruti badly and frequently for no apparent reason. In Diamant’s book, Ruti’s fairly small role serves as a clear reason for the reader to dislike Laban. Until Ruti is introduced, besides being a drunk and making love to sheep, we find Laban to be little more than pathetic. Including Ruti in the story adds another dimesion to Laban’s character; one of cruelty and aggression. At this point, Diamant makes Laban begin to fit the novelistic “bad guy” mold quite well, and the reader finds him more repulsive than ever before. His daughters pay little attention to Ruti and ignore the evidence of their father’s abusiveness because Ruti is “the mother of their sons’ rivals, their material enemy.” When she finally comes to them for help to be rid of the child in her womb, so that the baby girl would not suffer the same treatment from Laban as her mother did, they are eager to be of assistance. When Jacob goes to town to redeem Ruti after Laban had sold her as a slave, Jacob becomes more of a hero and is further distinguished as the “good guy” in the novel. Using Ruti, Diamante persuades the reader to side with the daughters and Jacob against the cruel Laban.Another discrepancy between the biblical text and The Red Tent is clear when Laban catches up to Jacob’s camp as he and his wives fled from Laban’s land. The Torah says that Laban was unable to find the statues and did not know where Rachel had them hidden, but Rachel blatantly tells her father that she was sitting on his precious statues during her period in Diamant’s midrash. This act of defiance, as well as Laban’s acceptance of it, are key events in the novel. It gives the reader the impression that Laban no longer had control over his daughters and they were finally free from that evil man. It is for these same reasons that Laban did not kiss “his sons and daughters good-by” as he did in the scripture, and as a result of Diamant’s interpretation, their parting was much more dramatic and bitter than in the original text.
Even more dramatic is the rising tension between Jacob and his brother regarding the marriage of Dinah and Shalem, and it’s horrible climax, resulting the murder of every man in Shechem. In The Red Tent, however, the fault lay not in the actions of Shalem, but in the pride of Jacob and his sons. The massacre dealt by Jacob’s sons is the real tragedy of Dinah’s life. In the original text, the actual Hebrew word for “rape” is used, but Diamant seems to ignore this seemingly solid fact. It is in my opinion that this scripture was literal, and changing this aspect of the story in her midrash was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Jacob’s stubbornness in his misunderstanding is uncharacteristic and in contrast with the person Diamant had described earlier on in the novel. Jacob, who was once the “good guy”, had become cold-blooded and mean. The actions his sons took against the people of Shechem were no longer the actions of concerned and protective brothers, but the actions of greedy madmen. The original text does not project Jacob and his sons to be evil, though Diamant increasingly describes them as such with each chapter in Part Two. She seems to begin recklessly rewriting the story at this point, giving Dinah the opinion that her father was cowardly to change his name although it was majestic and was described more like divine intervention in the original text. It is also conflicts with the order of these events as laid out in Genesis. Jacob changed his name before he was even reunited with his brother Esau, so Dinah’s belief that he changed his name to Yisrael for fear of being associated with the massacre holds no ground. Jacob had clearly changed his name long before Dinah even met Shalem.
Poor Dinah. The life she lived was of great pain and suffering, for I cannot think of anyone who was so affected by death throughout their life. However, I do not find it odd that she feels contentment in her later years. After being forced to hold the truth of her past deep in her heart, the new life she began with Benia was rather uneventful in comparison to her past. Often, she mentions the passage of time without very much emotion in Part Three, whether the increments are days, months, or years. To me, this implies that throughout those sweeping years her life was fairly routine and lacked noteworthy troubles. A hard task for her, I’m sure, was sending Re-mose, the son of Shalem, away. She knew well that it had to be done, for Joseph made it clear that his threats were not going to be tolerated. Gera, who recounted Dinah’s story to her as she spun, gave her hope. In her father’s death, it seemed that her past went with him, and Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, had no history. Gera’s promise to name is daughter Dinah and his knowledge of her story gave her everlasting comfort. She had not been forgotten.Death came to Dinah without suffering, and she died happily with her husband and daughter at her side. Her belief in eternality is evident in the last pages of the novel.
She said that those who were loved never really died, because their memory lived on in those who knew them. “Thus can something as insignificant as a name – two syllables, one high, one sweet – summon up the innumerable smiles and tears, sighs and dreams of a human life.”
Dinah’s final blessing sent chills throughout my body. For a brief instant, I felt as though Dinah had blessed me directly, and it was comforting. This book taught me the importance of one’s memory in everlasting life, and that actions and not intentions speak the truth. When life is over, its value is judged by those who watched that life being lived and the deeds of the one who lived it. In death, intentions are lost with the last beat of the heart, and even if one seeks forgiveness for the wrongs they have done from their deathbed, their actions more accurately reflect the life they lived.
Though this book took a bit too much liberty in creating midrash to fill in the gaps, it was a great book.
In deciding that she had gone too far in her recreation of Dinah’s “rape”, I feel I better understand what a midrash is after learning what a midrash should not be. The Red Tent explored the many dynamics involved in family life and ancient culture, and what it means to be of the same blood. It discussed the miracle of pregnancy and birth, the importance of the tradition of circumcision, and the need to multiply as a means of survival, a concept that may have been lost long ago. At the conclusion of the novel, I must admit that my heart was heavy for almost every person in the book, but I felt the same somber contentment that Dinah describes in the last chapter. I felt almost as if I had lived her life. I highly recommend using this book next year for I’m sure there are lessons I learned that I will not even be aware of until later in my life. Dinah’s story still echoes in my mind as though it was absolute fact, and I believe this echo should be heard by more ears.