Parashat Vayeshev – Tamar: A Biblical Feminist Role Model for Modernity

It is always interesting to me how a text can be interpreted so differently depending on the perspective of the listener.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we are presented with the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar.   Tamar is the wife of Judah’s son, Er.  When Er passes away and Tamar is left childless, a levirate marriage takes place and Tamar is married Judah’s 2nd son, Onan in order to carry on the line of Er.  But Onan is selfish and spills his seed so as not to build up the house of his now deceased brother.  When Onan passes away, and Tamar is still childless, she rightfully is supposed to be married to Judah’s 3rd son, Shelach.  But Judah does not want this marriage to take place perhaps fearing for the life of his 3rd son.   By denying Shelach to Tamar, Tamar is left in a state of perpetual childless widowhood.  This is unacceptable to Tamar and she forces the issue by disguising herself as a harlot and seducing Judah.  She negotiates collateral objects from Judah as security that he will pay her for her “services”.  When Tamar is found to be pregnant as an unmarried widow, she is accused of adultery by Judah and threatened with death.  Tamar reveals her identity to Judah by returning the collateral items she received from him during their encounter.  Judah upon seeing the items realizes why she has orchestrated these events and acknowledges that he was wrong to not give her as a wife to Shelach and that she was right to force the issue thus carrying on the family line.

What are we supposed to learn from this story?   Different commentators draw different lessons depending on their theological bent.

The Stone Chumash, whose traditional commentaries always justify the biblical narrative within an overall plan of God for the Jewish people, states “Tamar was a great and righteous woman, who was Divinely ordained to become the ancestress of the Davidic dynasty, and she wanted to passionately fulfill that mission.  …. Consequently, to bring about the union between herself and Judah, Tamar decided she had to seek unconventional – even distasteful – means by posing as a harlot and enticing Judah.”   Here we learn here that the ends justify the means to ensure that Tamar, through the house of Judah, will be the ancestress of the Davidic line.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a contemporary orthodox rabbi firmly rooted in our modern world, draws another lesson. Says Rabbi Sacks “But the real hero of the story was Tamar.  She had taken immense risk by becoming pregnant.  She had done so for a noble reason: to ensure that the name of her late husband was perpetuated. But she took no less care to avoid Judah being put to shame.  One he and she knew what had happened.  Judah could acknowledge his error without loss of face.” Rabbi Sack’s lesson, never put anyone to shame.

A non-Jewish site on the internet, offers yet another take. “Tamar’s story shows what happens when the protections of marriage are not there. As we saw in Ruth‘s story, God had made provision for keeping the blood lines of Israel pure and the clear handing down of inheritances within each tribe by requiring that a widow be married again within the family of her husband (Deut. 25:5-10)…Judah’s obligation as her father-in-law was to see to her security. Judah did not do as he promised. Tamar was left without protection, so she sought to get it for herself. Judah’s own sins, fornication, laid him open for her to accomplish her plan. He should not have failed to give her to Shelah, he should not have gone into a harlot, and she should not have played the harlot to try to seal her future.”  The lesson here is that one sin leads to others.  

Three lessons, all quite different, each reflective of the values of the author:  the ends justify the means, never put anyone to shame, and one sin leads to others.  These three voices are illuminating but what do I, Reb Jamie take from this story? Who is the voice of Reb Jamie? Reb Jamie is a 20th century woman, the daughter of a fiercely feminist woman and a much more conservative father, who firmly believes in the documentary hypothesis and like Jacob several weeks ago, wrestles with God.

Traditional commentators rationalize Tamar’s behavior saying that she knew she was to be the ancestress of the messianic line so she went to these lengths to ensure it came true. To me, this is the imposition of the idea that all actions within the Torah are a part of God’s plan and if you search hard enough, you’ll find a way to justify anything.

From my perspective, as a woman firmly rooted in modernity and as one who wrestles with the idea of an intentional God, Tamar is a shining example of a woman exercising her power to secure what is rightly hers within the societal context of her times – parenthood and a place of stature within the house of Judah. While her actions may at first seem unseemly, in fact, she is whip smart and she knows how to move the pieces and to play the game.  This is a rare case in the biblical narrative of a woman, on her own, deciding to control her destiny, without shame.  At the end of the day, Tamar’s use of her sexuality as a tool to secure what is rightly hers is upheld.   For me it is less important that her actions secure the Davidic line, than that she claimed her rights and was not a passive player.   And I don’t have to work hard to justify her actions as part of God’s ultimate plan for the Jewish people.  Her actions in the moment stand on their own.  For this, Tamar is a feminist role model for modernity.

Thoughts on “What will sustain Judaism in the future?” 

The New York Times recently published a list of five new books that touch on issues of American Jewish identity.  The focus of the books is the question “What will sustain Judaism in the future?”  According to the writer, the outlook does not bode well for the future of a Judaism that most of us grew up with.   Diminishing affiliation and increased socialization into the majority culture suggests that remaining distinct in our practice and particular in our outlook seems less and less likely.

The title of the article caught my attention, “American Jews Face a Choice: Create Meaning or Fade Away.”  The Judaism in which I grew up provided me with friends from camp and youth group, and a strong identity (never forget), but there was no intellectual content. We didn’t study text and we were taught to practice rituals we didn’t understand, and worse yet, that weren’t practiced in our homes. In short, the Judaism of my childhood could not stand on its own two feet as I grew into adulthood. What drew me into Judaism as a teenager was protection from a strong sense of “otherness.” I felt ugly as a child and unrooted, and in my synagogue, I felt grounded. If I had been accepted and popular at school, perhaps I too would have drifted away. “Never forget” as a reason to remain a practicing Jew was not enough to sustain me.  It is only as I grew into adulthood that my passion to uncover meaning in my Jewish life emerged.

I am a strong advocate of creating meaning, taking our tradition and using it as a framework and a resource to help us meet the challenges of modernity. If you and I don’t find meaning in what we do here today, how can we expect our children and grandchildren to be interested in what our tradition offers for their future?  Yes, I am interested in building for the future, but in the immediacy of this moment, I use my energy and knowledge to create a vibrant community of meaning here and now. And so, while the future of the Judaism we knew growing up may be less certain, the Judaism that we are living today, and that we create together, is bright.

After Pittsburgh

(11/2/18, Congregation P’nai Tikvah)Statue of Liberty

It has been a long week and as Rabbi Mintz wrote in our communication to the community, last shabbat was not a shabbat of shalom, a shabbat of peace.  Today, many of us feel more vulnerable, more raw, and more scared then we were.  Seemingly overnight our sense that in America we are safe has been shattered.  We’ve been shocked out of complacency.  We ask ourselves how do we move forward?  How do we regain our sense of equilibrium and our sense of safety?

Earlier this week, I joined with 1500 other congregational and agency leadership from across the country for a call on security.  Sponsored by the reform, conservative and reconstructionist movements, the call was facilitated by the ADL who were in conversation with national law enforcement agencies and security experts.  The call focused on securing our synagogues and institutions and there are several key points that I want to share.

First, the man who perpetrated this attack appears to have acted alone.  He was not a part of a larger movement and as of Wednesday night, according to the FBI, there were no credible threats against the Jewish community.

Second, while we may feel under siege because there has been an increase in the number of harassing phone calls and emails reported in the last year, until last Shabbat, there had been only one reported physical assault in the past two years.

So, what can we do now to feel secure as we return to our daily lives?  As a community we can no longer be complacent.  We must take control, and empower ourselves.  We take our security seriously.  Just like we plan for fires and earthquakes, together with security experts, we will develop a plan that will keep us secure as is possible.  God willing, we will never need to use it but at the Tree of Life, Rabbi Meyers saved lives because he had recently undergone security training and he knew what to do when the unthinkable happened.

As I think back on the events of last Shabbat, what confuses me is that what so bothered the perpetrator, Jewish involvement with helping the downtrodden and oppressed, is what I thought was a core American value. I ask myself how anyone could find fault with that?  As if this tragedy was a rational act.  As if the perpetrator was a rational man.

The Jewish people were forged into being through the formative event of our master story, the exodus from Egypt; the journey from slavery to freedom, from oppression to redemption.  Zecher yitziyat Mitzrayim – remember you were slaves in Egypt.   Everything we do is colored by this framing.  No matter what financial or professional success we achieve, we always carry within us a connection to our history as slaves.  This connection guides us to be empathetic advocates for others who are suffering today.  We see ourselves in their eyes. That empathy puts many of us at odds with current immigration policies.   For most of us it is only one or two generations ago that we were immigrants trying to get into America and to create a better life.  We see ourselves in their eyes.

Remembering that we were slaves in Egypt calls us to follow in the footsteps of the prophets who advocated for change, to make the world a better place… to change the status quo…from Isaiah of old, to Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King and who famously said, “When I marched in Selma, I prayed with my feet.”   Many in our community are politically active, using their voices as Mahatma Gandhi said to “’Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Last weekend I was in New York for a conference.  My son Will came down from Vermont and we spent Shabbat together.  We walked the streets of lower Manhattan where we caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.  The iconic Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American values, upon whose base is engraved, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  Jews have proudly fought to uphold the values inscribed here, and yet in today’s world, “Give me your tired, your poor” seem not to be the values of a segment of our society.

In the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Shabbat we read of Hillel and Shammai, two great sages of the last century before the Common Era who founded opposing schools of Jewish thought.   “Once there was a person who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside, dismissing him as a not serious student. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  Treat others how you would want to be treated.  In moments like this, it is easy to feel alone and isolated.  But we are not alone.  Last night at the community vigil, and in this room tonight, are people of good faith and love and warmth, who choose to stand up against hate, and to stand with us when we really need it.

Standing up on the bima at the vigil last night, looking out at the sea of faces that included so many of you, members of all the synagogues here, clergy people of all stripes and collars, political leaders across the aisle of the political divide… standing on that bima was a beautiful site.   And as the lieutenant governor said, we cannot, we should not, forget that there are millions of people standing with us, as we stand with them.  We cannot let the terror perpetrated by the very few, outweigh the goodness of the majority.

We see ourselves in their eyes.

I looked out from the bima and in my eyes I saw all of you, and I know that I am not, that we are not alone.  We are a community made up of many, many parts, and we see each other, we find each other, in each other’s eyes.