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.

2 thoughts on “Parashat Vayeshev – Tamar: A Biblical Feminist Role Model for Modernity

  1. Or not !
    Tamar is not my biblical heroine
    The daughters who demanded their deceased dad”s inheritance , since they had no brothers , are far more noble
    Does the Midrash explain why Onan did what he did ? Was it only not to perpetuate his brothers line ?


  2. Is a person limited to only one role model? As you mention, the daughter’s of Zelophehad are also rare biblical examples of women actively asking for what is due to them.

    Looking at some commentaries on why Onan did what he did…
    1) Ramban as expressed in the Stone Chumash says “Onan knew that the children born of his union with Tamar would be a reincarnation of Er’s soul, and he was too selfish to let this happen.”
    2) The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary offers “Onan’s “sin” is refusing to impregnate his siter-in-law. His fate does not serve to condemn either masturbation or coitus interruptus, two definitions of “onanism” in English dictionaries. One’s selfish reasoning logical (but not condemned): he has no interest in producing an heir for his dead brother’s (land) portion, which is in the interest of the household’s structure but not in his personal interest.”

    Do you want to offer another reason Onan did what he did? All my other commentaries are at the synagogue!


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