This week we're in parashat Vayeshev. This Torah portion brings us into one of the richest narratives in Torah: the beginning of the Joseph novella. But just as the Joseph story is getting rolling, we pause for an interlude which contains an entirely different story, the story of Judah and Tamar. Here's a refresher in case you can't remember how this one goes:
Judah (one of the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery) parts ways with his brothers, marries, and has three sons. The first son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar -- but Er dies before a child can be conceived. So Judah does what was apparently commonplace at that moment in time: nudges his son Onan into levirate marriage.
(What's levirate marriage? It's what happens in the Biblical paradigm when one brother dies childless: the other brother is obligated to marry his brother's widow, and if their marriage produces a son, that son is considered the child of the dead brother both legally and spiritually.)
Onan doesn't want to produce a child under these circumstances. Inheritance laws of that era mean that he and his future children would take a major financial hit, and this kid wouldn't even be considered his! So he practices a form of birth control, spilling his seed on the ground. (It's worth noting that in Torah, the sin of onanism isn't masturbation, it's wasting the opportunity to father a child through levirate marriage.) Because of his sin, Onan dies, too. At this point, Judah doesn't want to marry his third son to Tamar, because she's starting to seem to him like a bad-luck charm. And the third son is too young, anyway. So he sends her back to her father's household.
Sometime thereafter, Judah's wife dies, and after he's finished mourning he goes up to a different town to get his sheep sheared. Word reaches Tamar of her father-in-law's plans, so she discards her widow's cloak and puts on a veil and stations herself on the road at a place called petach enaim, which might mean "the entrance to [the town of] Enaim," or might mean "the opening of the eyes." But when Judah finds her, his eyes are distinctly not opened to the truth of what's in front of him -- he fails to recognize her (on account of the veil), so he hires her for a night. Afterward, he offers her a goat in payment. Tamar, shrewdly, asks for his signet ring and staff as collateral. Later, when he tries to send the goat as his promised payment, no one knows anything about the woman he describes, so he shrugs and keeps the goat.
Three months pass and it becomes clear that Tamar is pregnant. This is an insult to the memory of Er and Onan, and to Judah by extension, so Judah demands that she be brought out and burned. (This is, by the way, an excessive punishment even by ancient near eastern standards -- even at its harshest, Torah does not command this. Perhaps we're meant to see Judah as a bit of a hothead.) But Tamar discreetly sends back his ring and staff, saying, "The man to whom these belong is the father of my child." Judah, suitably chastened, never bothers her again. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Jewish tradition will later hold that the line of King David descends from Perez.
What are we to make of this story? And why is it inserted into the middle of Joseph's tale?
What Tamar did may seem weird to us, even abhorrent. But within the paradigm of that place and time, what she did made a kind of sense. Having married Er, she was entitled to a child from the line of Judah. Women who were mothers had different status than women who were not, and we can tell from Torah's frequent exhortations to care for the widow and orphan that widows and orphans had the toughest lot of all. So Tamar needs a son. Er dies before he can give her one. Onan refuses to give her one through the safeguard of the time, e.g. levirate marriage. And Judah refuses to help her any more after that. So she takes extraordinary measures to get what she believes she deserves. We may not particularly like her methods, but I think we have to admire the courage of her convictions.
The two stories have a few motifs in common. Clothing, for one: Joseph has that beautiful tunic or multicolored coat, while Tamar has her widow's weeds and then the prostitute's veil. Mistaken identity: the brothers imply to their father Jacob that Joseph is dead (by bringing him the torn and bloodied coat), and Tamar implies to her father-in-law Judah that she is something other than what she is (by taking off her widow's garb and donning a veil instead.) Another commonality is protagonists who get by on their wits. Tamar is a trickster figure -- not unlike her grandfather-in-law Jacob, who tricked his father into giving him his brother's blessing; and not unlike Joseph, who will deceive his own brothers when they come down to Egypt seeking food during famine.
Tamar is a marginal figure: she achieves motherhood, that greatest source of Biblical women's joy, by literally standing at the side of the road for her father-in-law to pass by. (It doesn't get much more marginal than that.) But through her proactive choices, she moves from marginal to central. Once Joseph lands in Egypt, a stranger in a strange land, he becomes marginal, too -- until he works his way into the center of his story again.
And both stories feature a dramatic reveal. When Joseph's brothers meet him as Pharaoh's vizier, they won't recognize him, and when he finally tells them who he is they are amazed. When Judah meets Tamar on the road, he doesn't recognize her. In some ways, her reveal is even more dramatic than Joseph's was: she reveals not only her own identity, but Judah's identity as father of her child. She tells Judah something he didn't know about himself, that he's a father again. And maybe she also tells Judah something he doesn't want to know about himself: that he was wrong in trying to subvert the levirate system, thereby denying her the stature and status which was legitimately hers. In this, she prefigures Ruth (who will marry Boaz in another levirate situation), who responds to Boaz's question ("who are you") by telling him who he himself is.
The sages of Jewish tradition respond to Tamar with praise. Tamar is compared to the matriarch Rebecca (who likewise covered herself with a veil, and likewise gave birth to twins.) Bereshit Rabbah even goes so far as to say that an angel helped make sure that Judah chose Tamar rather than anyone else he met that day! In this, I suspect, our sages are working backwards from the teaching that the line of David will descend from Perez. If King David will descend from Perez, then Perez's mother's machinations must be praiseworthy rather than suspect.
In the Five Books of Miriam, Ellen Frankel suggests that this whole episode is a test of Judah's character -- a test which he roundly fails. Writing in the voice of an imagined Tamar, she rails:
He'd already failed to enforce his family's levirate obligation. He'd sent me home in disgrace to my father's house. Now, by his cavalier surrender of his name and power, he conclusively proved his unworthiness as paterfamilias. And so once the bargain was sealed, it was I who left him and went on my way; he remained behind, stripped of his identity. From that moment on, the family birthright passed to me, the mother of Judah's heir.
Tikva Frymer-Kensky's commentary at the Jewish Women's Archive notes that according to ancient near eastern custom, Judah had two legitimate choices, and chose neither. He should either have continued the family line in accepted levirate fashion, or set Tamar free as a widow who could remarry. He does neither, which effectively keeps her in limbo. Reading that, I can't help but think of today's agunot, "chained women," who are bound in marriage to husbands they no longer want because their husbands refuse to give them a get, a halakhic writ of divorce. But Tamar has different options than do today's agunot. When fate deals her a bad hand of cards, she takes her story into her own hands. She ensures that she will bear a child from the line of her dead husband's family, thereby furthering that family line. And along the way, she shows Judah that she is no one to be trifled with.
In a way, Tamar's story highlights for me how distant these Biblical narratives can feel from our own day. Levirate marriage -- seeking out her father-in-law in disguise by the side of the road -- these are foreign to us indeed. And in another way, Tamar's story highlights for me how familiar these Biblical stories can feel. She's a plucky protagonist who'd be right at home in a modern novel. And the story's themes of hiding and revealing, deception and triumph, are alive and well in our world.
How do we (like Tamar) hide our true selves when we're out and about in the world? What do we see (unlike Judah) when we position ourselves in a place where we can truly open our eyes? How are we drawn up short (like Judah) when we recognize the consequences of our actions? What blessings can we imagine might arise (as they did for Tamar) from the distant outcomes of what we choose to do?