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n43 - Vayeshev


  |   Judaism

The weekly portion, “Veyeshev”, starts with the story of Josef’s youth and ends with him being put in prison in Egypt. The major part of the weekly portion tells us about Josef and his relationships with his father and his brothers. Josef’s changing fate brings him to Egypt as a slave sold by his own brothers because of Yaakov’s, his father’s, obvious preference of Josef over the other children. But in the midst of the portion we are also told a story about Judah and Tamar, Tamar is Judah’s daughter in law. This story drew my attention not only because of piquant details of Tamar’s getting pregnant to Judah by playing a role of a prostitute, but because this is one of those scarce stories where women play a main role.

Tamar was married to Judah’s eldest son, Er. For some unexplained development in the text of Torah, God did not like Er and killed him. Er and Tamar had no children, so with accordance with the law, Judah sent his other son, Onan, to fulfill the duty of the levirate marriage obligation, this means that the younger brother will continue the seed of his dead brother. Onan did not want Tamar to conceive a child who would not belong to him. It looks like he broke a strict divine commandment and was killed by God as his brother was. Judah sent Tamar, the double widow, to her father’s house, under the pretext that the youngest son of his, Shela, is too young and therefore not able to perform his levirate obligation.

The time passed and Judah’s wife died, Shela grew up, but nobody remembered that Tamar was sitting and waiting for the levirate to conceive a child. When Tamar realized that nobody is going to help her, she decided to take matters into her own hands. This is surprising in the patriarchal society where she was raised and lived in. Tamar dressed up as a prostitute and sat at the side of a road where Judah traveled. The widowed Judah was tempted to spend a night with the prostitute and did not recognize her as his daughter in law. As a pledge, he left his seal with her, in lieu of payment for her services. When the rumors spread that Tamar, the widow, was pregnant, Judah reacted immediately by ordering her to be burnt.  Tamar did not get scared or lose her integrity. She never mentioned to anyone that it was Judah who fathered her child. She sent him his seal as an identification sign of the child’s father. Judah recognized the seal and the righteousness of Tamar: “She was more right than I. צדקה ממני”. In spite of the happy end, this story leaves a sour taste. This story only proves that women in Torah and in the ancient society could get what they wanted only by using some indirect ways and treachery. Tamar did not consider an option of direct confrontation with Judah. She is not his equal.

Women are rarely protagonists in the Tanah. But when they are, they are usually represented as controversial and even negative images. Our mothers lie, steal, cheat and do all kinds of things that the editors of Tanah would not like our fathers to do. When our fathers do something really ambivalent, the text provides an explanation. Maybe these explanations do not always sound convincing, especially nowadays, but at least they try to find some explanation and that is what is really important. Our mothers and other women do not benefit from such an indulgent attitude.  So, what kind of a lesson does this story teach us? What kind of example does this story set for us, women?

We are drawing closer to the Hanukkah and this is another story, historical or imaginary, that does not include women as protagonists. The heroes of the holiday are Makkabim who do not have mothers, wives or sisters. The only two stories connected to the Hanukkah where women are protagonists are the story about the mother who sacrificed her seven children to God’s glory: she inspired her sons to die refusing to perform any act that could have resembled any kind of pagan worship. The other story that appears at the book called “Beit haMidrash” of Yelnik is about the priest’s daughter, who being in great despair of spending her first night with a Greek governor instead of her groom, stripped herself of cloths at the midst of the wedding feast. Surprised and outrageous family and guests were ready to kill the courageous virgin. But standing there naked, she gave the whole crowd an inspiring speech calling them to revenge the Greeks for all the insults they’d made to the Jewish identity. The young girl called the Jews to reconsider their anger: they were going to let her pass through the hands of an uncircumcised gentile without any scruples, so why now they were so angry by just seeing her naked? The enthusiastic crowd killed every Greek in the city and the Maccabean revolt started. So what’s the message of Tamar’s story and Hanukkah women? If a woman wants to enter the history, she has to sacrifice the dearest to her or to strip naked. The stories of Judith and Ester are another examples of the same phenomenon.

I find it rather confusing to live with these messages and I try to look carefully through the texts: may be there is something more to it. I really hope that such methods should not be in use today. I believe that modern women would not need them and then it would be another miracle to celebrate.

The Babylonian Talmud (Sabbath 23B) teaches us that women can light the Hanukkah candles because they were part of the miracle. This saying reminds us that women are part of our people’s history. And if something happens to the Jewish people, whether it is a terrible conquest and an exile or a wonderful miracle, it happens to men and women equally.

And more, if women act they can change their lives and the life their people.

alona - Vayeshev
The first female Rabbi in Israel to join a religious council. PhD from the University of Tel Aviv in Talmud and Ancient Texts and sponsored Rabbi for Spain and Portugal (EUBD), also in charge of rabbinic mentoring at the Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem.