Torah from around the world #93

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Rabbi Alona Lisitsa



Jerusalem, Rabbinic Internship and Mentoring – Israeli Rabbinic program; Liturgy and Rabbinic Texts – YII program

The weekly portion, Veyeshev, starts with the story of Joseph’s youth and ends with him being imprisoned in Egypt. The major part of the weekly portion tells us about Joseph and his relationships with his father and his brothers. Joseph’s changing fate brings him to Egypt as a slave sold by his own brothers who were jealous because of their father Yaakov’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 his daugther in law Tamar. This story drew my attention not only because of the scandalous details of Tamar getting pregnant by Judah while masquerading as a prostitute, but because this is one of those rare stories where women play a main role.

Tamar was married to Judah’s eldest son, Er. For reason (which was unexplained in the biblical text) God did not like Er and killed him. Er and Tamar had no children, so in accordance with the law, Judah sent his other son, Onan, to fulfill the duty of the Levirate marriage obligation in which the younger brother is required to “carry on the seed” of his deceased brother. This child would be considered the child of the deceased brother and Onan did not want Tamar to conceive a child who would not belong to him. In his refusal to father a child with Tamar, he broke a strict divine commandment and was killed by God like his brother had been. Judah sent Tamar, the second-time widow, to wait in her father’s house under the pretext that he was waiting until his youngest son, Shela, would be old enough to perform his Levirate obligation.

Time passed: 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 was going to help her, she decided to take matters into her own hands. This is surprising in the patriarchal society in which she was raised and lived. Tamar disguised herself 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 whom he did not recognize her as his daughter in law. As he had no money with him, he left his seal with her as a pledge for payment for her services. When rumors spread that Tamar, the widow, was pregnant, Judah reacted immediately by ordering that she be burnt to death.  Tamar was not scared, nor did she lose her integrity. She never mentioned to anyone that it was Judah who fathered her child. Instead, 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 righteous than I

. צדקה ממני” (Genesis 38:26). In spite of the happy end, this story leaves a sour taste. This story only proves that women in biblical times and in 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 Tanach. 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 Tanach 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 Hanukkah stories that portray women as protagonists are the story about the mother who sacrificed her seven children to God’s glory: she inspired her sons to die rather than perform any act that could have resembled pagan worship. The other Hanukkah story appears in

Beit haMidrasch

(Adolf Jellinek, 1853–1878) and is about the priest’s daughter, who was in great despair of spending her first night with a Greek governor instead of her groom (as was the practice at the time). She stripped herself of her clothing in the middle of the wedding feast. Outraged family members and guests were ready to kill the courageous virgin. But she stood proud and gave an inspiring speech calling them to revenge the Greeks for all the insults they had made to the Jewish identity. The young girl called the Jews to reconsider their anger: they had been ready to let her go to the Gentile without protest, so why were they so angry by just seeing her naked? The enthusiastic crowd killed every Greek in the city and the Maccabean revolt started. So what is the message of Tamar’s story and Hanukkah women? If a woman wants to enter history, she has to sacrifice her family or strip naked. The stories of Judith and Esther are additional examples of the same phenomenon.

I find it rather confusing to live with these messages and I try to look carefully through the texts: maybe there is something more to it. I hope and believe that the day will come when modern women do not need to resort to this type of action – this would be cause for more celebration.

The Babylonian Talmud (Sabbath 23B) teaches us that women can light the Hanukkah candles because they were part of the miracle. This 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 exile or a wonderful miracle, it happens to men and women equally.

And more importantly, through their actions – women can change their lives and the life their people.



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