This parasha is a beautiful but difficult set of stories, and I'm hoping that we have a meaningful discussion of them. This parasha, Vayeshev, begins the story of Joseph and his famous many colored coat, and his even more famous betrayal by his brothers. It then digresses into the story of Judah and Tamar, which I´d like to discuss.
If you are new to the story, as I was, Judah (Joseph´s older brother), splits off from the rest of his brothers, and marries a Canaanite woman called Bat-Shua. They have three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er comes of age and is married to a woman named Tamar. Er dies, punished by God for an unspecified sin. Tamar is then married to Onan, in a traditional Levirat marriage, that is, a marriage that will produce children for the deceased Er´s name. Onan refuses to honor his brother´s memory and produce children, so he too is killed by God. Shelah is not of age, so Judah sends Tamar back to her father´s house, claiming that Shelah will marry her when he is old enough, but privately he is afraid of her bad luck with husbands. Some time later, Tamar gets news that her father-in-law Judah is coming to her part of Canaan. She disguises herself, and waits for him. Judah, believing her to be a sex worker, asks to sleep with her. Tamar agrees without revealing her identity. When Judah offers to pay on credit, Tamar successfully solicits his staff and personal seal, but returns to her true identity without ever collecting the real payment. When Judah is told, as patriarch, that his daughter-in-law is illicitly pregnant, he demands to know who the father is. Tamar produces the staff and seal and Judah accepts the paternity of the twins who will be born to her, Peretz and Zerah. Peretz will go on to be a direct ancestor of King David, and therefore, of the Messiah.
What is the meaning of this strange, and brutal story? For me, Tamar´s journey is one towards agency. I´m not alone in that. Rashi thinks that Tamar sleeps with Judah because she is actively demanding a place in the family that has such a great destiny. We could view Tamar as a victim of a patriarchal society, who, afraid of her patriarch, Judah, must prove her own innocence, or at least, as the case was, Judah´s complicity. Many traditional (male) commentators remark approvingly of Tamar´s discretion when confronting Judah. She does not say publicly that Judah is the father of the twins, rather, she sends him the staff and seal. But many feminist commentators, like Francesca Littman, have remarked on Tamar´s fear that she will not be believed, as so many women and victims of systemic cruelties are asked to prove their own experiences. Toni Morrison, while discussing Racism, points out that the very nature and intention of this questioning of women and other oppressed peoples' lived experience, is itself an act of violence and theft of time. She says,
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Why does Judah attack Tamar, demanding she account for her time and her so-called sexual impropriety, why does he accuse her of faithlessness? If Judah had not demanded from Tamar that she prove her innocence, if Judah and the patriarchy he represents had not threatened Tamar with death, then what might have Tamar accomplished? In our current society, many women and many communities of color, in particular in this country the Black community, have to constantly defend and justify their worth, interests, knowledge, existence and very lives. What might they be, if they could just be? Like Tamar, there is great promise and even possibly salvation in the people who have been systemically oppressed.
The questions I have are:
Was there a time when you felt, like I imagine Tamar felt, like I often feel, that you are being asked to prove something about your life or self that is self evident to you, and the demand is a distraction from work or life you´d rather be doing?
Was there a time when you may have, like Judah, demanded someone verify or prove something about themselves that may have distracted them from crucial matters? How do you think that doing that, demanding them to prove themselves, contributed to their oppression?
If Tamar deserves to be in the line of Messiah for her insistence on herself and her truth, then what relationship does hope have with self-assertion?
I´ll be thinking about your contributions all week, and please, reach out if you want to continue this conversation. I thought I would end by building more on the idea of agency, and how one can move from a victim to an active decision maker. When thinking of Tamar´s agency, we could view Judah´s accusation as not a distraction, but rather, Judah playing into Tamar´s hands. Tamar, from the moment she disguised herself, was hoping for exactly this, a chance to solidify her place in the people of Israel and produce children in Judah´s line. When he demands evidence of who she has been sleeping with, she delivers the evidence and in doing so, closes her trap. In this scenario, my question, and I´ll leave you with this for the week, especially as we approach the ending of the Joseph story, is, what is a trap? and when are they acceptable?
Atenea is Spanish for Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. She is aptly named!