Parashat VaYéshev: On Women, ‘Baggage,’ and Agency

In Parashat Va-Yéshev, a break in the action of the vivid Joseph narrative highlights presents us with challenging theology and fraught family dynamics. In this brief vignette, Genesis 38:6-30, Judah marries his son Er to Tamar, and, as Er is “displeasing to the Lord,” God kills him. Judah insists that his second son, Onan, take her as a wife in levirate marriage, and he intentionally avoids impregnating her. God kills Onan also. Judah’s only remaining child is too young to commit to marriage with Tamar, and Judah is worried that a marriage to her might result in his youngest son’s death, so Judah sends her away. She, wanting an heir from this family, seduces Judah by pretending to be a prostitute. Unnamed characters identifying Tamar as pregnant accuse her of being a harlot. Judah, at first jumping to the same conclusion, declares that she should be burned, until she produces hisseal and staff as identifiers of the one who impregnated her. Judah, then, admits publicly that these are his, saying, “tzadekah mimeni.” – “She is more right than I.”

There’s a lot to say about these loaded 25 verses that’s timely. We could focus on Tamar’s agency as a woman in this story, the fact that she’s one of the only female non-matriarchal characters named in Genesis. We could call attention to the practices of levirate marriage here, and Judah’s fear that her marriage is what caused the death of his two elder sons. And what of the challenging idea that God unilaterally smote two people, because they were “displeasing” to God? All these subjects are worth probing, but I want to focus on the “big reveal.”

(24) About three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child by harlotry.” “Bring her out,” said Judah, “and let her be burned.” (25) As she was being brought out, [Tamar] sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Please examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” (26) Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again.

The Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 10b) imagines these latter two verses as a court hearing. The Gemara notes the opacity of Tamar’s statement, and that she didn’t choose to explicitly accuse him of impregnating her, or of consorting with her as a harlot, and that she “sent” the items rather than presenting them to Judah; from this, our Sages draw the principle, “It is better for a person throw himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate another person in public.” And, as Judah confesses publicly once confronted with his act—in the rabbinic mind, he earns his name which has all the letters of God’s Name, in the proper order—the Sages heap praise on Judah for his response.

But it’s not that simple, is it? “She is more right than I” is not a confession of guilt on Judah’s part; there is no remorse in this statement. And our Sages aren’t convinced of it either. Rashi on this verse quotes a midrash stating that actually it wasn’t Judah who said the word mimeni, “than I,” but rather a bat-kol, a Divine Voice, stating that “from Me (God) and My agency have these things happened, because she proved herself a modest woman […].” Tamar’s reward for this episode, “because of the fire,” are the twins she will birth—one of whom will be the progenitor of the Davidic line. Really? Tamar gets to be the progenitor of Jewish and Israelite kings because of her … modesty?

Our Sages miss the mark on this one. Merriam-Webster defines modesty as “placing a moderate estimate on one’s worth; neither bold nor self-assertive, tending toward diffidence.” In the Hebrew we read the words hakér-na, “please examine,” a literary allusion to the way Judah himself asked his father to examine Joseph’s coat. We hear Tamar’s calculated, precisely-chosen statement designed only to “out” Judah’s transgression to him and no one else. In a moment where he has publicly declared that she should be burned to death, when her life hangs in the balance and could be ended at his say-so, Tamar’s deliberate statement invites him to save her, even when it requires his own shameful confession—and he comes through. Is this diffidence? A lack of boldness or self-assertiveness? Absolutely not. It shows Tamar as a woman of the world, who understands how to control her station even in the face of death by fire. She is resourceful, and not impetuous.

Tamar and Judah beget Peretz and Zerach. In Ruth 4:12, Boaz and Ruth are offered the blessing, “May your house be like the house of Peretz, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” What is this blessing? According to Malbim on that verse, that the also-levirate marriage of Boaz and Ruth would produce offspring bringing honor to their family.

In another Talmudic passage (Yoma 22b), Rabbi Yohanan offers in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak that one must only appoint a leader who has “baggage” in his ancestry (graphically stated in the Talmud, “a bag of creeping animals hanging behind him”). This passage cites Ruth and Tamar as the “baggage” behind King David that entitles him to success as a monarch.

But these women aren’t “baggage” – precisely the opposite. When we read this parasha, we should admire Tamar for using her own agency in a society which gave her very little. We should learn from her strength, her resilience, and her resolve. We should note Tamar’s willingness to speak truth to power, and the way in which she took account for the honor and dignity of others in that process. In a Bible where good female role models are hard to find, and no character is without blemish, here is one we should uplift as an example for us today.

About the Author
Cantor Hinda Eisen Labovitz is the cantor of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and serves on the executive council of the Cantors Assembly. The is a graduate of Hebrew College's School of Jewish Music where she was ordained Cantor and earned a Masters of Judaic Studies degree and Boston University, where she earned a B.A. in Religion and a concentration in Special Education. The views expressed in her blog are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the congregation or the organizations in which she participates.