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Blame Tamar, the killer-wife (or not)

The very mistakes our ancestors made when bowing to convention become the Torah's way of teaching unconventional truths. (Miketz)
Tamar and Judah, by Aert de Gelder, 1667. (Wikipedia)
Tamar and Judah, by Aert de Gelder, 1667. (Wikipedia)

Once upon a time, there was a world where illusions and delusions reigned. It was a world in which people believed that women could cause the deaths of their husbands, just by virtue of who they were.

Once upon a time, there was a world where women’s freedoms were stifled. It was a world in which a woman suspected of being unfaithful to her betrothed, could be dragged from her home and burned alive at the stake.

Once upon a time, women’s faces were hidden — by veils and by patriarchy.

But Tanakh tells us a story.

Once upon a time, the Tanakh tells us, there was a woman named Tamar. Tamar was married to Er, the son of Judah, but Er “did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord killed him.”  And so, as Canaanite custom would have it, Tamar was given to Er’s younger brother, Onan.  But Onan, knowing that any son borne of his marriage to Tamar would be named for his brother, made certain not to impregnate his new wife. His actions, like those of his brother before him, were “evil in the eyes of the Lord.” So, he too was slain.

Two deaths. Two reasons. Two subversive verses.

The “killer-wife” motif is one that, like many superstitions, somehow defied, or eluded the tests of time and rationale. Since the very origins of humanity, people have been searching for answers, for cause and effect, explanations for the inexplicable. The instinct to blame mysterious deaths on diabolical female forces, is as old as that search itself. Through its unequivocal contention that both men died for their own sins respectively, the Tanakh is propounding a subtle, yet unambiguous polemic against any such sentiments. Readers of the narrative are reminded that God, and God alone, retains dominion over life and death. The revolutionary voice of Tanakh leaves no room for the insinuation that a woman could be blamed for the untimely, even statistically anomalous deaths, of two husbands.

But Judah was not privy to that omniscient voice of the narrator. Judah, fearing for the life of his youngest son, defied the protocols of Levirate marriage that automated the engagement of Tamar to Shelah, and he sent Tamar away, “for he thought [Shelah] too might die like his brothers.”  Judah chose to keep Shelah safe even if it meant eradicating the names, and surrogate progeny, of Er and Onan. For years Tamar sat in widow’s garb, waiting to be summoned by her father-in-law to begin her life anew with Shelah. But the summons never came. She remained imprisoned in her loneliness, and in her anticipation, and in her hungering for a child of her own.

Our ancestors, like all human beings, made mistakes, and the Tanakh records many of those missteps. Our charge as students of Tanakh, is to read openly. For it is often the very mistakes that they made when bowing to convention that become the media through which the Tanakh communicates unconventional truths.

Judah made a mistake and became the victim of subterfuge.

Deception, phenomenologically speaking, is resorted to throughout history by individuals and groups rendered powerless by society. Resourcefulness, cunning, and creative rhetoric serve as counterbalances to the institutional constructs of hierarchy and biased legalities. Slaves deceive masters, laypeople deceive kings, foreigners deceive natives, women deceive men — and Tamar deceived Judah. When she learned that Judah would be passing through town, Tamar had a choice to make. She could remain exactly where she was and simply let Judah, and her childbearing years, pass before her eyes, or she could venture beyond the confines of her home and determine the course of her own fate. She chose the latter. Concealing her identity, Tamar posed as a prostitute and after charming Judah into her bed, kept his most personal possessions as collateral for the payment owed her. Within weeks, Tamar knew that she was pregnant with his child, and it was not long before word reached Judah that Tamar, his daughter in law, Shelah’s betrothed, had been with “another man.”  Tamar knew all too well the fate that awaited accused women of her world, but she held out patiently, strategically, for just the right moment in time. And in a remarkable maneuver, as she was being led to her execution, she sent Judah his belongings and declared “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” She requested that he “please examine” the staff and personal seal before him, and then left the question of ownership, and of accountability, hanging in the air. Comprehending the scenario’s implications, Judah publicly, bravely, and contritely acknowledged paternity.  He professed: “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” Her virtue re-established, Tamar went on to give birth to twin boys and become the ancestress of none other than King David himself.

Once upon a time, there was a world where women could not contend with the powers that be. It was a world where men’s errors were endured, at the price of women’s lives.

Once upon a time, women’s voices, and choices, were inconsequential.

And so Tanakh invites us to imagine an alternate world. A world that on the surface looks just like that world we abhor. But if we read closely, and listen carefully, we find a wholly different set of assumptions.

Tamar’s story does not begin with Er, and it does not end with the birth of her twins. Tamar stands at the center of a male-dominated drama about fathers and sons, brothers and viceroys. It is a drama that traces the elevation of Judah’s eminence among his brothers, and accounts for his tribe’s eventual leadership on the national scale. Tamar is the hinge on which that history hangs, but her actions, to be fully appreciated, need to be contextualized.

Years before Tamar steps on to the biblical stage, Judah had already made a calamitous decision. The brothers, jealous of Joseph’s favored position, hatched a plan to do away with the person that threatened their status. Judah had steered the sale of Joseph down to Egypt and then presented a misleadingly bloody cloak to his father. The brothers, hovering around their aging father asked Jacob to “please examine” the tattered garment, conjuring a nightmarish scene. Examine it he did, and with a broken heart he began mourning the imagined death of his favored son.

The brother’s disregard for the value of Joseph’s life, and the prioritizing of their ego and pride over and above the cohesion and welfare of their family, fractured the household.  So, we are not surprised when we are told, in the aftermath of the sale, that Judah “left his brothers.” Perhaps he was attempting to distance himself from the memories, and the grief, that in his father’s home must have been all-consuming. But suppressing trauma doesn’t make it disappear and disengaging from co-conspirators doesn’t undo damage wrought.

When Tamar asked Judah to “examine” his staff and seal, employing the identical words the brothers used when they handed their father the bloody cloak, she was doing more than just evoking a painful memory. Tamar was impelling him to realize that he was in the same position that he was all those years ago, and while it was too late for Joseph, it was not too late to do right by her. Tamar was asking Judah, this time, to prioritize the life of another over concern for his standing. With two hauntingly familiar words, she was imploring him, this time, to sacrifice his repute and save her life.

And that’s exactly what he did. Judah’s encounter with Tamar left him a changed person. And individuals who believe in the human ability to repent, and to change, and to grow from their mistakes, are those who are most ripe to lead.

Fast forward to a time when Judah’s twins are likely grown men themselves. Joseph, incognito, is ruling Egypt, and has sent the brothers home with the threat that if Benjamin does not join their next descent, Simeon will remain in prison. Reuben, the eldest, and default spokesperson, tries his hardest to persuade Jacob to part with his youngest son, but to no avail. Judah, like Tamar, waits for the perfect time to make his move. He waits months, until the sacks run out of food, the children’s bellies are empty, and their eyes are sad. He waits until the prospect of Jacob watching his grandchildren starve to death is a palpable reality, and then he speaks. He speaks words laden in experience and empathy, for only Judah could empathize with the desire to protect a son who is all that remains of a bygone life. When Judah speaks to Jacob, he speaks not as son to father, but as father to father. His words carry a depth of understanding that is both personal and profound. By trying to protect his youngest son, Judah explained, Jacob was ensuring the certain death of all his offspring. Jacob understood, because Judah understood, and eventually Jacob acquiesced. And we come to realize that the admission of guilt that Tamar extracted from Judah, set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the reunion of the budding nation of Israel.

Readers of Genesis are struck by the fact that Tamar’s impact continues to reverberate long after her name disappears from the page, but Tamar’s story is not unique in that sense. Tanakh’s influential women are exceptional, but they are not exceptions to Tanakh’s rules. While Tanakh reflects a concrete historical reality, it simultaneously challenges that backdrop. Its chapters take place in a time when women were outranked by men, but Tanakh consistently undermines the notion that subordination implies inferiority. In Tanakh, there are no uniquely-male attributes that account for their dominance, and no uniquely-female traits that could ever be used to justify their subservience. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky noted, contrasting the portrayal of biblical women from their Ancient Near Eastern literary counterparts, Tanakh does not resort to chauvinism to rationalize powerlessness. The Tanakh speaks matter-of-factly about female prophets, warriors and leaders, and their eligibility is always taken as a given. Tanakh’s protagonists are the products of a broader culture, but as Tamar’s story demonstrates on several levels, the Tanakh implicitly condemns the suppositions underlying that culture, and in doing so, ensures that women earn a prominent place in our people’s history.

Once upon a time, there was a world where people set aside prejudices and preconceived notions that had been cultivated over thousands of years.

Once upon a time, there was a world where people listened carefully, and honestly, to the words they believed to be divine…

…And they lived happily ever after.

About the Author
Prior to making aliyah in 2014, Yael was a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught continuing education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as resident scholar at the Jewish Center Of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning, and lectures widely on topics in Jewish biblical thought.
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