Shavuot: A new model of relationship where women are (also) in the narrative

We first find the festival in the book of Exodus where it is called called הקציר חג hag ha-katzir “the  festival of harvest” later clarified with the information that the harvest is of “the first-fruits of your labours” (Exodus 23:16). When we meet it in Leviticus (ch23) it has no name but we are told to count seven complete weeks plus one day -fifty days- and then bring a new meal offering and other sacrifices – the first fruits – to God. In the book of Numbers (28:26) we are told it is  “the day of the first-fruits, הבכורים יום when you bring a new meal-offering to the Eternal in your feast of weeks” and in Deuteronomy it is called the festival of Shavuot because of the counting of seven weeks from having put the sickle to the standing grain.

There is nothing in bible about this being the festival of the giving of Torah, the name we use now in our liturgical marking of the festival. Shavuot as we know it is a construction that builds on the ritual of bringing first fruits as sacrifices to the Temple to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, and replaces this with the covenantal relationship we have as a people with God, a relationship which is documented and defined by the giving and receiving of Torah.

So how amazing it is then that this festival which is the bridge par excellence between Temple and Rabbinic Judaism has as one of its major texts the story told in the book of Ruth, one of only two books named for a woman in the whole of Torah, a book which places women and women’s relationships right at the centre of the narrative, as one of them freely accepts all the obligations of Torah to join the Jewish people, and the other acts as her guide and support.

Other women also feature in the book, with strong supporting roles. Orpah, the other sister in law, who chooses to go back to her own people rather than go forward with Ruth and Naomi to an unknown future. The women of Bethlehem who act like a chorus and comment on the situation of Naomi. Even the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and the brave and resourceful Tamar make an extraordinary appearance, when the elders tell Boaz: ‘We are witnesses. The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel….and let your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Eternal shall give thee of this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12)

As we are modelling a new relationship with God that has moved from the cult of sacrificial worship to a Judaism based on words and actions that aspire to bring us closer to God, the leading figures are the women, and we have two pairs of women – Naomi and Ruth, Rachel and Leah, who have modelled for us an extraordinary generous and compassionate relationship. The sisters had had the misfortune to marry the same man, and therefore be thrown into competition with each other, something that is not referred to in the text before Jacob came along, and we know that Rachel took pity on her older – and less loved -sister Leah by giving her tokens to seduce Jacob. Naomi and Ruth had the misfortune to be widowed and left without masculine support in a patriarchal world, but Ruth’s determination to stay with Naomi and Naomi’s supportive matriarchal abilities meant that all ended well for them both – indeed it is in this book that we find the only time a woman is described as loving another woman – right at the end of the book the women of Bethlehem say that Ruth loves (a.ha.v) Naomi, and Naomi nurses Ruth’s child, an act of extraordinary love and unity. Their relationship is the exact opposite of the parody of mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. It’s true there is no husband/son to fight over but they do not fight over the child/grandchild but instead are both functioning as its mother – indeed the women of Bethlehem say “a child is born to Naomi” rather than to Ruth – the mothering is from both women without problem.

The blessing given when Boaz is to marry Ruth is another extraordinary piece of text. “The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel”. There is a clear resonance with the blessing by Jacob of his two grandsons by Joseph (Genesis 48:20) “By you will Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” – itself a blessing of harmonisation, given that Ephraim (the younger) is placed above Manasseh, with no complaint or jealousy shown by the boys, a first in the blessing of sons in the book of Genesis. So again this is a blessing of resolution of any rivalries, a bringing together of two who might fight against each other but instead choose to work together without hostility. Then comes the naming of Rachel and Leah, sisters whose relationship may have been poisoned by the actions of Jacob, each wanting what the other had from him – one wanting love, the other wanting children. Apart from the disruption in their lives caused by Jacob, there is no textual reference to any hostility between them. And here they are credited as being the two who built the house of Israel.  Sarah and Rebecca here are less important as matriarchs – it is the mothers of the twelve tribes who take centre stage as with the tribal configuration Israel becomes less one family and more one people. I am aware that Bilhah and Zilpah are also the mothers of sons of Jacob and are not credited with this – I think because legally they are surrogates, the children not belonging to them, and this is a subject that will be given space in the future.

So here as the denouement of the text, the marriage of the foreign woman Ruth to Boaz a descendant of Tamar and Judah, and the bringing into the house of Naomi (who midrash gives a genealogy that will also lead to Judah and Tamar) means that the house of Boaz will be built like the house of Israel – the Jewish people will grow in numbers and in strength, but also be ready to receive Torah in its life, as Ruth has demonstrated her willing acceptance out in the wilds Moab just as the Israelites demonstrated their acceptance in the wilds of Sinai. There is a harmonisation, a sense of bringing together loose ends and readying for the next stage, and it is all done through the relationship of women with each other, choosing not to try to best each other or outdo each other, but to work together to build for the future.

And what an edifice was built on the foundations of these women. Of Tamar who boldly waylaid Judah in order to have the child that was rightfully hers and that would liberate her from yevamah. Of Rachel and Leah who became the matriarchs of tribal Judaism. Of Naomi who survived the deaths of her husband and sons, who ‘came back empty’ in her own words but who found the way to replenish and rebuild, based on her relationship of love and dvekut with her foreign daughter in law. Of Ruth, whose behaviour would not now pass the test of tzniut in many communities, but who also found a way to replenish and rebuild a life that may otherwise have dwindled into nothing.

The edifice built was ultimately the Davidic line of monarchy as the genealogy at the end of the book tells us.  And this is another ‘wild card’ in the patriarchal narrative we are so used to. For David is the grandchild of a Moabite woman and a descendant of more than one woman who used their bodies and their sexuality to gain what they needed. He is the descendant of men who left Beit Lechem to go to the hated Moab in time of famine and paid for it with their lives. He is the scion of a family with more skeletons in their wardrobe than one can imagine, and at the same time he is the descendant of women who broke the mould of sibling rivalries and patriarchal power plays, who chose to work together, to love each other in the most unlikely circumstances, to help each other unselfishly.

Torah was given to a people who were afraid and trembling, in a desert where they were insecure by a God who was so terrifying that they begged Moses to act as intermediary and agent for them. Sinai is a powerful piece of theatre with smoke and mountains that shook and the sound of a shofar piercing the air. At Shavuot we get a different model – a young woman who willingly and with love stays with an older woman and helps her return to her home, an older woman who willingly and with love guides the younger towards a future that will be blessed with security and warmth. No great theatre, no powerful revelation, just the day to day living of two people helping each other out.

I think the rabbis chose well when this book became the story read to parallel the theophany at Sinai. Here are the women, who were so hidden from view in the Exodus telling of the story. Here are the ordinary and quotidian activities of people caring for each other. Here is a true story of love and of people helping each other to what they need – no fireworks, no drama – just the reality of covenantal relationship in its quiet and extraordinary glory.


Parashat Emor: the priest and the prostitute or how a women’s sexual history is mysteriously powerful in the ritual system

The priesthood of ancient Israel was a complex and important part of the identity and formation of the people, and here in Emor we are continuing the narrative of priestly behaviour and purity, begun when Aaron and his four sons took on the role of hereditary priesthood back in the book of Exodus (chapter 28) and the special garments they were to wear were described in detail. The priesthood was a sanctified position, the role to minister to God and to carry out the rituals perfectly.

So Emor begins with instructions about how the priest may not render himself unfit for his role, and the phrase early in the chapter is curious  לֹ֥א יִטַּמָּ֖א בַּ֣עַל בְּעַמָּ֑יו לְהֵ֖חַלּֽוֹ:he shall not render himself impure as a chief among his people, and he shall not profane himself.  The impurity issue is clear – for a person approaching God he needs to be in a state of ritual purification – but the question of profanation (or defilement or pollution) is less so – how does it differ from the impurity of being tamei?

First we are told the priest is not to become tamei (ritually impure) by contact with a corpse, unless the dead person is a first degree relative (no wife is mentioned in the list, and the priest may only have contact with a sister if she is still virgin at the time of her death)

The priest must not make his head bald, nor shave the corners of their beard, nor in any way cut their flesh – presumably these are all practises of a non-Israelite priesthood to be avoided at all costs.

This is followed by another exhortation, this time cast in a more positive light

קְדשִׁ֤ים יִֽהְיוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְלֹ֣א יְחַלְּל֔וּ שֵׁ֖ם אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֑ם כִּי֩ אֶת־אִשֵּׁ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה לֶ֧חֶם אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֛ם הֵ֥ם מַקְרִיבִ֖ם וְהָ֥יוּ קֹֽדֶשׁ:

“They will be holy to their God, and they will not profane the name of their God, for the fire-offerings of God, bread of their God, they bring close (offer). And they will be holy” (21:6)

So far so explicable. The priest is to be holy, separate and distinct from the rest of the population. Their role is to offer to God, and they must be in a state of ritual purity in order to do so – failure to do exactly as required has already been demonstrated in the fate of Nadav and Avihu two of the sons of Aaron. This is dangerous territory, meticulous care must be taken in all one’s actions where one might contract ritual impurity or fall into the rituals of a different religious group.

But then we come to who the priest can marry, and the sexual history of the potential wife, or her past relationships  suddenly come into the category of being able to cause HIM to become defiled. And worse, the behaviour of his daughter, if it be seen to be licentious, will cause her to receive the death penalty by fire, because she has defiled her father.

אִשָּׁ֨ה זֹנָ֤ה וַֽחֲלָלָה֙ לֹ֣א יִקָּ֔חוּ וְאִשָּׁ֛ה גְּרוּשָׁ֥ה מֵֽאִישָׁ֖הּ לֹ֣א יִקָּ֑חוּ כִּֽי־קָדֹ֥שׁ ה֖וּא לֵֽאלֹהָֽיו: ח וְקִ֨דַּשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּֽי־אֶת־לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ ה֣וּא מַקְרִ֑יב קָדשׁ֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֔ךְ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם: ט וּבַת֙ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּהֵ֔ן כִּ֥י תֵחֵ֖ל לִזְנ֑וֹת אֶת־אָבִ֨יהָ֙ הִ֣יא מְחַלֶּ֔לֶת בָּאֵ֖שׁ תִּשָּׂרֵֽף:

A woman who is a Zonah (prostitute) or a Challelah (defiled) was not to be taken in marriage, nor was a woman who had been sent away by her husband (divorced) because “he is holy to his God”.

And you shall make him Kadosh (sanctified/distinct) because the bread of your God he offers (brings close), he will be Kadosh to you, because I the Eternal am Kadosh and make you Kadosh.

And the daughter of a priest who defiles herself with prostitution, she defiles her father, she will be burned by fire”

Just how can it be that the previous actions of women with whom the priest might come into contact can defile him? Taken in conjunction with the requirement of a state of virginity of the dead sister for whom he is permitted to defile himself the text reads clearly that the sexual history of woman has a real and serious effect on the status and purity of the priest.

And yet prostitution was clearly a part of Israelite society and we have biblical stories that speak of it without passing any moral judgement. Be it Tamar with Judah, determined to get her son or Rahab who helped Joshua, the harlot in Gaza visited by Samson or the ‘backdrop’ of prostitution described in the book of Kings, Isaiah, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Hosea etc. Prostitutes were a known sector of society, disparaged but tolerated and most certainly used. Little snippets appear woven into the biblical text about the prositutes– both male and female. We see them bathing in public pools, playing their music in public places; they were seductive and bible warns against their charms. Possibly the most powerful story in late bible is that of Esther, given by her uncle Mordechai into the harem of the King and how many little Jewish girls are dressed as Esther at Purim, how few want to be Vashti!

The rules for the High Priest are even more strict – he can only marry a woman with NO previous sexual history. Whereas a widow is an acceptable wife for an ordinary priest, the wife of the High Priest must be a virgin. The biblical take on this is fascinating – he shall not profane his seed among his people.  Rabbinic commentators take this to mean the problem that arises should he contract an unsuitable marriage – to a widow or a divorcee – and subsequently have children who are ‘profane’, but I wonder if this is indeed the plain meaning of the text, or if there is not some sexual politics and fantastical belief system at play – that a woman who has had sexual relations with another man will in the following years still have something of that man within her that could contaminate later relationships.

The fear of a woman’s sexual history permeates this section of bible. The idea that a woman can defile the priest, not within the system of tamei/tahor with her menstrual fluids (which to be honest is bad enough) but within some other system of Chall’lah, of profaning or polluting or even just making ordinary and common and mundane, simply by having been intimate with another man, is deeply problematic. It bespeaks the ownership of a woman’s body, of the rights to have intimacy with her in a particularly controlling way, by linking it to the proper workings of a priesthood whose role is to ensure the continuing relationship between Israel and God. It diminishes also the relationships which were not transactional in the way prostitution is – the divorced woman, the abandoned wife, the widow – these are all in the category of defiling the priest even though their sexual activity may have been impeccably within the boundaries of sanctioned relationships.

And another issue is noticeable by its absence – the sexual history and activity of the priest himself. No ban is given here about the priest not frequenting prostitutes, no rules are given for his faithfulness or his expected standard of behaviour in order to keep himself ritually pure and appropriate for his work – only the woman’s behaviour is legislated for here as if only the woman’s sexual activity has bearing on the man’s ability to function as priest.  It seems to me to have less to do with the appropriateness to function as priest and much more to do with the need to control that most feared of activities- the sexual behaviour of women.

It is against halacha even today for a Cohen or Levi, a person whose family name and tradition speak of them being part of the hereditary priesthood, to intentionally marry a divorcee, although if they do so the marriage is valid ex post facto although the priestly status of the children will be diminished. Inevitably such couples arrive at the offices of non-orthodox rabbis, hoping for a chuppah and some semblance of Jewish blessing. For we progressive rabbis the status of someone claiming to be part of an unaltered and untainted biblical line descending directly from Aaron is at best safek in doubt, and anyway the special status of the Cohanim is no longer relevant, we no longer wish for a return to the Temple and its ritual structures, and therefore maintaining some notional and doubtful purity to facilitate some outdated religious system which has long been superseded by prayer and mitzvot is a stringency we are unlikely to want to defend.

But to add to that the realisation that the woman is judged to be defiling to the man simply because she has been sexually active – makes the whole structure indefensible. When we look at the text and see that the stated aim – again and again – is holiness for the people just as God is holy, then we surely cannot allow these verses and their implications to stand unchallenged. The classical commentators have tried their best, limiting the definitions of zonah and chall’lah to women who either engaged in illicit relations or who were the product of them, but this is not the plain meaning of the text and it leaves unchallenged the unpalatable position that women defile men through sexual activity that has nothing to do with those men.

As increasingly women are finding ourselves the object of fundamentalist ‘religious’ statements, sexualised and objectified and curtailed and forcibly hidden from the public sphere, it is time to go back to the source of some of this activity and expose it for what it is – in this case the real fear the priesthood had that any ritual impurity might impede the communication between people and God – or might prove fatal to the priest involved, has been diverted to cement the ownership of women’s bodies, sexuality and sexual activity firmly in the sphere of men’s power. Enough is enough – the various prostitutes going about their business in bible should remind us that people’s sexual activities have no bearing on their value in society and we are not expected nor entitled to make judgements. And even if we believe ourselves to be part of the priesthood and expect to one day step up to that role – all well and fine, but let’s leave it till the days of the third temple and the judgment of the messianic age, and until then leave people’s personal relationships and sexual pasts where they belong – in the private and personal sphere of each individual man and woman.

Serach bat Asher:the woman who authenticated Moses and went alive to paradise. Parashat Vayigash

Last week’s torah portion ended on a cliff hanger. A missing cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave. Judah begs Joseph to allow him to take Benjamin’s place as Jacob will not survive Benjamin’s loss. At this point Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. They are – understandably – astonished that the young frightened boy they left in the pit so many years ago has become this most powerful Egyptian official.  Meanwhile Pharaoh learns that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt and tells Joseph to invite Jacob and the entire household to come live in Egypt in the land of Goshen. So Jacob and Joseph have an emotional reunion. The family work as shepherds, the famine continues, and Joseph manages the country, selling grain for land until by the end of the famine Pharaoh owns all of the land in the country, except for that owned by the priests. Once the famine ends, Joseph gives seed to all the people telling them that they must repay Pharaoh with one fifth of their harvest.

Joseph is at the centre of the complex threads of the narrative, but look around the stage and other figures come into view. Those who caught my attention this year are the ones who are barely sketched out, yet who are noted in the genealogical lists, and this always bears further examination. There is the Canaanite woman, unnamed, who bears a son – Saul – to Shimon, apparently a different mother than that of his other five sons. She reappears again in the list in Exodus (Ch. 6) as the mother of Shimon’s son Saul, and yet other Canaanite women who bore sons to the family are not singled out like this – we already met the unnamed wife of Judah, introduced only as the daughter of the Canaanite Shua, whose children Er and Onan so dishonoured Tamar in Gen 38, yet she is not mentioned here.

Then there are the other unnamed wives we find in verse 5:  “And Jacob rose up from Beer-Sheva; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him.” And there is the somewhat ambiguous language of verse 7 where we are told of “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt.”

Only two ‘daughters’ are mentioned here by name – Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah whose sad story has already been told, and Serach, the daughter of Asher, granddaughter of Jacob and Zilpah, the maid of Leah. Yet the word ‘daughters’ is in the plural – there were clearly other women who were born into the household, even though they remain unnamed and indeed uncounted in the famous statement that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob.  Is the number seventy to be understood literally here, in which case there has to be some creativity with the arithmetic in the names listed here? Or is it the symbolic number it is often used as elsewhere. Seventy is the multiplication of two perfect numbers (seven and ten), it is the number of elders appointed to help Moses (Num 11:16), the number of nations and languages after the flood. Seventy symbolises a whole world, and we know that Jacob brings a whole world of his wives, his children and of his grandchildren – both sons and daughters, yet the listed names show only two female descendants – Dina, and Serach bat Asher.

So who is Serach bat Asher and why is her name remembered? No story remains extant in the narrative, but there are some tantalising intimations.

She appears here in the list of those who left Canaan to go to Egypt, and she appears also in the census at the end of the Israelites sojourn in the desert (in Numbers 26:46).  That is it as far as bible is concerned, but the aggadic literature is intrigued by this woman who apparently lives for over four hundred years and whose name bookends both the leaving of Canaan and the return to the Land.

The first function of Serach bat Asher is to hold memory. She links the generation of the ancestors to the generation of the exodus, from the “family” of Israel to the post-Sinai “people” of Israel.  She is the original “oral tradition”, and the midrash (Pirkei d’rabbi Eliezer) has her validating Moses as the man who will redeem the Israelites from Egypt, as she knew the secret sign given by Joseph to his brothers to signify that divine deliverance was imminent.

So not only does she link the generations and hold the memory of the divinity, she also provides the authority and authenticity of the leadership. The man from whom rabbinic tradition derives its whole substance is essentially given his legitimacy by the woman, Serach bat Asher. Something to think about as we hear the howls of outrage in some quarters when women scholars are finally given the respectful title that recognise their abilities.

According to the midrash Serach was a musician and a singer. When the sons of Jacob wanted to tell him that Joseph was still alive, they feared that the shock of the news might kill him, so they enlisted the talents of Serach who revealed the information to him gently. In response he blessed her, and said “the mouth that told the news that Joseph is alive will never taste death” (see Midrash hagadol on Gen 46 and Targum pseudo Yonatan)  This blessing gave Serach immortality, and like the prophet Elijah some traditions tell of her going to heaven while still living.

Serach was not only the link between the patriarchal generations and the post Sinai people. She was also the possessor of all kinds of hidden or lost knowledge that she would reveal when appropriate. So, for example, she knew the place where Joseph’s body was kept in Egypt, and when the time came for Moses to take the bones out with the people of Israel in accordance with the promise made to Joseph on his deathbed (Exodus 13) it was Serach who could lead him to the coffin. She explains biblical text, in one midrash she corrects a rabbi’s teaching about the splitting of the reed sea, saying that the waves looked like a wall rather than a lattice work. And in the story in the book of Samuel when a wise woman averts a crisis that Yoav, the captain of the army of King David, is not dealing with well – the midrash assumes that this is Serach bat Asher, and gives her the words “I am the one who completed the number of Israel; I am the one who linked the faithful to the faithful, Joseph to Moses” (Bereishit Rabbah)

Serach bat Asher is never married in the midrashic literature. Yet this does not stop Nachmanides suggesting she is named in the census because her descendants would inherit land. The aggadic tradition creates a life filled with miracles and wisdom, with courage and scholarship, a woman whose life extends for hundreds of years and who teaches about redemption. And yet at the same time she barely registers on the awareness of many students of Jewish tradition, and it is Elijah who catches our imagination, who visits every brit milah and pesach seder, whose chariot drives our stories of messianic redemption.

Serach bat Asher does not wander our world, unlike Elijah. And while there is a Sephardic tradition that she died in the twelfth century – there was even a grave site in Isfahan – she disappeared long before she was so conveniently laid to rest.  This confining of her seems to be almost deliberate – she is just too much for the medieval Jewish world to accept, she has been veiled and contained and controlled. Her name – which may well be a cognate of the verb samech reish chet – would mean to be abundant, to be excessive, to go free, to loosen the hair, to roam; yet more often dictionaries suggest that her name is just a variant of Sarah – to be a princess. And we know what happens to princesses in most fairy stories – they end up locked in the tower and hidden.

So may Serach bat Asher find her way back to her freedom to walk in the world, correcting rabbinic teachings which close things down and reminding us of the signs that show who truly speaks the words of God. Her job was to remember, to reveal, to connect us to our foundational stories, to open the world for us. We need her to cut through the thickets that have grown up since those stories were recorded. Serach bat Asher, another woman’s voice in our tradition that was quieted over time, calls to us once more.





Tamar: taking her destiny in her own hands she will enable the messiah. Parashat Vayeshev

judah-and-tamar-chagallInserted into the Joseph narratives that take up much of the last half of the book of Genesis, is a chapter about Judah and about his family. It is also a chapter about the actions of a woman who is determined to right a wrong and how she achieves this goal. Situated as it is so discordantly in the Joseph narrative it is easy to turn the page, to ignore the text as we continue to read about Joseph’s troubles and his subsequent elevation. Because it deals with sexual acts, and with apparent impropriety, it is studied much less than it should be. The lens of the narrator is narrow, detail is sparse, but it is a text worth a great deal of attention, for it reminds us that in bible the women were actors in the story and not observers, they were out in the public space, their behaviour often created pivots in the chronicle. The story of Judah and Tamar shouts out “notice me” – the sons of Jacob are yet again challenged by a woman and this time they cannot cheat her or hide from her or marginalise her. Tamar is a risk taker while all the time behaving within the law. She is a model for modern Jewish women, her story reminds us our destiny is in our own hands.

Judah leaves his brothers and marries a Canaanite woman, the unnamed daughter of Shua, and has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah.  Without comment from the narrator, time passes and he takes a wife for his first born son -Tamar. What do we know about her? Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery though we may assume that she was also a Canaanite woman. There is one tradition that suggests that she is the daughter of Malchitzedek, King of Shalem and Priest to the Most High God, and certainly she behaves in a way that bespeaks confidence and determination to get her rights fulfilled.

Tamar is married to Er, who was “wicked in the sight of God, and God killed him” (38:8). She was then married to his younger brother Onan, specifically (and anachronistically) for him to perform the act of yevamah, to provide a child who would legally be the child of the dead and childless Er.

But Onan knew that the child would not be formally his, as so when he went to her he deliberately spilled his semen on the ground rather than create a child who would inherit the portion of his dead brother, and the bible tells us “Vayera b’eynei Adonai asher assah vayamet gam oto: The thing that he did was evil in the sight of God, and he killed him too” (v10)

What did Er do that was so wicked he deserved to die? Bible doesn’t tell us. While there is a strand of tradition that suggests that the boys die as punishment for the wickedness of their father, so that he should feel the pain of the death of a child as he had caused his father to feel that grief when he did not protect Joseph, the general consensus of tradition is that the sin must have been Er’s and must have been similar to that of his brother. Hence one Midrash suggests that he did not want Tamar to spoil her beauty by becoming pregnant and therefore his relations with her were designed to prevent pregnancy. This I think tells us much more about the commentators than it does about the text, but the reality is that he does not provide a child for his wife before his sudden death.

Onan’s wickedness however is clear, and it is not the sin that bears his name. It is not the spilling of the seed that was the real problem in God’s eyes, it was the fact that he did not want to give his dead brother a stake in the future, a child who would inherit both the name and the material benefit that would have belonged to Er. He denied his dead brother an heir and he denied his wife the protection that having the child would give her.

What we are told and what we are not told in this text is fascinating. The bible is keen to make sure we know that Judah has left his brothers, that he has built a deep friendship with Hirah an Addullamite (va’yet). It tells us of his Canaanite wife bat Shua and his children with her. It tells us that the action takes place in Chezib – and here is the clue to the whole sorry tale, for the name Chezib comes from the root-verb כזב (kazab), meaning to lie, to disappoint, to fail. As an idiom the word is also used to describe a brook or stream that has dried up – a river that disappoints, rather than one that will provide water. Judah has three sons, and yet the likelihood of his having descendants after them diminishes as the disappointment and the lies build up.

The bible signals that the story is about deceptions and disappointment, and Judah as the fourth son of Jacob and Leah is born into deception and disappointment, even while he will ultimately become the ancestor par excellence, the tribe from whom we will descend.

After the deaths of the two older sons, Judah tells Tamar to “stay a widow in the house of your father until Shelah my son grows up” Assuming the practise of yevamah, this appears to be a reasonable request, though why Tamar is kept in her father’s house rather than that of her in-laws bears further examination. But it seems that he is trying to keep her at a distance, for bible continues that same verse with the words “Lest he also die like his brothers”.

The superstition that a woman who loses more than one husband is somehow responsible is dangerous and a killer of men who come close to her has deep roots. It is a classic example of blaming the victim. Widows were economically and socially vulnerable, classed in bible along with orphans and strangers in the land/refugees. There are many exhortations to protect the widows in biblical texts, but in this story in the first book of Genesis, before Torah had been given and before its challenge to established norms, the superstition drives Judah, and sadly his behaviour means that the idea of the “black widow” has permeated into our awareness too.

Widowed now himself, Judah goes to see his great friend Hirah in Timnah. We do not know how much time has passed but Tamar is able to observe for herself that Shelah has grown up and that he has not been given to her as a husband in order to both provide a child in his brother’s names. Tamar is trapped in a situation that does not allow her to marry within the family of Judah nor to marry anyone else. She must feel desperate.

Judah doesn’t tell Tamar that he is travelling near to where she is. He has left her exiled in her father’s home living as a widow and he seems to have no communication with her, nor any interest in her continued well-being.  Someone unnamed tells her that Judah will be travelling through and Tamar takes her chance.

She removes the widow’s weeds she is wearing and covering herself with her veil she sits “petach Einayim” – which could mean “at the entrance to Einayim” but which also means “at the opening of the eyes”. This is a pivot in the story. There has been up till now lies and deception, the suppressing of the reason that God found Er wicked, the betrayal by Onan of his brother’s rights to the future.   Tamar has been hidden from sight in the household of her father, there is no communication between the two households, she is out of sight and out of mind. But here she is, sitting by the roadway Judah will travel, determined to be noticed, to open Judah’s eyes to the injustice done to her.  Her action is eye opening.

Judah certainly sees her. He notices her. At least, he notices there is a woman there and he makes the assumption that she is a prostitute. And the reason for this? Because her face is covered.  Think about this. He reaches his conclusion that this is a woman available for hire for sexual relief because her face is covered. In today’s world a veiled face is supposed to designate modesty, protecting the beauty of the woman from the crassness of the world – yet here in bible the clear assumption is that the veiled face designates woman only as object. She stops being a person. She doesn’t exist as living breathing yearning thinking woman. She is a prostitute, available for the pleasure of men who pay. There is at least some honesty in this approach – the reality of the woman is unimportant in the world of the biblical text, who she is is irrelevant to the man who buys her. In today’s world of extreme tzniut used to oppress women in some communities, the deception is back. Telling women that their covered state and hiddenness from the public space is a way of increasing their holiness, protecting their modesty etc is a lie to hide the fact that their very self is being controlled by others, to keep them as possessions and as subjects rather than as active and authentic people with their own agency.

Judah is polite, he speaks to her with courtesy, not knowing who she is at all. The same verb is used as with his relationship with Hirah – vayet eleha – he turns to her. This could be the beginning of a real connection, but it is not because he does not see someone with whom connection can be made. He sees only the possibility of a sexual moment and this is what he asks for. So she begins the negotiation “what would you give me in payment for sex?” He offers her a future payment, a young kid from the flock, and she counters with the request for a pledge that she can keep until such time as the payment is made. It seems that Judah is unused to this type of negotiation. He asks her what such a pledge should be and she requests three deeply personal and unique items that will be recognisable and indisputably his.  Having given them to her, they have intercourse and Tamar conceives at last.

The interlude over, she leaves and removing the veil she puts on her widows weeds once again. Judah keeps his promise, sending the animal as promised with Hirah his friend, and expecting the return of his pledge, but she is gone, and when Hirah asks around where the prostitute who had been sitting there was, the response is that there had been no prostitute. This he relays to Judah, who doesn’t seem to be at all perturbed by the woman’s disappearance with his personal possessions, and seems rather to hope that by ignoring what has happened he will escape any shame. But how can he just leave his pledge, his signet, cords and staff, as if nothing has happened?  These days we might call it identity theft, we would desperately search for our missing items and try our best to make good the loss. Judah’s response “tikach la, pen nihyeh lavuz” is more than laconic, it is negligent and it is fearful of any shame attaching to him and his friend. Why?

Three months later the news reaches Judah that Tamar is pregnant, and the assumption is that she has prostituted herself. No communication has happened between the two as yet and when she is brought to Judah in order to be punished by burning, she still does not immediately identify the father by name. Instead there is a sort of choreography – she is brought to the household of Judah from her father’s house. She does not appear to meet Judah, instead she sends the pledged items he had given her and says “Clarify please whose are these tokens? The signet the cords and the staff?” It is of course a rhetorical question but it is a dangerous one. For a man who had been trying to avoid shame, Judah could have taken and sequestered the items. She would have been burned to death along with her unborn children. But instead he acknowledged them and speaks of the justice and rightness of Tamar’s act – she had simply been trying to fulfil the requirement for a child for his two dead sons, and in doing that to protect her own vulnerable situation too.

Like Rebecca, Tamar has twins. Like her too the birth is eventful – the first child puts out a hand and then withdraws it but not before a scarlet thread has been tied around it, the second child is then born, and the elder one is fully born second. Their names are given, but not it seems by Tamar. The elder child is named Zerach which means brightness or shining. The younger is Perez – meaning to burst forth, to breach. There are many echoes of Rebecca here, the colour red, the description of the older child in terms of his appearance and the younger in terms of his actions.  There is a clear subtext that these children were designed to be born, they are necessary in terms of the biblical narrative. They would not have been born had Judah followed his plan to keep Tamar in purdah to protect his one surviving son from what he saw was her danger – a superstition roundly exploded in the story, for Judah is not endangered by his encounter with Tamar.

The story is tidied up – both dead brothers have a child to take their place in history. Tamar does not need to marry again, her status is established. Judah has come to realise that his behaviour was not as righteous as that of his Canaanite daughter in law and has acknowledged this.  But the questions arising from the story only multiply. Why this story at all? Why put it here in the Joseph narratives? Why did the children need to be born?

One question is partially answered in the genealogical line given in the book of Ruth, the Moabite woman who also took her status as childless widow into her own hands and had a child by a family member of her dead husband in order both to honour his future and to protect her own vulnerable status. We will learn from this genealogy that King David will descend from the line of Perez – that both Tamar the Canaanite woman and Ruth the Moabite woman will pivot history in order to bring about the birth of the messianic line.   But why does King David and why will his messianic descendant need to be born of such deceptive sexual encounters orchestrated by the women? This is a question yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Why is it in the Joseph narrative? With the themes of clothing to hide identity, of deception and betrayal, of promises made and not kept and of the painful loss of children, with mis-communication and with the lack of communication, with fear and shame and hopelessness and exile –  there is much to connect these narratives.  But Tamar herself is not echoed in the Joseph stories, except maybe in parody when the wife of his master desires him and lies that he tried to sleep with her. Tamar stands alone in these narratives, a woman who is married twice to unworthy and wicked men yet who retains her own integrity and keeps her eye on the future. Blamed as a husband killer when we know from bible that God kills the men because of their wickedness, exiled to her father’s house and marginalised from the narrative, she uses her marginal status and plays out the scene whereby she becomes not-woman, a body, a prostitute for hire at the roadside, and moves her descendants into the centre of the narrative.

One of my favourite lines of any film comes in “My big fat Greek Wedding”. It tells the story of a woman of Greek descent trying to find herself and her place in society outside her father’s home and the struggles she endures as she grows. Her father makes a decree about her future and she is despondent. Her mother tells her that indeed she must obey, the father is the head of the house. In their culture, his word is law. But the mother goes on to say, the father is the head but the mother is the neck, and the head points whatever way the neck dictates.  It speaks to me of biblical narrative, when the men make the decisions and hold the power, but with great regularity the women subvert that decision making, and from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah onwards they gently manipulate in order to produce the desired outcome. The list of these women in bible is long, yet often they escape our attention as they escape the attention of the men with whom they live. Tamar is a rare exception – by getting herself noticed she will disrupt the course of the narrative and change history.


Two different approaches to life can be found in this sidra – the first being when Joseph is seeking his brothers in Shechem, “And a man found him and he was wandering in a field, and the man asked him: ‘what are you looking for?'” (Gen 37:15). Had he not met this person and been told that his brothers had moved on to Dotan, he would have returned safely to his father and his life in Canaan would have continued uneventfully, though with continued sibling friction we assume. Having met him however, the train of Joseph’s life was inevitably altered, he went down to Egypt and so opened the way for the whole people of Israel to travel to Egypt and to settle there.

 Who was the man he met who so changed the course of Israelite history? Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Yitzchak (1040 -1105) suggests that this pivotal figure must have been important and suggests it is the Angel Gabriel. Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) is more pragmatic and suggests that this is truly an ordinary passer-by who just happened to be there with information at a critical moment. And Ramban (Moses ben Nachman 1194-1270) beautifully marries the two ideas by suggesting this is truly an ordinary human being, but acting as a messenger of God, a malach (the Hebrew word for messenger, also used for describing what we might call a divine messenger or angel).  So possibly this could be the divine plan in action, or it could be a coincidence with ramifications, but either way, Joseph is the passive recipient of the event – his life is radically transformed without any active intention of his own.

The second approach to life can be found in the actions of Tamar who, through no fault of her own, finds herself waiting for release from her status of childless widow.

 When it becomes clear that the family who can liberate her are choosing not to do so, she takes matters into her own hand. Never mind that she has to dress as a prostitute, nor that she has to waylay her own father in law in order to progress her cause. Never mind that she suffers the charge of adultery when her condition becomes known – Tamar chooses this path rather than find her life unfairly stopped by the refusal of others to do what is required. And she succeeds in her task, eventually acknowledged as a woman who has behaved with righteousness What can we learn from the two stories? – that sometimes our lives can be changed by random events, that we may have no power over what happens to us sometimes, but the outcome of these events IS still something we can exercise control over. Whether we choose to see the turning points at all, whether we choose to see them as entirely random or as part of a divine plan is up to us, but either way Joseph uses his talents to make a success of his life in Egypt having arrived there in very unpromising circumstances, and we too can turn discouraging experiences into better ones by using the various skills we each possess. And sometimes life is unfair and people are obstructive to what should rightly happen, and then we have to be more proactive ourselves, as Tamar risked everything to be.

 It so happens that Joseph is the precursor of the leader to be known as the Mashiach ben Yosef, while Tamar’s twins include Perez the ancestor of David and of the Mashiach ben David. (see Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a) Whatever these leaders known as ‘messiah’ may also be, they embody between them righteous behaviour and good leadership.  Rav Kook (1865-1935) described them as the universal and the particular leaders, Joseph took care of the physical needs of the people and spoke the languages of the world, whereas Judah was responsible for the special holiness of the Jewish people. We need both aspects – the universal and the particular, the making the best of what we have and the go-getting to make the best world we can – in order to fulfil our lives and make them the richest we can.