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The Avodah Blog

Power, Responsibility, and Civil Disobedience: the Story of Yehuda and Tamar

This week’s parasha is the first installment of the enthralling riches-to-rags-to-riches saga of the life of Yoseph. This epic power story unfolds uninterrupted for three weeks, with the exception of chapter 38, in the middle of our parasha. At a moment of high drama, after spoiled, favorite child Yoseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, the narrative abandons Yoseph as he’s trafficked to Egypt, to stick around Cana‘an and show us what happened to one brother, Yehuda. The Yehuda story, far from a diversion, contains essential keys to open up the surrounding stories — of Yoseph in particular, of the Tanakh as a whole, and maybe even of us and our understandings of power, responsibility, and civil disobedience.

Yehuda, the fourth son of Ya‘akov and Leah, is the de facto leader of the family. When the brothers plot to kill Yoseph, two of them try to de-escalate and interrupt the murder. Reuven, the eldest and expected leader, has good intentions, convincing them to throw Yoseph into a pit, so that he can later save him. He acts alone: having no cachet with his brothers, he keeps his plans to himself, not trusting the force of his character and reason to influence them (37:21-22), and his plan fails. Yehuda’s intervention is not so well intentioned: “What do we profit by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh” (37:26-27)? Yehuda, though, speaks convincingly to his brothers. Reuven’s intervention was prefaced with “And Reuven heard [his brothers’ plot]”; his words are only a reaction to his brothers. By contrast, as soon as Yehudah speaks, “And his brothers heard”: they follow him. 

What happens after they sell their brother into slavery?  “And it was at this time that Yehuda went down from his brothers and turned away toward an Adullamite man” (38:1-2). He marries an unnamed Cana‘anite woman, which we know was a cause for distress in their family (eg, 24:3 and 28:8). She quickly bears three sons, to whom he gives names without explanation or significance (38:3-5), unlike his ancestors, brothers, and himself, for whom names signified meaning and were usually bestowed by women. Yehuda has excess power, but is running away from family and responsibility, and really, from himself.  (I thank Rabbanit Sally Mayer for points in this paragraph.) 

He marries off his first son, ‘Er, to a woman named Tamar, but God gets mad at the son and kills him (38:6-7). Following the “law” of levirate marriage (Devarim 25:5-6), Yehuda marries the widow Tamar to his second son, Onan. “But Onan knew that the seed would not be his, and when he came into his brother’s wife, he spilled his seed on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother,” so God kills him, too (38:8-10). Onan’s sin is avoiding responsibility, turning inward when life calls for turning outward. Like father, like son. We can imagine the hot gossip in town: Why did two brothers die in bed with Tamar? Of course, she’ll be blamed. Yehuda exiles her to sit as a widow in her father’s house, ostensibly to wait for the third son, Shelah, to reach marriage age, but, c’mon. Tamar’s been abandoned (38:11), cast away and scapegoated for the sins of men.

Time passes, Yehuda’s still-unnamed wife dies, and without even mourning for her, he goes sheep-shearing with the guys. Prof. Nahum Sarna points out that springtime sheep-shearing was an arduous task demanding enormous manpower, which was concluded in the Ancient Near East with debaucherous revelry, celebrations of male virility proportional to the physically strenuous blitz of work over the previous week (new JPS commentary, here). The Rabbis pick up on this, noting three villains, Naval, Lavan, and Avshalom, whom the Tanakh mentions going to sheep-shearing (Bereishit Rabbah 85:6). On cue, Yehuda, fresh from burying his wife, sleeps with the first prostitute he sees, who is, in fact, a disguised Tamar. Shrewdly understanding her fate in the hands of powerful men and using what she’s got to force him to restore her into the community, she asks for clear identifying signs as collateral while he procures his payment. Yehuda, on the run from his life, casually hands over his signet ring, staff, and cord, the most basic symbols of familial identity and authority, to an anonymous, out-of-town prostitute (38:14-19).

When the community notices that the widowed Tamar is pregnant, Yehuda flamboyantly orders her to be brought out and burned, displacing his own death wish onto the bodies of women, as men have done for centuries. In a high moment of Biblical drama, Tamar, on the stake, produces Yehuda’s collateral possessions and announces that the father of the baby is the owner of these objects: “Recognize, please,” to whom these objects belong; “And Yehudah recognized and he said, ‘she is more righteous than I’” (38:24-26). Tamar is saved, twins are born, and Yehuda is a changed man. The rest of the Yoseph story is just as much the Yehuda story, as he continuously asserts selfless leadership in protecting his brothers and his broken father.

Yehuda always had charisma, but he becomes the dynastic head of the Jewish people only when he directs his behavior toward the well-being of others, publicly acknowledges his moral failures, and elevates the righteousness, knowledge, and leadership of those he has hurt, those closest to the crisis. Later, when dying Ya‘akov gives his final charge to his sons, he says, “Yehuda, you are the one whom your brothers will acknowledge” (49:8), using a play on Yehuda’s name which means “thank” or “acknowledge”, as in “todah”. The 1st Century translator Onkelos the Convert adds three words into his Aramaic translation: “…because you admitted and were not ashamed to do so” (49:8). Yehuda’s esteem, his very name, derives from acknowledgement of wrong-doing. 

Yehuda did not come around on his own. He was a star in a patriarchy that rewarded his irresponsibility. He repents when Tamar forces him, publicly, to confront his violence and his identity and mission. She violates house arrest, goes undercover, lures Yehuda into illicit sex, secures proof, and interrupts her execution trial to nail him. Yehuda’s “lawful” actions corrupted the actual (Divine) law; Tamar’s “unlawful” actions restored the actual (Divine) law. Through her civil disobedience, Tamar mirrors Yehuda back to himself. Her language when she shows Yehudah his property — “Recognize, please (Hakker-na)” to whom these objects belong — echoes his own speech patterns. In 37:32, the brothers, having taken Yehuda’s advice to sell Yoseph, spill goat’s blood on his coat and send it to their father, saying, “Recognize, please (Hakker-na), whether this is your son’s coat or not” (Bereishit Rabbah 84:19). Even Tamar’s cadence, as dramatized by the Torah chanting tropes, mirrors Yehuda’s when he contracts for her sexual services, (38:16-18). (I thank Rabbi Wendy Amsellem for this observation.) 

When Tamar turns Yehuda’s collateral objects over to him, she shows him who he is supposed to be. A midrash notes that signet seals, cords, and staffs are associated in the Bible with the throne, the judiciary, and the messiah, saying that Tamar manifested Divine inspiration in choosing them (Bereishit Rabbah 85:9): Yehuda could be destined for greatness, but, in the wake of using his charisma to sell his own brother into slavery, he has justified his failures with ever snowballing injury to those close to him. Tamar brings him to follow her back on that path to greatness, which only grows out of local, personal responsibility for those closest to him.

Law must be just. When representatives of law abuse their power, it is the lawful responsibility of the abandoned to subvert that social order in order to restore justice. The Torah conveys this message powerfully. The end of the book of Ruth records the genealogy back from Peretz, Yehuda and Tamar’s son, through Bo‘az and Ruth, and down to King David, and therefore, the Messiah. The Talmud (Sotah 10b) also points out that the prophet Isaiah, our most poignant prophet of liberation, descends from David, and, therefore, from Yehuda and Tamar. Majesty, prophecy, and Messianic redemption: Tamar oozed liberation from the sidelines of society. How many other Tamars have we missed?

Shabbat shalom.

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