Image: 3 strands of barbed wire, 2 hands climbing up. (geralt/pixabay)
Tamar was desperate. Her security and status were dependent on her ability to produce an heir for Er, the son of Judah, grandson of Jacob. Er had died, and so it fell to his nearest brother, Onan, to impregnate her. Onan did not want to dilute his own inheritance, and in his greed, he used Tamar’s body but spilled his seed on the ground. God sees the evil in his greed, and puts him to death.
Not knowing the real story, Judah blamed Tamar for his sons’ deaths. He looked at his youngest, Shelah, and said, “He’s too young to marry.” He said to Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until I send for you.” Then he did his best to forget about Tamar.
A long time passed. Tamar began to realize that she had been abandoned, and she knew that this was both wrong and unfair. She had been a faithful wife to Er, and was cruelly used by Onan, and now it was clear to her that her father-in-law had no intention of sending for her. When she heard that Judah was coming near by her father’s house for sheepshearing, she hatched a plan.
She took off her widow’s clothing, and dressed herself as a prostitute, veiling her face and putting her beauty on display. She sat at a place where she knew Judah would pass, and waited.
When Judah came, he did not recognize her under the veil. When he propositioned her, she asked what he would pay. He promised her a kid from the flock, but she asked for collateral: “You must leave a pledge until you send it.” She asked for his seal, his cord, and his staff – the equivalent of a modern driver’s license. He had sex with her, and they each went on their ways. Later, when he tries to send the payment, she is nowhere to be found. He tells his serving man to forget about it, lest Judah become a laughingstock.
Three months later, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law was pregnant out of wedlock. “She’s a harlot!” roared Judah. “Let her be brought to me and burned!”
Before she faced him, she sent a message and a parcel: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” In the parcel were Judah’s seal, his cord, and his staff. Judah looked at them in horror. What had he done?
Judah said, “She is more in the right than I; I was supposed to give her my son Shelah to give her a son.” So he acknowledged the boys (she was carrying twins) as the heirs of Er, his son. Their names were Perez and Zerah. And all agreed that God looked favorably on Tamar, since she had been given not one but two sons.
The specifics of the story are antique, but the situation is quite applicable to our world today. Tamar was a woman who had very little standing in her society. She was a widow, and she could not have financial or social security without producing an heir for her deceased husband’s family. The men had all the power: Judah was the patriarch, and the fact that he blamed her for his sons’ deaths virtually doomed her. Onan was a creep: he was willing to take sexual pleasure from Tamar, but unwilling to give her the heir she needed.
The world hasn’t changed all that much, unfortunately. The structures and customs have changed a bit, but the abuse of women goes on: many women abused at home 1 in 4 Jewish women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Gay men and trans people are abused at similar rates.
And in the Jewish communal workplace, our synagogues and institutions, 70% of the workforce are women, but 70% of chief executives are men. During the past year, many high-profile Jewish men have been named as perpetrators of sexual harrassment, sexual assault, and similar crimes. In many cases, the community sweeps it under the rug or shrugs, because we frame it as “he said/she said” and give the man the benefit of the doubt.
It’s Judah and Onan all over again, and again, Tamar suffers.
This is why I sit on the Rabbinic Advisory Council for Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area organization which aims to end domestic violence in the Jewish community.
And now I am going to quote Shalom Bayit to tell you about what they do:
Shalom Bayit receives calls from about 100 women each year who are in abusive relationships. These women are from every city of the Bay Area. They are professional women, poor women, highly educated women, young women, older women; moms and those without kids, well-known donors in the community. They come from every congregation, every denomination, all sexual orientations, all walks of Jewish life.
Abusive partners exert control verbally through threats, intimidation, manipulation or emotional abuse – the Hebrew expression for that is ona’at devarim (oppression by means of words) – or through physical violence, sexual coercion, financial control, isolation from family or friends — all of which trap victims into a cycle of fear.
If you are unsafe at home or at work, please seek the support you need. You are not to blame, even if, like Tamar, you have done things to survive that give you feelings of shame.
It is a mitzvah to call for help when someone is being hurt, even when that person is you. You can call the Shalom Bayit helpline (866-SHALOM7 in the SF Bay Area, and outside the SF Bay Area (510) 845-SAFE.) You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4672.
If you know someone whom is being abused, or whom you think might be suffering abuse, let them know that you are there for them. Do not take more power from them by telling them what to do. Just say that you know people you can call, or that they can call. Tell them that you believe them if they tell you what is being done to them.
Ending abuse is a communal responsibility. We need to heed the example of Judah, who had the courage to look at his own behavior and own it. We need to be willing to see when we have been controlling in home or work relationships, and seek help in finding new ways. We must speak out about sexism when we see it, especially in the places where people are most vulnerable: at home and in the workplace. And we should support organizations like Shalom Bayit and RAINN that provide help for the victims of domestic and sexual violence.
This drash on Parashat Vayeshev was written with inspiration and assistance from Shalom Bayit. To learn more about Shalom Bayit, or to donate, visit their website.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.