'Vayeshev': Drama-filled Torah portion

For Jacob, the constant escapee, there is never a moment of peace. It is precisely when he 'settles' that his and his family's life gets all tangled up

The "Vayeshev" Torah portion opens with a calming announcement (Genesis 37:1): "And Jacob settled in the land of his father's sojourning, in the land of Canaan."


It almost seems possible to believe that Jacob, the constant escapee, finally arrives at a state of tranquility at the end of his travails. However for Jacob there is never a moment of peace. It is precisely when Jacob "settles" that his and his family's life gets all tangled up.


The "Vayeshev" Torah portion is continuously fraught with entanglements: Joseph shares his dreams, is kidnapped by his brothers and brought down to Egypt, and whereas these seem to follow after Jacob's footsteps, it is specifically from his children that he takes the hardest hit of his life. Judah's two sons die, and Judah sleeps with his widowed daughter-in-law and immediately thereafter almost has her executed. Joseph, after almost being raped by Potiphar's wife, is then thrown into jail.


And these, of course, are only part of the plots in the non-stop, drama-filled "Vayeshev" Torah portion.


Lies continue to set family course

Jacob is named Jacob for the deceptive fashion by which he led his life. One generation replaces another, yet deception remains a central means of communication in the subsequent generation of the family.


Three sons were born to Jacob's son Judah: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er and Onan successively married Tamar and died prior to having children. According to the Biblical law of Levirate Marriage, Jacob's youngest son, Shelah, must take Tamar as his wife. However Judah believed that his sons died not as a consequence of their own sin, but as a result of Tamar's deadly character. Therefore, via lies and false claims, Judah forces Tamar to remain a childless widow, and withholds from her his third son, Shelah.


In the next chapter of this story, Tamar takes the initiative and dresses up as a prostitute. She catches Judah's attention. He sleeps with her and in so doing, impregnates her. When Judah is informed that Tamar became pregnant through her promiscuity, he commands her to be taken away and burned. However an unexpected, course-changing event takes place in the family life of our Forefathers.


From the haystack of lies sprouts truth. Tamar exposes the fact that Judah is the man who impregnated her, and thusly reminded him that he was the one that deceptively evaded his responsibility of giving her his third son. At this extraordinary moment, even Judah becomes captivated by the charms of truth. He confesses and takes responsibility (Genesis 38:26): "And he said: 'She is more righteous than I; since I have not given her to Shelah, my son.'"


'For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes...' (Esther 1:17)


Tamar's personality fascinates the commentators - an assertive woman who refuses to sit hopelessly at home, she is ready to deceive, even risk her own life, in order to break the decree of her childlessness. Wise and calculating, Tamar foresaw Judah's decision to have her executed.


Therefore, at the moment he was consumed with lust to take her, she made sure to obtain and retain his "identifying signs" (Genesis 38:15-18): "When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute; for she had covered her face. And he turned unto her by the way, and said: 'Come, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee'; for he knew not that she was his daughter-in-law. And she said: 'What wilt you give me, in order to come in unto me?' And he said: 'I will send you a kid of the goats from the flock.' And she said: 'Wilt you give me a pledge, until you send it?' And he said: 'What pledge shall I give you?' And she said: 'Your seal, and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand.' And he gave them to her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him."


The seal, the cord, and the staff - the guaranteeing deposit that Judah left in the hands of a prostitute are equivalent, in today's terms, to an identification card, credit card, and driver's license. Whomever casts doubt on the practicality of the possibility that a man would leave 'identifying signs' in the hands of a prostitute is invited to check the stories of apprehending spies and military figures from Sisera and Samson to Mordechai Vanunu.


At the final moment before her execution, Tamar exposes the personal effects of Judah in an attempt to reveal his responsibility for her pregnancy. Tamar's plan is successfully completed. Her twins are acknowledged as part of the tribe. And while she will not remarry, at least she is saved from a fiery death.


'All the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small' (Esther 1:20)


Rabbinic Sages invert Tamar into a modest woman in a sophisticated exegetical move where they attempt to have their cake and eat it too. On one hand, they praise Tamar, and on the other hand they castrate her image.


In place of Tamar's assertive image, the Rabbinic Sages build an image of a woman whose entire concern was not to publicly embarrass Judah (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59A): "It is better for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly embarrass his friend. What source do we learn this from? — From the example of Tamar. For it is written, '...She was brought forth (to be executed), then she sent (his 'identifying signs') to her father-in-law...'"


This Midrash asks that we learn from the word "sent" that Tamar did not speak of Judah's shameful sexual discretion in public, rather sent him, privately of course, his identification card, and that he then, with his beneficence and integrity, decided to take responsibility for her pregnancy. Tamar, according to this Midrash, chose to risk her own life, solely to avoid publicly embarrassing Judah.


Double benefit for manhood of this Midrash

  1. Judah becomes the real hero of the story, as Tamar sent him his 'identifying signs' discreetly and not publicly, he could have lied and sent her to her death without anyone ever learning of his misdeeds. If that is the case, then the secrecy of Tamar makes even more impressive Judah's choice to tell the truth.
  2. Tamar moves back from the 'living room' to the 'kitchen'. She returns to living the stereotypical life of a respectable woman. According to this Midrash, and despite the literal understanding of the Biblical story, Tamar submits to the patriarchal rule. Instead of an opposing and protesting woman, this Midrash offers us a woman who bows her head in submission before the tribe's chieftain and secretly begs for his mercy.


In other words, Tamar comes across as righteous but emasculated, and Judah comes across as brave and as the story's primary figure.


Feminist commentary is humanistic commentary

Feminist commentary attempts to bring front and center those who were marginalized to the periphery, to place at center stage the female characters in our cultural tales that were until now considered marginal, and move, just for a moment, the regular heroes, the Jewish alpha males, to the margins.


Inverting the center and periphery immediately undermines 'hero or saint worship' in the Jewish Tradition. As soon as marginalized women become the heroes of the story, the story's world of values changes. Male heroes are replaced with female heroes, and the values represented by the male heroes are replaced with values represented by women.


And why is this humanism?

Because replacing the center with the margins teaches that there is not only one truth, that there is not only one hero and that there is not only one set of values correct for all people and for all situations. It is not enough for feminist commentary to conclude with switching male heroes with female heroes.


Feminist commentary must undermine all exegetical hegemony. The exegetical "task" of feminism comes to teach us that there is no center nor margins in culture, that there are no absolute heroes, nor are there eternal truths, and responsibility rests on the shoulders, and conscience, of every reader.


I think it is correct to say that feminist commentary is an application of Ben Azzai's ethical demand (Avot 4:3): "Do not scorn any person and do not dismiss any thing. For there is no person who has not his hour, and no thing that has not its place."


'For there is no righteous man on earth that only does good, and never sins.' (Ecclesiastes 7:20)


When we say that Judah erred, that Jacob was deceptive, or that Judah's character is inflated at the expense of Tamar's character, we are not diminishing the Forefathers of our nation, we are enlarging personal responsibility.


We are insisting to show that everyone sins and that everyone errs, and that ethical positions demand constant reexamination. If we would dare claim that there had been even one person in this world who never sinned, we will saw off the ethical branch that we feminists sit on.


'It has been said before I said it'

(Lyric from Israeli singer and songwriter Arik Einstein's song "You and I will change the world")


Many times the anger of critical commentary at heroes in the Torah, is, practically speaking, anger at the Torah's literal meaning or anger at the literal meaning of Rabbinical Midrashim. The greatest masters of feminist readings are themselves the Biblical authors and Talmudic exegetes. These people, of course, did not deal with feminism, but their commentary undermines the worldview of those who admire religious heroes and even worship, saints.


There is no stone that we feminists can turn over that has not yet already been overturned. There is no character we can shake who has not already been shaken. We offer new and modern, exegetical content, but the essence of our exegetical methodology is ancient.


Admiration, tyranny in weekly portion of Israeli events

As I sit and write these lines, Rabbi Yona Metzger, a former chief rabbi of Israel, has been arrested on suspicion of taking bribes worth millions of shekels. Rabbi Yoram Abergel of Netivot, admired by thousands, has been arrested on suspicion of extortion.


The common ground between these two rabbis is that they educated others to worship infallible saints and conducted their own lives tyrannically. It is important to remember that education to blindly admire saints or heroes from the past is a pedagogical tool utilized by corrupt leaders and tyrannical regimes, who present themselves as advocates for those same heroes and saints from the past, when in actuality they are exploitatively riding on their backs.


As opposed to that, education that promotes critically examining the past, is education that promotes critically examining the present, and it is education that promotes taking responsibility. That is why ultimately feminist commentary is humanistic commentary.


Shabbat Shalom!


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas


Click here to read this article in Hebrew



פרסום ראשון: 11.22.13, 18:29
 new comment
This will delete your current comment