We hear of a woman in this week’s parasha, Vayeshev. She leads to the death of not one, but TWO husbands. She is tricky and deceitful. She is a prostitute and a whore, so much so that she even seduces her own father-in-law.
Or do we? Let’s rewind. We hear of a woman in this week’s parasha, a widow, abandoned by her husband’s family. She is resourceful, modest, and brave. She is the progenitor of the Davidic line, mother of kings and saviors.
These women are one and the same – Tamar – whose experiences take up an entire chapter in the middle of the Joseph narrative. Tamar is married to Judah’s oldest son, who dies leaving her childless, and she is given to the next son to fulfill the practice of levirate marriage. This son ALSO dies, and hoping to save his youngest son’s life, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house. Tamar, knowing that it is her right to be married and have children, dresses up like a prostitute, sits on the road where Judah is traveling, sleeps with him, and becomes pregnant. Judah hears that his daughter-in-law has gotten pregnant by sleeping around, and calls for her to be burned. Tamar reveals the pledge Judah had given her – his personal staff, seal, and cord – saying the owner of these is the father, modestly giving Judah the chance to admit his wrongdoing rather than calling him out on it herself. Judah admits that he is wrong, and that Tamar is right. She gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach, and later, at the end of the Book of Ruth, it becomes clear that Tamar’s actions give rise to none other than the line of King David himself.
So which is she? Is Tamar morally compromised or rightfully strategic and resourceful? The detail that seems the most problematic and “yuck-inducing” to modern readers, that Tamar slept with her own father-in-law, is explained by Hizkuni, a 13th century French commentator. He clarifies that although we are familiar with levirate marriage, yibum, as taking place between a woman and the brother of her deceased husband, in the time before matan Torah, yibum could happen with any male relative, including the father-in-law. Not only was this was widely accepted in biblical society, it was also fully legal, and therefore not morally problematic. So according to Hizkuni, Tamar was not behaving like a harlot, she was using the only legal road available to her to have children.
In fact, the strongest evidence for Tamar’s heroism and moral rightness lies in Judah’s response to her when she reveals his staff, seal, and cord: “Vayomer tzadkah mimeni – She is more in the right than I.” The word that Judah uses, tzadkah, doesn’t just mean that Tamar is correct in this situation. From the root צדק, for justice. Tamar had an injustice done to her when she was not given to Judah’s third son as she should have been. Although Tamar is coming from one of the most marginalized and powerless positions in biblical society – a childless widow who has been exiled from her in-laws’ home – she does not passively accept this injustice. Instead, Tamar acts strategically with the few resources she has – knowledge of Judah’s travel plans, a few carefully placed scarves, and her body, to bring about the result that she justly deserved. As it turns out, this bold act not only turned out well for Tamar, that she would have children and a secure place in her in-laws’ home, but her bravery led to the line of David, to the eventual Messiah for the entire Jewish people!
If Tamar’s future Messianic offspring and Judah’s words were not enough, the Torah grants Tamar an entire chapter in the midst of Genesis to let her voice be heard! The Torah itself validates Tamar’s moral rightness by giving her the space to be heard in such detail, much more than many other biblical women get. Every Shabbat, we sing the words of Psalm 92: צדיק כתמר יפרח Tzadik k'tamar yifrach– the righteous will bloom like a date-palm. Or, the righteous, k’tamar, like Tamar, will bloom.
Even though to this day, people regularly think of Tamar as being no more than a prostitute, Tamar is revealed instead to be not only active and resourceful in protecting her own future, but right, צדקה tzadkah, in ensuring the future of the Jewish people. Sometimes we need to take a second look at a narrative that we’ve heard over and over again, in order to understand what it’s really about. Too often we’re quick to accept a popular narrative about our tradition or the world around us, particularly now during our time in Israel. Instead, perhaps we should to look below the surface, to think critically about each narrative that we hear and see. Without looking past our initial feelings of disgust for Tamar’s actions, we would not be able to see her for the proactive individual that she really is, an individual who acts to secure not just her own destiny, but that of the Jewish people as well.