When Judah Cavorted
Question by: Joel Cohen
After Joseph was sold into slavery, Judah was separated from his brothers, purportedly blamed for their wrongdoing. He later married, and his wife bore him three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Er later married Tamar, but because Er was evil in God’s eyes, God caused him to die. Consistent with the-then practice, Judah told Onan to enter a levarite marriage with Tamar in order to have children in his late brother’s name. But knowing that the seed would not be his, Onan refused and dropped his seed on the ground. Appalled by his sinfulness, God caused Onan, too, to die. Judah thereupon told Tamar to live in her father’s house “until my son Shulah grows up” — desperately concerned that Shelah would die like his brothers. Tamar did as Judah directed her.
Long after, when Judah’s wife died and he finally became consoled, he went to oversee his shepherds. Learning that Judah was coming to her town, and mourning her still-barren state, Tamar removed her widow’s garb, masquerade herself in a veil and sat by the road. She fully knew that, by now, Shelah had grown but she had not been given to him as a wife.
But Judah mistook her for a harlot, and he beckoned that she allow him to consort with her as such. She, inexchange for her favors, demanded a pledge, to which he agreed, that he would later send her a kid from his flock. Unbeknowst to Judah, Tamar conceived from the encounter.
Later, intending to make good on his pledge to the nameless prostitute he was told, instead, that “your daughter in law has committed harlotry, and morever, she conceived by harlotry.” Horrified, but not knowing thast it was he himself who had impregnated Tamar, Judah said, “Take her out and let her be burned!” Confronted with what had occurred, and that he was indeed the the putative father, Judah acknowledged Tamar’s righteousness in her actions, given that he had denied her Shelah.
• What lesson should we learn from this incident?
• Judah is considered, in tradition, the deserving forebear of the Messiah, but yet he seems so very much at ease cavorting with a harlot. He doesn’t do penitenance for having intended to patronize a “harlot,” but seems quite willing to condemn Tamar, not a harlot, as the sinner — that is, until he learns that he was the party of the other part. How can such a man, a man who willingly engaged in such conduct, be so revered by us?
• And are we to understand that it is perfectly acceptable or appropriate for a man — one suspects, assuming he is not married – to cavort with a prostitute, but unacceptable for a woman to be a prostitute (and simply deserving of death by burning)? Does the Bible enable a double standard?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
The story of Judah and Tamar is one of the most difficult and, at the same time, most important stories in the Chumash. The great medieval Spanish commentator Ramban provides insight that will help us understand the story in a contemporary light. Ramban explains that in the ancient world, if a woman was married to a man and the man died, the woman had the right to have a child with the closest male relative of the deceased husband. This practice was limited by the Torah to marrying the brother of the dead husband. However, in the time of the forefathers, this right extended to all male relatives. This being the case, Tamar dressed up as a prostitute to seduce Judah who was her husband’s closest relative since she knew that she would never get the chance to marry the third brother Shelah. According to this understanding, Tamar was not intent on performing an indecent act of prostitution. Rather, she was trying to get what she deserved by right—a child from her deceased husband’s closest relative.
Judah, on the other hand, thought that she was indeed a prostitute and slept with her in that context. We see that he makes sure to pay her for her services. So, at the end of the day, Tamar is doing the correct thing while Judah is acting inappropriately. And, then the story turns. Tamar informs Judah of her identity and Judah immediately exclaims, “You are more righteous than I.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that at the moment that Judah admitted his guilt for abandoning Tamar, he became worthy to be the ancestor of the kings of Israel and ultimately the messiah. He explains that in Jewish life, leadership is not an automatic right. It is a responsibility and an honor that must be earned, often through overcoming flaws. Judah earned the mantle of leadership because he was forced to struggle with his inner failings and was great enough not only to recognize those failings but also to admit them.
The story of Judah and Tamar is one that bridges the practices of the ancient world with the expressions of humility and guilt that have created the fabric of the Jewish people for all time. It is those qualities that Judah learned and that stand as an important lesson for all of us.
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