To Speak Out Without Shaming the Other (Parshat Vayeshev)

The author frames the story of Tamar and Judah as an example of speaking out against injustice without shaming another person. Instead of publicly calling out Judah, Tamar takes a different route to teach Judah a lesson. As queers, the author argues, we are familiar with public shaming and can glean lessons from this Torah portion.

December 11, 2009

By Cynthia Hoffman

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Parshat Vayeshev
To speak out without shaming the Other
by Cynthia Hoffman on Friday December 11, 2009
25 Kislev 5770
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23


Parshat Vayeshev is loaded with famous bible stories that also get picked up in pop culture. Vayeshev contains: Joseph and his [Technicolor Dream] tunic; Joseph the Dreamer who antagonizes his brothers by his interpretation of those dreams; the sale of Joseph by those same brothers to the Ishmaelites. Then there’s the story recently made famous by Arlo Guthrie about the man who told Joseph that his brothers went “thattaway”, the person who in some ways makes the story go where it ultimately goes, and therefore might be a kind of divine intervention but is never identified. Then there are the less popular but still well-known stories of Joseph: in Potifar’s House and then Pharoah’s Prison.

Right in the middle of Joseph’s story, however, cutting this portion literally in half, is the story of Tamar.

On its face, the story of Judah and Tamar seems reasonably straight-forward: Tamar marries one of Judah’s sons, who for unknown reasons finds disfavor with God and dies. As tradition decrees, Tamar is given Judah’s second son as her husband. The second son, Onan, objects to having to father a child for his dead brother’s estate and God strikes him dead as well.

Finally, there is a third son, apparently too young for marriage, so Judah sends her home to her father’s house and promptly attempts to forget about her.

When Tamar hears Judah is going to be in town she gets sneaky. She covers her face, hides her identity, and pretends to be a temple prostitute sitting at a crossroads. She convinces Judah to have sex with her, and, as they say, she gets knocked up.

This story is the proof text for Masechet Brachot 43b, where R. Yohanan says the in the name of R Simeon b Yochai: It is better for a man that he should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than that he should put his fellow to shame in public. Whence do we know this? From Tamar, of whom it says, When she was brought forth, … even to save herself from the stake, Tamar did not mention Judah’s name.

By using her story as a proof text for the admonition against literally “causing his fellow’s face to blanch” the Rabbis all but state that Tamar’s actions show her as having evolved from Judah’s victim to her own agent. Judah mistreated her, but rather than sitting still for it, she develops a way to take care of her needs, while not setting him up as a fool in public.

Judah, when he finds out Tamar is pregnant, shames her by demanding she be executed, as would be the appropriate punishment for the daughter of a Cohen who commits adultery. Through a series of careful moves, Tamar lets Judah know it’s his kid without ever involving the public in her shenanigans. For her care of his good name, Judah admits to being her child’s father, and permits her to live.

Joseph needed this lesson at the beginning of Vayeshev, Judah receives his lesson in this time so he can be the agent for Jacob later in Bereshit, and Joseph starts getting taught this lesson at the end of the parsha itself. But why do we need this lesson this year?

We, like Tamar, have been shamed in public: I’m thinking of the New York State senate, who made a wrong decision recently, and of the State of Maine, which made a wrong decision – much like my home state of California before it – and how we, as a group of Queer Jews might want to make our next moves in these circumstances. Perhaps it might behoove us to learn the lesson that Tamar learned, while she sat by the side of the road waiting for her father in law to come. How can we move forward without taking recourse in humiliating the people with whom we must live and work? What are the ways we can emulate the process Tamar uses to get freed from a Levirate marriage?

The chumash Etz Chayim suggests that “[Tamar’s] tactic of indirect accusation results in a minimum of embarrassment and so elicits a noble response.” And yet Judah’s comments don’t completely absolve her for her actions. As I teach when working with Parshat Noach, “better” doesn’t necessarily mean right. So Tamar, who is responded to by Judah who says “She is more in the right than I” may be a proof text for not shaming others in public, but it’s also not a text to be used for suggesting we sit back and do nothing.

The trick will be to educate without responding with anger and perhaps keep hold on our instinct to humiliate those who remain so ignorant about our lives and how we live. They have humiliated us; it’s our turn to teach them a better way to get our needs met, and like Tamar, leave the shame at the door while we do.