December 7, 2018 – WEEKLY MESSAGE RABBI ARNOW
Dear Kol Rinah Family,
I hope you’ve been having a bright, meaningful Hanukkah. This year I’ve been enjoying sitting for a few minutes with the candles burning, the flames still, the lights in the room dim, just enjoying their calm, warm glow.
This is a big Shabbat. It’s our family-friendly First Friday service, beginning at 6pm in the lower auditorium. Candle lighting is at 4:22pm, the earliest it gets the entire year. We’ll have snacks, challah and grape juice for kids, and a warm, energetic and musical time together.
Tomorrow morning, services begin at 9am. It’s Shabbat, it’s also Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month of Tevet, as well as Hanukkah, so we’ll be singing Hallel, and taking out three Torahs. Rabbi Shafrin will be leading Torah Talk at 10:10am and I’ll be speaking about telling the difference between one and two. Not so easy, as it turns out.
After Kiddush (sponsored by the Faye Keyser Memorial Seudah Fund), we’ll have a lunch and learn on the topic of “Jews in Space,” looking at the intersection of Judaism and science fiction and fantasy, facilitated by Wendy Love Anderson and Leora Spitzer.
Mincha Saturday afternoon will be at 3:25pm and Shabbat ends at 5:24pm.
Sunday at 1:30pm will be Kol Rinah’s Annual Congregational Meeting, where elections for officers and board members will take place, as well as many important updates on things going on in the synagogue. Please try to attend!
As we head further into December, people start traveling, and making weekday minyan can be difficult. This morning, we only had eight people. Please come to minyan!
And now for a little Torah… Here is the d’var Torah that our newest member, Skylar Swim, delivered this past Shabbat for New Member Shabbat and Parashat Vayeshev. Mazal tov and welcome!
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov, Happy Hanukkah, and see you in shul!
Rabbi Noah Arnow
The Holy Rebelliousness of Tamar
Shabbat shalom –
As most of you know, this week is New Member Shabbat, and in keeping with that theme, I am speaking to you all today as – quite literally – the newest member of Kol Rinah. I completed my conversion yesterday morning and turned in my membership forms that afternoon. I would encourage those of you who have not yet become members to do so, as this helps us to continue doing the great work we do here. I am so grateful to call this vibrant community my own now, and I hope you’ll join me in that.
Oh – and for anyone wondering, I timed it and the paperwork only took me 21 minutes and 30 seconds, and that included a conversation with my spouse on how much we could pledge. I promise you it is a completely painless process!
But I didn’t actually initially choose this week to complete my conversion for this reason. I chose it because the story of Tamar and Yehuda in this parasha speaks very deeply to me.
I am someone who came into the Jewish community from outside as a convert, and I have also struggled on the axes of gender and sexuality as a person who identifies as queer and non-binary, which means that I do not fit neatly into either the male or female categories. Tamar comes into Yehuda’s family from the outside as well, and her actions challenge us on both the level of gender roles and sexuality, albeit in a very different way.
I have always found the story of Tamar and Yehuda compelling, and all the more so since I began my Jewish journey two and a half years ago. It is my assertion that the lessons we learn from it are just as important today as they were when it was written.
Now, you may be thinking that this is counterintuitive. When asked to think of stories from the Torah that are relevant to our lives in 2018, stories centered on Levirate marriage probably aren’t the first to come to mind. Yet the lessons of agency, accountability, and respect for human dignity that we can learn from the story of Tamar and Yehuda in today’s parasha are strikingly modern.
Part of the difficulty in approaching this story is that reading it is an uncomfortable experience. Yibum,or levirate marriage, which is when a man marries his brother’s widow if the brother dies without her having children, has not been in common practice for a long time and clashes with our current ideas of love and marriage. Yehuda, whose name we still bear as a people through the term ‘Yehudim’ and from which we derive the word ‘Jew’ from, acts dishonorably for much of the story. And in particular, Tamar’s audacious problem-solving methods seem questionable at best.
But perhaps another reason why we have such a hard time with this story is because of its implications: Tamar is ultimately rewarded for breaking major social taboos and exercising an uncommon level of agency for women in her time.
Different commentators address this discomfort in different ways. The Talmud focuses on Tamar’s discreet way of communicating the truth to Yehuda. It therefore reframes the story as a lesson on human dignity – specifically that one should not shame another person publicly. In this view, Tamar’s discretion teaches us that “a person should rather allow themselves to be thrown into a fiery furnace than to publicly embarrass someone.” [Sotah 10b]
This reading re-centers Yehuda by focusing on his feelings. Yet, Yehuda does nothing to protect Tamar’s dignity and does not even see her – literally or figuratively – until after she has already risked her life to protect his honor.
While the general principle that one should emphatically not embarrass others in public is a beautiful message regarding two people of equal social standing, that’s not the situation we have here. Tamar is a woman with the added layers of marginalization that come from being an outsider and a widow twice over, who is praised for remaining quiet even under threat of death by fire in order to protect the honor of a powerful man. Particularly now, in a time when women are finally getting to speak their truth, this interpretation grates.
But we don’t have to read it in a way that centers Yehuda. We can, and should, read this from Tamar’s perspective. The text itself encourages us to do exactly that.
The Torah makes it very clear that Tamar is not at fault for her first and second husband’s actions, and specifies that God is the one responsible for their deaths. However, Yehuda refuses to let her marry Shelah out of fear. This makes sense if he believes, at some level, that Tamar was responsible for his two older sons’ deaths. Only the love (and misplaced fear) of a father could account for his unwillingness to follow a tradition that would create a lineage for his first two sons. Instead, he sends her back to her own father’s house where she cannot move forward with her life or fulfill her former role.
The text takes pains to show us that Tamar faces a dilemma through no fault of her own, preempting our assumptions and positioning her as an underdog.
This makes her the center of her own story – a rarity for a woman in Torah.
Tamar is not passive. She grows into her central role and exercises great agency by violating the social norms of her society in order to fulfill a tradition that would have otherwise been closed to her.
Yehuda, by contrast, seems to exercise little agency of his own at the beginning. He does not really see Tamar – but she sees him with excruciating accuracy. In order for her plan to work, she has to assume that not only will he turn off the road for her at Enaim, but that he will at no point recognize her during the act. As it turns out, she’s correct. He only begins to exercise his agency at the end, in emulation of Tamar, by admitting his wrongdoing.
It is also important to note that Tamar acts boldly, but not recklessly. She mitigates the harm her actions may cause by revealing Yehuda’s paternity to him privately. This should not be read as passivity. Collecting objects that would establish Yehuda as the father shows she anticipates his reaction, specifically the danger of her undertaking. She then proactively brings these objects to his attention when her pregnancy is discovered. Far from being passive, this discretion can be viewed both as a way of protecting herself and her future children, as well as Yehuda’s honor.
There are a number of things to unpack here, but I’d like to focus for a moment on the lack of judgment towards her in the text. Tamar’s actions could easily have been judged harshly by the Torah. In fact, we want to judge her behavior as licentious and deceptive. We’re uncomfortable with this story because we find it enormously difficult to see her actions as righteous, even as the Torah itself does.
We might expect that she would be punished for her deception, but instead find that she is actively rewarded in one of the highest possible ways. In a broader narrative wherein God actively opens and closes wombs as divine reward or punishment, Tamar finds herself pregnant with twin sons – one for each former husband. We later learn that Peretz goes on to be an ancestor of King David and therefore ultimately the moshiach, the messiah.
Tamar is vindicated in her own lifetime as well. Yehuda, when confronted with his own staff, cord, and seal, admits that she is more in the right than him – not just to Tamar, but in front of their community. If Tamar ever faces any consequences for her behavior, it is absent from the Torah itself. The commentary I have found all treat her as righteous for her acts, unconventional though they may be.
When we identify with Tamar, the lesson we learn is not about protecting the dignity of those more powerful than us at great risk to ourselves. Instead, the lesson of the story is that under the right circumstances, social conventions must be flouted in order to accomplish a higher goal.
Sometimes we are Tamar, and sometimes we are Yehuda. Sometimes we are marginalized and sometimes we are in a position of power. We can learn lessons about both from this story. Yehuda’s willingness to exonerate Tamar by admitting that she is more in the right than him serves as a great model for accountability. He not only vindicates her emotionally, but leverages his power in order to protect her, even at cost to his own reputation. When we are in positions of power, it is our holy duty to admit our mistakes and to be accountable to those who we have power over.
However, for those of us who are marginalized, Tamar’s risks and reward can serve as a model for reaching forms of holiness that we have been barred from by those more powerful than us. Tamar demands justice from Yehuda and forces his hand; she does this, however, in service to the extremely traditional practice of yibum. Whether she does this as a calculated way of leveraging the systems she has available to her or because she is genuinely invested in it as a holy practice is not clarified in the text.
However, both possible lessons are important right now, in 2018.
Sometimes marginalized folks must leverage the systems available to us in order to secure our own safety and freedom. Other times, we may be fighting to be allowed access to holiness within systems that we struggle to fit ourselves into. Regardless of which lesson applies, those of us who work within the systems available to us or who draw criticism for our unconventional approaches to holiness can take comfort in knowing that Tamar is protected and blessed because of her bold actions – not in spite of them.