The Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism, and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.
Last week’s weekly Torah portion, Va-yeishev, contains within it a gripping story about Judah and Tamar, his daughter-in-law. This parshah provides one of very few opportunities in the Torah to talk about the roles and rights of women in Judaism. As I was discussing the parshah with a group, one person mentioned that “The parshah is really about Judah.” I felt surprised by that comment, and so I wanted to respond.
The first argument: the parshah isn’t “really about Judah.” The second point: it doesn’t matter.
Let me address the first question. The arc of the story follows Tamar through the death of first her husband (Judah’s son), then her husband’s brother. She has nothing to her name – no inheritance, no children, no lineage, and no husband. Her only hope for honor and meaning lies in conceiving a child, with Judah’s third son. Judah is recalcitrant about offering his third son, thinking that whatever superstitious curse has killed his first two sons will hurt his final offspring. So Tamar takes action.
Essential point to notice: woman taking action in patriarchal society.
In a society where men have all the power, how will a woman manage to fight for her rights? Well, the only recourse available to her is to conceive by her father-in-law, Judah, who would never consent to such a union. So she dresses as a prostitute and tricks Judah into consorting with her. He then hears about her prostitution, and threatens to burn her, only to realize that it was he who had been complicit in the crime.
And here’s another essential scene. Judah admits that Tamar was right. Think about that for a second. Tamar has no political power in her world; property, power, and even women belong to men. So in this story, she resorts to questionable moral means to secure her basic rights – and Judah, in the end, affirms her choice.
After discussing this, I realize once again how important Tamar’s story is. The parshah isn’t “really about Judah” – it has multiple levels, as the Torah always does, and so it’s “about Judah but also about Tamar.” In fact, it’s one of the few stories in the Torah with a woman as the protagonist.
I’ve argued that the parshah is not just “really about Judah” but also “really about Tamar,” and now I’ll suggest that it doesn’t matter. Why? Because the Torah is male-centered, male-dominated, and male-identified. That’s right – G-d, in her infinite wisdom, gave us a male-centered Torah. Think about what we’ve seen since Breishit: Abraham gets more on-the-air time than Sarah, Isaac more than Rivka, Jacob more than both of his wives and their maidservants combined. Cain and Abel are both male. We hear a story about Noah, not Noah’s wife. I may believe that women matter as much as men, but it’s sometimes hard to see in G-d’s Torah.
Why would G-d have given us such a difficult Torah? To teach us that it’s our responsibility to interpret, to live, to grow in our approach to Torah. A perfect Torah interacts with me, a flawed human being, so when the Torah talks about males for 90% of the time, I’m going to end up thinking that males are more important. That’s my fault, not the Torah’s, and it’s my responsibility to move onward in my work toward equality.
In order to help myself realize the discrimination women face in our Jewish tradition, I need to talk about Tamar. I need to hear her story. I need to hear her powerlessness in the face of a patriarchal society. I need to hear how she worked to achieve social justice for women, through questionable means, and was validated. I need to hear how Judah was able to grow. As a Jewish man, I need that most of all, because I know that I’m often wrong, often unaware of the privileges that accrue to me from being male, and I, too, want to learn how to grow.
And if you have any doubt that we as a society, as a religion, and as a world are still far from finished working for the global rights of women, have a look at the book pictured to the left, Half the Sky. Here’s the short story: in religious and non-religious settings, especially in the Global South, women lack power, visibility, autonomy, equality, sanitized hospitals reserved for men, rights and privileges that every human should have, … The book’s title derives from a Chinese proverb that women hold up “half the sky.” Can our beautiful tradition find its own celebration of women, men, and others?
I welcome your comments! May you have a Hanukkah that brightens the lives of all around you.