A lot of people use religion as a tool to oppress women, and Judaism is no exception. However, if you read the stories of the Torah upon which the Jewish religion is based, there are more tales of women who take charge of their lives than you might have been led to expect.
Recently the Torah portion of the week was Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), which includes the story of Tamar, one of my favorite stories in all the scriptures – but probably not one you ever heard in Sunday School.
Even if you aren’t Jewish, if you’ve ever seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Dreamworks’ Joseph: King of Dreams, then you know that one of Jacob’s many sons was named Judah. But here’s something left out of the movies and musicals: in the middle of the Joseph story, Judah leaves home, gets married, and has three sons. His eldest son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar.
Tamar and Er intend to have children, because it’s a very important custom at the time for the eldest son to have a legacy of sons, but Er dies soon after they are married. So then Judah tells his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar, so that they can have a child and call it Er’s.
But Onan refuses to have sex with Tamar (the Torah literally says that he casts his seed on the ground). So G-d kills Onan. Apparently G-d disapproves of refusing to let a woman who wants to have a baby have one.
Judah then decides that Tamar must be bad luck or something (because there’s no way his son could have done anything wrong, right?), so instead of having her marry his third son, Shelah, and try again for children, Judah sends Tamar back to her parents’ house. He promises to send for her when Shelah grows up, but he never does.
Tamar is stuck in a very awkward and frankly insulting situation. Because she was married to Er and is currently engaged to Shelah, she is legally kept from marrying someone else. She can’t get a job. She doesn’t want to be a child in her parents’ house forever; she wants to be a mother.
So Tamar puts a veil over her face and waits somewhere she knows Judah will pass by. Judah sees her, assumes she’s a prostitute, and solicits her.
“How are you going to pay me?” says Tamar.
“I’ll send you a sheep later,” says Judah.
“Give me your ID card so I know you’ll actually do it,” says Tamar (okay, so it was his signet, staff, and cord, but they basically served as his ID card).
And they have sex. And Tamar gets pregnant. And Judah is very confused afterwards about why he can’t find the prostitute and get his ID card back.
Three months pass, and somebody spills the beans to Judah that Tamar is pregnant. Judah’s like, “No way – she’s my daughter-in-law! She can’t be having sex with someone else! Let’s kill her.”
And Tamar’s like, “Here’s the ID card of the guy who fathered this baby.”
And Judah’s like, “…oh. My bad.”
And apparently G-d super approves of the whole thing because Tamar has twin boys. And she raises them on her own, because she’s a confident single mother who needs no man.
What I love about Tamar is her agency. Although she’s in a situation where she has very few options, she takes ownership of her life and sexuality, works to get what she wants, and does so in a way that makes the men who are messing with her life shut up and leave her alone in the end.
And though many people – Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike – use the laws of the Torah as excuses to treat women as subservient people who lack agency, there are stories like this in there as well, which show women refusing to fit that role, and not only getting away with it, but being cosmically rewarded for it. These women, my matriarchs, are a big part of why I’m proud to be Jewish.