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December 1, 2012 / conservadox

more on Vayeshev

This week’s portion also involves a couple of stories involving slavery and sex.  The most obvious is of course the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.  Joseph works for Potiphar, and his wife tries to seduce him.  When he resists, the wife accuses him of attempted rape.

Potiphar presumably could have had Joseph killed if he really believed his wife’s story.   Instead, the Torah reports thaHt he merely has Joseph imprisoned.  Why? One hint: the story says Potiphar “was furious”.  (Gen. 39;19).  But Sarna notes that the Torah does not say whether he was furious at his wife or at Joseph, and suggests that this omission “may hint at an underlying ambivalence.”  (I also note that the Torah says he is “where the king’s prisoners are confined”, which sounds like he is in someplace a bit more upscale than a typical prison).

Potiphar’s behavior sounds very Jewish; even if he is not a complete believer in the mitzvah of judging others favorably, he at least might be interested enough in Joseph’s side of the story to split the difference, in the same way that a jury ambivalent about an alleged murderer’s guilt might be (I hope) less willing to impose capital punishment.

By contrast, Judah needs a little work.  After Judah’s first son dies, he foists his second son on the son’s widow Tamar.    Since the Torah’s law on this subject (a) has not yet been revealed (see Deut. 25) and (b) has loopholes that an unwilling brother of the deceased can drive a truck through, where does Judah get the idea to do this?

Sarna explains that Assyrian law provides that “a widow who has no son should be married off by the father-in-law to the son of his choice” and Hittite law lays down that “if a married man dies his brother shall take his wife”.  He further explains that this law comes from the “notion that the widow had initially been purchased, through marriage, by the head of the family and so became part of the dead husband’s estate. As such, she married the property of the clan after his death.”  This sure sounds like sex slavery to me (although perhaps it was sometimes consensual, since the widow might not have anything better to do than marry a brother-in-law).

So what do Judah and his children do with their slave? Son no. 2, Onan, dies.  Judah then decides not to give her son no. 3 (because he fears for his life).

So you might think Judah would release her to marry another man.  Right?  Wrong.  Tamar turns out to be pregnant**Judah’s reaction: ” Bring her out… and let her be burned.”  No split-the-difference, judge-others-favorably liberal nonsense for this assimilated Jew (he apparently married a Canaanite woman).***  So basically Judah won’t let her marry anyone, and then when she gets pregnant he wants her tortured to death.

In fairness, after Tamar persuades him that he is the father, he realizes that the whole mess is his fault, and decides not to kill her (a good thing, since King David is her descendant).

So even though Judah behaves less badly than the gentiles, he does make teshuva.  (“return”, often translated as repentance).

Is there some broader point that I can make out of this?  Well, I think so.  Gentiles (even ancient Egyptians) can behave well.  But in the long run, what makes Jews successful (ethically speaking) is our emphasis on self-improvement and teshuva- and in this sense, Judah is a role model.

And perhaps Judah’s generally nasty behavior early on (he is also a ringleader in selling Joseph into slavery)  is precisely why he becomes the leader of his family; the Torah is trying to tell us that as a reformed sinner, he can learn from his mistakes and deal with non-Jews in a way that some of his brothers cannot.

*I’m not going to use words like “nuts” because let’s face it, what was sane 3500 years ago might not be what’s sane today.

**By Judah (Gen. 38:25-26) but that’s another story.

***Gen. 38:2 uses the term kenani; Sarna translates as “Canaanite” but some traditional commentators disagree.

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