Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.
Maybe the movie "Pretty Woman" airs so often on cable TV because it tells a common story – the resilience of a down-on-her-luck woman with a heart. Today's newscasts bring wave after wave of women, mistreated by men, who finally speak truth to power and often suffer "blame the victim" indignities for their courage. It's telling that Torah has a similar story, but with a somewhat different outcome.
In this week's Torah portion (Vayishlach), Torah's “Pretty Woman” is Tamar – slightly less glamorous than Julia Roberts but maybe even more courageous. Tamar was married to Er, son of Judah and grandson of Jacob. Er died childless and Judah promised his younger son as husband for the widowed Tamar, as then was the law, so Tamar could have children. Long story short, Judah broke his promise while Tamar waited at home wearing widow's garb, life passing her by. Without a husband, Tamar was considered as nothing, wronged by Judah but powerless socially and economically to do anything about it.
But Tamar wouldn't be the silent victim. When she learned that Judah would travel past her hometown, Tamar dressed as a harlot, face covered, as she waited by the town gate. Judah saw her, and took his pleasure with Tamar. Tamar conceived by her father-in-law Judah and gave birth to twins, one of them ancestor of King David. As the ancient currency for women was having children, necessity compelled Tamar to trick her father-in-law to get what was rightfully hers.
For his part, Judah was a cad. He broke his promise to Tamar. He was all too eager to use power to obtain sex. He was clueless as to the woman's identity, objectifying her for his momentary pleasure. How many of today's news stories evoke similar themes? And it got worse: when he learned that Tamar was pregnant out of wedlock, a self-righteous Judah demanded that Tamar be burned! How many of today's news stories sound familiar?
But Torah's story ended differently. When the town gathered to fulfill their Salem witch hunt, Tamar revealed evidence indicating that Judah himself was the father. Rather than offer denials or attack Tamar's past, Judah responded publicly that Tamar is more righteous than he. In today's viral hashtag language, Tamar was history's first #metoo, and Judah was history's first #Ibelieveyou.
That said, Tamar's story is less different than we might hope. Tamar suffered isolation, deprivation, humiliation and mortal threat at the hands of a powerful man, while a compromised Judah suffered no retribution. Tamar got her twin boys (in Biblical terms, a recompense and sign of divine favor), but do we really know how Tamar felt? And for all she must have felt, even so Tamar demonstrated profound courage and resilience.
From Tamar to "Pretty Woman," lessons of courage and resilience flow to us from the good girl turned down-on-her-luck prostitute. There's a reason: the voices of women who are wronged, and others whom society shuns and marginalizes, sometimes are the purest and most poignant teachers of strength. More often than might be comfortable for us to imagine, so-called "outsiders" have the inside track on truth, and they teach how to emerge from exclusion and degradation into strength and justice. One of Judaism's core values is including whoever is excluded, and that call continues today.
More and more women are reporting sexual misconduct in families, offices, movie sets and halls of government. These women are speaking their truths and calling out men who wrongly claim power to degrade and objectify. It should shock everyone's conscience that so many of these powerful men, like Judah, not only claim the right to objectify women but also dare the self-righteousness of blame-the-victim false moralism. No wonder so many women have been silent for so long. No wonder Tamar resorted to subterfuge. Speaking truth to power, after being violated in the most intimate ways, asks tremendous courage.
We can do better, and we must. And if ever we think we can't, remember Tamar.
R' Evan Krame & R' David Evan Markus