Wednesday, November 20, 2013


So I have been lax at writing but I think I can get back into the swing starting this week.  I hope that I can do it with the holidays coming up.

This week's Torah portion is a running narrative of Joseph and his dreams, the jealousy of his brothers, Joseph being sent into slavery in Egypt and winding up in prison due to his interactions with Potiphar's wife.  But right in the middle of the story we take a break to follow a completely unrelated stand alone narrative about Judah, one of Joseph's brothers.

The story tells of Judah, marrying and having three sons.  The first son Er marries a woman named Tamar.  But the Bible says Er was wicked and so the God struck him down.  So as was the practice of the ancient near East, Judah's second son, Onan, was to marry Tamar because she was childless.  But the practice, known as the leverate marriage, also meant that any children from that union meant that they would be considered the sons of Er, not Onan.  Onan would be considered childless, so he chose to "spill his seed on the ground".  This was either simply never orgasming while inside Tamar or masturbating.  Masturbation was called Onanism.  The Torah tells us that God was displeased by this and Onan dies.  So Judah withholds his youngest son from Tamar, making her ineligible for marriage to another and still childless.  So Tamar goes to a town that Judah has business in and dresses as a prostitute for Judah to patronize.  When he does he leaves his signet and other things as promise for payment, but Judah could never find her later to deliver the payment.  Judah had gotten Tamar pregnant  and when Judah discovered her pregnancy (not knowing it was his child) he became angry.  He accused Tamar of evil and sought her death.  However she produced his signet and argued that the since Judah was the father she was helping to continue the line of her husband Er.  She was forgiven and she was seen as the hero of the story.

This is a very earthy bit of Torah.  We have lies, sex, family intrigue and of course a powerful woman who uses her sexuality for her own gain.  But it is interesting what we take away from this story.  First we see the "spilling of seed" is a offense worthy of death.  But Judah also is seen as in the wrong for denying Tamar children.  But what is not criticized and in fact seems almost matter of fact is Tamar's prostitution.  That is seen as part of the culture.

The Torah was written in its time and too often the actual events in the story seem far outside the realm of what we think is appropriate today.  Think about it here in this small, out of place, story in the Torah.  The concept of levirate marriage for one.  What would we say about a culture that forces a brother of a dead man to marry his wife and the children belong to the linage of the dead man?  What about the wife?  Or the comfort of a man visiting a prostitute in the narrative, a man who gave his name to our people.  These are things of the time of the Torah and not our time.  They have no place in our culture, in our time.

But that is because the Torah and the Bible in general was written for its time.  It is full of stories that use the surrounding culture as part of the backdrop and to teach lessons.  Sometimes those were lessons only for their time, but we can glean some of the timeless nature of the Torah by writing ourselves into the story.  This was the work of those who taught Torah throughout the ages and later added commentary and other words to explain.  But some stories just don't seem to lend themselves our modern understanding and in those cases we must remember them as part of our evolving tradition.

Too often it is these stories whose meanings may have been lost to the ever changing culture that challenge us to fully embrace our sacred text.  But if we take the moment to understand them in their context one does not have to reject the truly timeless stories of the text as well as those we can find meaning in for our times.  But for some it is too easy to stand on these kinds of stories to attack the text or religion in general.  This is no more dishonest than those who want to ignore these stories or mold them into teachings for our times.

The beauty of the Torah is that it is not sanitized.  It lives with us like a family member that is known for some public embarrassment  but we still love him or her.  We don't ignore the history but it sits there next to all the good we can see.

The Torah is full of nuggets like this.  It puts the story in its time, but also gives us the opportunity to explore some darker or earthier writings in our scripture.  The ones skipped in Sunday school but the ones that make us understand the people we inherited the tradition from, and that has value even if we can't wrap our head around the prostitution or the death penalty for spilling our seed.