Double Mitzvah – Vayeshev

Tamar and Eshet PotipharWritten by Tamar Fox.  Tamar is Jewrotica’s Judaic Outreach Director.  For a good fiction read by Tamar, check out her story “Real Israelis“.

PG-13Welcome to Double Mitzvah, the new weekly Jewrotica shiur on sex and the week’s parsha.

This week’s parsha is one of the sexiest in the Torah. It features the story of Tamar, and the story of Potiphar’s wife, and concerns itself with issues of sexual intent and consent in ways that seem surprisingly relevant and modern.

I remember the first time I heard the story of Judah and Tamar. I was in 4th grade, walking to shul with my dad on Shabbat morning. He told me that it was Parshat Vayeshev, which had a story about a woman named Tamar in it. He proceeded to tell me the story, which of course required that he explain levirate marriage and discuss prostitution with a 9-year-old. After hearing that story, I was completely pleased and proud to be named after Tamar. My namesake seemed so strong and confident and brave. I’m sure that I didn’t think much about the prostitution angle (everything I knew about sex workers at that time would have come from watching Pretty Woman), about how trapped Tamar was economically, and about how weird it was that she essentially tricked her father-in-law into impregnating her. What I liked about it was how clever she seemed, and also, of course, that amazing gotcha moment when she sends Judah his staff and signet ring.

Nineteen years later, I have a different reaction to the story. It’s sadder to me now—about a woman whose only way out of a shitty situation is to seduce someone who is screwing her over. The Tamar in Genesis is a pragmatist about her sexuality. She knows the power she has over her father-in-law and uses it, even though it’s hard to imagine that that choice was an easy one. Today I read the story and I still feel proud of Tamar—she made lemonade, even if the process was both risky and icky. But it’s helpful to note that she had to resort to drastic and decidedly un-tznius means to accomplish her goals. The Jewish world today is awash in people preaching modesty above all things, but this story teaches us that sometimes when you’re being treated like a commodity, you have to stand up for yourself even if it’s “immodest.”

On the flip side, I never really thought about the story of Potiphar’s wife much until recently. But reading it now I find myself torn. At first, it makes me think of cougars and our culture’s recent obsession with the stereotype of the predatory older woman. Implicit in this idea is the humor of an older woman being attracted to a younger man. It’s supposed to be funny, and a little embarrassing, even though when the genders are reversed, we’re supposed to think that older men and younger women together is normal. The second half of the story deals with a woman crying rape (when we know from the story that there wasn’t, and that she was the one who assaulted Joseph). It’s sexual harassment in the workplace! And the power dynamics are strange, too. In Potiphar’s home, who has more power: his wife, or his male servant?

Though the story is clearly slanted towards Joseph, it’s fascinating to think about the ways that this Torah narrative is struggling with sexual desires and the dynamics between men and women.

I don’t have a particular message here, I just wanted to tease out some of the fascinating issues of sex and sexuality that we’ll be reading about in shul tomorrow. Tune in with your thoughts in the comments!

Shabbat shalom!

Author of Jewrotica's Double Mitzvah column, Tamar Fox is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She will try anything once, including open relationships, dating someone who is chalav yisrael, and going to Suriname.