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Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Judah's family - Complex and Troubled

Torah Study with Rabbi Marder 6 July 2013
  • Recall Judah’s “descent” spiritually and physically, paralleling Joseph taken down to Egypt.
  • 38:6 – And Judah took a wife for Er, his firstborn, named Tamar.
    • Tamar is the first woman named in this story.
    • In 2 Samuel 13, David had a daughter Tamar.  This name appears in only the Davidic stories.  However, this Tamar was the ancestress of David.
    • Who is this Tamar?
      • Sages want to distinguish her from Canaanites.  Yet the text never mentions Tamar’s background.  The context implies that she is Canaanite; indeed, if she had been kin, there would have been mentioned, so she must have been foreign [Eskanazi, The Torah.  A Women’s Commentary, pages 216, 229]
      • Midrash Lekach Tov  – she had a desire to link with Judah’s family.  
Elie Munk [The Call of the Torah, page 515] writes, ”Some compare Tamar’s character to Rebecca’s.  Both were motivated by a great determination, both did not hesitate to resort to ruse:
        • “One in order to ensure that the paternal blessing would go to the son who she know was the most worth of it [Rebecca and Jacob]
        • “The other to ensure her perpetual attachment to the family of Abraham [Tamar and husbands Er and Onan -- verses 7 and 8 below]
“Even after losing both her husbands, Judah’s sons, Tamar had but one desire: to have the joy of founding a branch in the holy family of the patriarchs.”  
      • Tamar (תָּמָר) means a date palm – tall and graceful, beautiful.  The tree is used as a royal symbol in the Near East [Eskanazi, The Torah.  A Women’s Commentary, page 216]
      • Her father is not mentioned because Judah chose her not for her father (unlike Judah’s wife, who had a wealthy father).
  • 38:7 - Now Er, Judah's firstborn, was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.
    • Order of letters of עֵר and word for evil, רַע are reversed – interesting wordplay
    • What did he do (or not do) to be called “evil in the eyes of God?”  
      • The firstborn always seems to be judged more harshly [behavior more heavily scrutinized?] than siblings.
      • A phrase to explain the inexplicable, especially death; this idea survives today as the phrase “act of god.”
      • To help describe what actually happened.  Er’s bad behavior was apparent only to God, in this case, sexual behavior.
        • Rashi - [His evil was] like the evil of Onan, [namely], that he wasted his semen, as it is written in connection with Onan: “and He put him to death also,” meaning that, as Er’s death, so was Onan’s death. [From Yevamot 34b – see 38:9 below].  This would be coitus interruptus, a primitive form of birth control.  Er did not want the trouble of raising children; he was interested in his own comfort and convenience.
        • Joseph Shor [Yoseph Ben Isaac Bekor Shor of Orleans, France; 12th century]: Tamar was too beautiful to impregnate. Rashi - Now, why should Er waste his semen? So that she (Tamar) would not become pregnant and her beauty impaired.  A very selfish attitude!
        • See Midrash, which creates Er as a literary character from nothing; there is no text on Er in Torah.
          • Midrash Rabbah 85:4 explains Er’s sin.  “He would low in the gardens and pour out on the dunghills.”  This means, “At the end of cohabitation, he would spill his seed upon the ground.  
Alternatively, it means that he cohabited unnaturally.”  (He was intimate with her in an unnatural way,” writes Rashi on 1 Chronicles 2:3).  In either case, Er did not want his wife to bear children. 
          • The Midrash cites Talmud Y’vamot 34b: Er died for the same transgression as Onan, namely, spilling seed on ground.
[The source for] Onan's [guilt] may well be traced, for it is written in Scripture, that he spilt it on the ground; whence however, [that of] Er?  R. Nahman b. Isaac replied: It is written, And He [God] slew him also; he also died of the same death [for the same offense].
[The reason for] Onan's [action] may well be understood, because he knew that the seed would not be his; but why did Er act in such a manner? — In order that she might not conceive and thus lose some of her beauty.
        • Robert Alter on firstborn sons – reversal of primogeniture is a continuing theme; as a firstborn, Er must be removed to maintain the story [!].
“It seems almost sufficient merely to be firstborn in order to incur God’s displeasure: though the firstborn is not necessarily evil, he usually turns out to be obtuse [Esau?], rash [Reuben], wild [Ishmael?], or otherwise disqualified from carrying on the heritage.  
“It is noteworthy that Judah, who invented the lie that triggered his own father’s mourning for a dead son, is bereaved of two sons in rapid sequence.  In contrast to Jacob’s extravagant grief, nothing is said about Judah’s emotional response to the losses.” [Alter, The Five Books of Moses, page 215]
  • 38:8 - So Judah said to Onan, "Come to your brother's wife and perform the rite of the levirate, and raise up progeny for your brother."  
Er dies without a child and sets in motion the Levirate Law.
    • Review of marriage/sex laws
      • Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 say in essence, do not have sex with your brother’s wife (sister-in-law).
      • Deuteronomy 25:5ff sets forth the requirements for a levirate marriage.  In essence, a widow must marry her brother-in-law, i.e., within the clan and not a stranger, to retain the property within the clan.  This is considered a mitzvah (Midrash Rabbah 85:5).  Although the brother-in-law must marry the widow, he can refuse after a humiliating ceremony (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).
      • The conflict between these two laws is resolved by stating that the prohibition of marrying brother’s wife has one exception.  There are precedents in other ancient Near East laws [Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary. Genesis, page 266]
      • The Deuteronomic passage could also be a protest against the Leviticus law; the Deuteronomy passage [effectively] overturned the earlier laws.  Plaut writes [The Torah.  A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, page 1341], “Levirate marriages were performed for many centuries … But there was increasing doubt whether they were socially desirable, especially in view of the express statement in Leviticus 18:16 that forbids an man to marry his brother’s wife …The levirate law [Deuteronomy 25:5-6] permits such marriages—and, in fact, demands it when the widow has n children; but the exception does not fully relieve the sense of aversion that Leviticus 18 expresses.”  In later years, levirate marriage became the exception, not the rule.  Some authorities now ban the practice.  But some mystics still favor the practice as a way to reincarnating the dead person’s soul.
    • The purpose of Levirate marriage is to make sure that the brother’s name will not disappear (Deuteronomy 25:6).  But in Ruth 4, the baby is named for grandmother-in-law (Naomi), not the father.  Idea is that people should not leave this world without a legacy, i.e., a child.  Indeed, there is no obligation to name children from a levirate marriage after the dead brother [Sarna].
    • Hirsch [page 725] on Levirate marriage – purpose of marriage is to procreate; marriage is truly fulfilled when children are produced to carry on family’s righteous traits.  Levirate marriage is important to fulfill the main purpose of marriage.
      • “[Levirate marriage] is a mitzvah that was sanctified by custom in the House of Ya’akov even before the Law giving, a mitzvah based entirely on the most moral conception of marriage and family life.
“Now, the moral character of marriage is connecting with its ultimate purpose, the begetting and rearing children.  A marriage that fails to attain this objective is incomplete, then, as regards its moral aspect. … This defect can be made good” one of the closes relative should continue the marriage with the childless widow.“
      • However, according to the Zohar, the principal purpose of marriage is for companionship, not procreation.  “It is not good for a man to be alone.”  [Genesis 2:18]
    • Some say that Judah was the first to invoke the levirate marriage rule as a divine commandment.  However, the rule was an ancient custom before biblical times.  “Levirate marriage was a vestige of fraternal polyandry – namely whereas a woman once married several brothers at a time, later she only married them in succession … In polyandry, men share the same woman in a ‘bond of brotherhood;’ it is ‘part of the relation of tribal brotherhood’ designed to ‘promote good fellowship among brothers.’  The woman was acquired in marriage, not for an individual man, but fore an entire household.”  The eldest brother contracted the marriage and younger brothers shared the wife.  “With the rise of individual economic interests, and the consequent breaking of the communal fraternal household, polyandrous marriage is necessarily broken up.” [Antonelli, Judith S. In the Image of God. A Feminist Commentary on the Torah.  Jason Aronson Inc., 1995. Pages 104-105, citing Briffault, Robert.  The Mothers. NY: Macmillan, 1927.  Italics in original; underlining added.]  According to this viewpoint, Onan must have been asserting his “individual economic interests” in 38:9.
  • 38:9 - Now Onan knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother's wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother.
  • 38:10 - Now what he did was evil in the eyes of the Lord, and He put him to death also.
    • Why was Onan unwilling to marry?
      • He does not wish to diminish his future property, i.e., split an inheritance with an heir.
      • Ramban states that any baby would be an incarnation of his brother’s soul, i.e., the baby would not be totally Onan’s.  Ramban’s commentary [on 38:8] does not exactly say this.  Instead:
        • He first cites Rashi, The son shall be called by the name of the deceased. [From Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel], i.e., Ur.
        • Ramban disagrees, citing Y’vamot 24a, which states that the brother-in-law (levir) is not obligated to name the son after the deceased brother.  He further offers the example of Ruth and Boaz, whose child was not named for Ruth’s deceased husband (Ruth 4:17).
        • Ramban then pointedly asks, “Now what evil did [Onan] think would befall him if his son would be named after his fathering a son?  On the contrary, most people desire to do such a thing.”
        • Furthermore, Ramban continues, the text reads, “Onan knew,” suggesting that that “having a child would make it impossible for him to avoid the situation of ‘establishing offspring’ for his brother.” [Footnote in Artscroll/Mesorah edition]  The text does not read, “Onan said,” which would imply that Onan objected about being forced to comply with the levirate rule.  Instead, Onan had full knowledge that the seed would not be his.
        • Ramban continues to discuss the virtues and value of levirate marriage and the “mystical concept” of transmigration of souls – see below.  
      • The concept of transmigration of souls is that the soul can be reincarnated in someone else.
        • According to Abarbanel, a dead person soul is passed to and through his brother who then transfers it to a child.  Abarbanel’s words, as cited in Munk’s commentary on 38:8 – “the soul of the one who died before it fulfilled its destiny on earth finds it most perfect reincarnation in the body of his brother.”
        • To Ramban, levirate marriage is based on a “great mystical concept … pertaining to the genesis of a human being.”  He does not state what this mystical concept in this commentary.  However, from his commentary on Job 33, he describes how the “soul of the deceased brother enters and inhabits the body of the infant born through the union of his widow with the brother (or some other relative of the deceased).  [Footnote in Artscroll/Mesorah edition]  
      • Robert Alter [The Five Books of Moses] writes, “Onan is troubled by the role of sexual proxy, which creates a situation in which the child he begets will be legally considered his dead brother’s offspring.”  In other words, he’s just selfish [Artscroll, The Chumash].  
      • Yet Onan might have been motivated by practical concerns.  Why should he produce an heir for his dead brother’s estate, which is in the community’s interests but not in his own personal interest? [Eskenazi, The Torah.  A Women’s Commentary]
    • What did he actually do?  
      • Rashi - He practiced coitus interruptus. [From Genesis Rabbah 85:5]
    • Onanism -  Me’Am Lo’Ez devotes 10 pages of text to the “sin” of masturbation, including remedies and repentance.  But Eli Munk does not consider “Onanism” to be masturbation.  Is this gonna be fun or what?


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