Posts Tagged 'Tamar'

On Yehuda & Tamar: Crafting a Culture of Consent

In VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the side story for the Yakov’s children. Most of it follows the trials and tribulations of Yosef. We take a break from this narrative and we learn about Yehuda’s family. He has three sons Er, Onan, and Shelah. His eldest marries a women named Tamar. Er dies and then Onan marries her only to die as well. Yehuda believes she has killed two of his sons, and subjugates her so that she is unable to remarry. However, she ultimately tricks Yehuda into impregnating her and therefore secures her place in the family. There we read:

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the “entrance to eyes” which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. When Yehuda saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face. So he turned aside to her by the road and said, “Here, let me sleep with you”—for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. “What,” she asked, “will you pay for sleeping with me?” He replied, “I will send a kid from my flock.” But she said, “You must leave a pledge until you have sent it.” And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry.” So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she conceived by him. Then she went on her way. She took off her veil and again put on her widow’s garb.

Genesis 38:14-19

Yehuda then sent his friend to redeem the pledge only to not be able to find the mystery harlot. Three months later, it becomes clear that Tamar is pregnant. It was an embarrassment to the family that despite being in mourning after the death of Onan she would have stepped out and is pregnant. Yehuda proclaims that she should be burned. When they bring her forward, she presents his cord and staff which he gave her as collateral. Yehuda recognized them, and says, “She is more in the righteous than me, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” ( Genesis 38: 26). And Yehuda was not intimate with her again.

There is a ton to unpack from this story. For now I just wanted to offer a reading of this story through the lens of Dr. Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan’s book Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on College Campus. This book transforms how we understand and address sexual assault. Through intimate portraits of life and sex among today’s college students, they present an entirely new way to understand sexual assault. Their insights transcending current debates about consent, predators in a “hunting ground,” or the dangers of hooking up. Sexual Citizens reveals the social ecosystem that makes sexual assault a predictable element of life on a college campus. The powerful concepts of sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies, provide a new language for understanding the forces that shape young people’s sexual relationships. The result transforms our understanding of sexual assault and provides a new roadmap for how to address it.

How does focusing on sexual projects, sexual citizenship, and sexual geographies impact our reading of the Yehuda and Tamar story? Different people have sex to satisfy a diversity of interests. This is what Hirsch and Khan mean by sexual project. Clearly Tamar and Yehuda consenting to have sex together, but it is very clear that they did share the same sexual project.

Sexual citizenship is the assumption that their are basic rights that both parties have regardless of the situation. At the start Yehuda has power and Tamar does not. She is stuck. Clearly Yehuda did not see the harlot for who. But this underscores that even without the costume he did not did not see Tamar for who she was. It is also telling that he “buys” sex with his cord and staff, the symbols of his citizenship. When she presents him with these he has to admit that she is more righteous than he is. He has to admit that they both need their rights as sexual citizens.

And finally Hirsch and Khan discuss sexual geographies. How do simple things like the lay of the land advantage or disadvantage people regarding their entering into a sexual experiment. Tamar clear put herself out there at a place called “entrance to eyes”. Clearly this whole affair was an eye opening experience for Yehuda. There is so much to explore here. The nuances of this entire story of Yehuda and Tamar and the ideas shared in Sexual Citizens is eye opening to all of us as we work on crafting a culture of consent.

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