Who was she? We know little about her except her name, Tamar. Judah, fourth son of Jacob, had "gone down" from his brothers - a spiritual as well as physical decline. It was he who had proposed selling Joseph as a slave. Now he has left the family and married a Canaanite woman. He has three sons by her - Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er grows up, Judah finds him a wife. That is how Tamar enters the story.
Tragedy strikes. Er dies. He "was wicked in the Lord's sight." How so, we are not told. Judah - practising a pre-mosaic form of levirate marriage - tells his second son Onan that he must marry his late brother's widow so that she can bear a child. Onan resents the fact that a child of his would be regarded as perpetuating his brother's memory, and he "spills his seed." For this he is punished, and he too dies.
Judah tells Tamar that she must "live like a widow" until Shelah is old enough to marry her. But he delays, fearing that his third son too may die. This places Tamar in a situation of "living widowhood," unable to marry anyone else because she is bound to her remaining brother-in-law, unable to marry him because of Judah's fear.
Taking destiny into her own hands, she seizes the opportunity that presents itself when she hears that Judah is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep. Covering her face with a veil, she dresses herself as a prostitute and positions herself on the route she knows Judah will take. Judah approaches her and sleeps with her. She returns home and removes the disguise. She becomes pregnant. Three months later, her condition is apparent. People inform Judah, who is indignant. She must, he reasons, be guilty of adultery since she is bound to Shelah, whom Judah has kept from her. "Bring her out and have her burned," he orders.
Only then do we realise the significance of one detail in the earlier episode. During the course of her deception, she had negotiated a price with Judah, but first insisted on a pledge: his seal, cord and staff. By the time Judah sent a messenger to pay her and reclaim the pledge, she had disappeared. Now she produces the three items and sends them to Judah with the words, "I am pregnant by the man who owns these." It is a masterly stroke. She has established her innocence without shaming Judah - for he alone now understood exactly what had happened. From this, the sages derived the principle that "One should be willing to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than shame another person in public."
What was Tamar doing? According to the Midrash, Nahmanides and Hizkuni, she was acting according to the custom of that time, by which levirate marriage could be practised not only by a brother of the deceased husband, but also by another close relative - in this case, Judah, Tamar's father-in-law. Her act was one of piety, ensuring that her husband's family line would be continued.
Tamar's conduct bears an uncanny resemblance to another biblical personality - Ruth. Both stories begin with an act of descent on the part of fathers-in-law: Judah to the Canaanites, Elimelech to the Moabites. In both, two sons die: Judah's sons Er and Onan, Elimelech's sons Machlon and Chilyon. In each case, the woman concerned has been left a childless widow. In both, the denouement is brought about by a bold act on the part of the woman, Tamar dressing as a prostitute, Ruth lying at night at Boaz' feet. Both times, the man involved (Judah, Boaz) is not the closest in line - for Tamar, that was Shelah, for Ruth the anonymous Peloni-Almoni whose claim Boaz has to ask him to forego.
In both cases the heroine is an outsider. Ruth is a Moabite. We are not told Tamar's family background. The sages say she was descended from Shem; Philo says that she was the child of idolaters. Yet it is they who give birth to children "to maintain the name of the dead . . . so that his name will not disappear," as Boaz says of Ruth. And it is they who are sensitive to the living, Tamar by not shaming Judah, Ruth by not letting Naomi return home alone.
The connection between the two women is stated explicitly at the end of the Book of Ruth. When the elders give permission to Boaz to buy Naomi's field and marry Ruth, they pronounce this blessing: "May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel . . . May your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah." Why this reference to Tamar and Judah?
The answer lies in the genealogy with which the Book of Ruth ends. It lists the ten generations from Perez to King David. The beginning of David's family tree is the son, Perez, born to Judah and Tamar. The seventh generation is the son, Obed, born to Ruth and Boaz. The family tree of Israel's great and future king includes Tamar and Ruth, two women whose virtue and loyalty, kindness and discretion, surely contributed to David's greatness.
I find it exceptionally moving that the Bible should cast in these heroic roles two figures at the extreme margins of Israelite society: women, childless widows, outsiders. Tamar and Ruth, powerless except for their moral courage, wrote their names into Jewish history as role models who gave birth to royalty - to remind us, in case we ever forget, that true royalty lies in love and faithfulness, and that greatness often exists where we expect it least.
Candles in memory of a clash of civilisations
Credo – The Times – December 2006
Spare a thought for Chanukah, the festival of rededication and light. It is the simplest of all Jewish festivals. All it requires, other than certain prayers, is the lighting of a candelabrum, the Menorah, in memory of the one that once stood in the Temple in Jerusalem.
We do so for eight days, each day lighting one light more than the day before. We say a blessing, sing a song and eat doughnuts (what would a Jewish festival be without food?). Hardly newsworthy. What could Chanukah possibly have to say to us, here, now?
The answer is that the event it recalls — the Jewish fight for religious freedom under the Greeks 22 centuries ago — was one of the most significant of all “clashes of civilisations”. It was a confrontation between the two great cultures that between them gave birth to Western civilisation: ancient Greece in the form of the Alexandrian empire, and ancient Israel.
It may be hard to believe that they were fundamentally opposed. Indeed, Christianity was born in their synthesis, the first Christians were Jews, and the first Christian texts were written in Greek. That synthesis existed in Judaism as well, though it was never mainstream. Its most famous representative was Philo of Alexandria.
But they were opposed. They represented two very different ways of understanding the universe, constructing a society and living a life. Much has been written about one contemporary clash, between “the West and the rest”. Far too little has been said about another clash, this time within the West itself. Essentially it is the same clash as the one Chanukah recalls more than two millennia ago.
In his Culture and Anarchy (1869) Matthew Arnold differentiated between the world of the Greeks, which he called Hellenism, and that of the Jews, which he called Hebraism. Hellenism was about art and the imagination. Its great ideal was beauty. Hebraism was about ethics and obligation. Its ideal was righteousness.
Arnold’s complaint was that in high Victorian England, there was too much Hebraism and too little Hellenism. Today the situation has been almost entirely reversed. Our secular culture, with its abortion and ever louder demands for euthanasia, its cult of the body, its deification of science and scepticism about religion, even its quasi-religious worship of sport, is deeply Hellenistic. Hebraic values such as the sanctity of life, the consecration of marriage, fidelity, modesty, inner worth as opposed to outward displays of wealth and power: all these are in eclipse. Not surprisingly, most philosophers of our time have found inspiration in the sages of Athens rather than the prophets of Israel. Ours is the most Hellenistic age since the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in the 4th century.
Ancient Greece gave the world the concept of tragedy. Ancient Israel taught it hope. In the loose sense in which we use these words today, they are no more than two different aspects of life. But they are in fact deeply incompatible. The French playwright Jean Anouilh put it best: “Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless . . . and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it.”
The fate of the Alexandrian empire should give us pause. It seemed all-conquering but within a few centuries it had been eclipsed. Bertrand Russell explained why: moral restraints disappeared; individualism ruled, and the result was “a rare florescence of genius”, but because of the “decay of morals” the Greeks fell “under the domination of nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion”. That is surely a warning for our times.
Tragic cultures eventually disintegrate and die. Lacking any sense of ultimate meaning, they lose the moral beliefs and restraints on which continuity depends. They sacrifice happiness for pleasure. They sell the future for the present. The West’s less-than-replacement birth rates and its ecological irresponsibility are just two examples of how it too is going the same way.
Ancient Greece and its culture of tragedy died. Judaism and its culture of hope survived. The Chanukah lights are the symbol of that survival, of Judaism’s refusal to jettison its values for the glamour and prestige of Hellenism or what today we call secularisation. A candle of hope may seem a small thing, but on it the very survival of a civilisation may depend.