Sunday, June 12, 2005

Tikkun Lel Shavuot prep: I’m writing something resembling a d’var Torah on the connection between Tamar, Ruth (& her fearless leader, Naomi),& agunot

I plan to start my discussion at the shul (synagogue) by reading these two posts by Miriam of, and strong recommend that you read them, as well:

Thursday, June 02, 2005--"Blackmail, aided, abetted and encouraged by the courts" (This one is in the June 2005 archive.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005--"The Rabbinical courts vs. Yad L'Isha"

Meanwhile, back at the shul house, let’s talk about the story of Tamar, which you can find in the chumash (book containing the first five books of the Bible, plus the haftarot [additonal readings, usually from the prophets]), in Parshat Vayeshev (one of the weekly readings), Genesis, chapter 38 in its entirety. Tamar married Er, the eldest son of Yedudah (Judah), but Er died. According to a tradition that was observed more literally then than at present, the brother of a man who died childless was obligated to marry his widow, and their first child was considered the child of the deceased. So Onan, Er’s brother, married Tamar, but, when the time came, he “spilled his seed” because he didn’t wish to produce a child that would be considered his late brother’s. He, too, died. At that point, Yehudah, superstitiously fearing that Tamar was responsible for the deaths of two of his sons, sent her back to her father’s house, allegedly to await a time when Shelach, the next brother, would be old enough to marry her. However, some time later, when Shelach was grown and Tamar realized that they should have been married already, she took her fate into her own hands—at exactly the time at which her “spies” told that Yehudah would be shearing sheep at Timnah, she went there, disguised herself as a prostitute, and got him to sleep with her, taking his signet, cord, and staff as a “deposit” until he sent a goat as payment. Three months later, when it became known that she was pregnant and she was accused of having played the harlot and threatened with burning, she produced those three items as evidence that Yehudah was the father of her child, and Yehudah declared her “more righteous than I, in that I did not give her to Shelach, my son.”

Fast forward several centuries to the Book of Ruth, which we’ll read tomorrow morning [correction: which we'll read tomorrow morning in Israel, and on the second day of Shavuot in Galut (the Diapora)]. Naomi, her husband, and their two sons flee to Moav to escape a famine. Both the husband and the two sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law with no visible means of support. Naomi urges both to return to the houses of their fathers and remarry, but Ruth refuses. Her “whither thou goest” was the least of her acts of bravery and chesed (kindness)—by casting her lot with that of her mother-in-law, she joins her in becoming totally dependent on the charitable acts of strangers, risking, to put it bluntly, possible starvation.

Returning to Naomi’s old neighborhood, Bet-Lechem (Bethlehem), Ruth starts gleaning—picking up sheaves of grain missed by the harvesters, an early form of charity—in what turns out to be the fields of a “redeeming kinsman,” a member of Naomi’s husband’s family who’s a close enough relative to perform the act of “levirate marriage,” described above: “According to a tradition that was observed more literally then than at present, the brother of a man who died childless was obligated to marry his widow, and their first child was considered the child of the deceased.” The text indicates clearly that Boaz knew that he was a redeeming kinsman and that there was another redeeming kinsman who was a closer relative. Yet, in all the time that Ruth spent gleaning in his fields, he never said a word to her about marriage. Finally, Naomi took matters into her own hands: She told Ruth to make herself appear attractive, then sneak onto the threshing-room floor after everyone was asleep, uncover and lie down at Boaz’s feet. The next day, Boaz asked the nearer relative whether he wished to marry Ruth, and, having gotten “No” as the answer, committed himself to marry Ruth himself.

In the case of both Tamar and Ruth (and her fearless leader, Naomi), the women sought and got justice by the only means available to them at the time. Tamar, for lack of an alternative, used the sexual act itself as a means to secure a child bearing her late husband’s name. Ruth, through Naomi’s strategem, used the fear of exposure as either the (possible) seducer of a respected widow and/or a man who refused to perform a levirate marriage for his relative’s widow.

Some agunot (women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce) of our day have gone public with their complaints about the callous indifference to their plight shown to them by some in the rabbinical courts. They should be lauded and supported in their efforts, not condemned. These brave women are following in the footsteps of our ancestors Tamar and Ruth. They are using the only weapons available to them to secure the consideration to which Jewish law should entitle them, as it is said in Psalm 145, “ . . . v'rachamav al kol maasav, and His compassion is over all His works.”

Correction: You'd think that after chanting the 3rd chapter for all these years, I'd at least remember that Megillat Ruth/the Book of Ruth is read on the second day of Shavuot in the Galut/Diapora. Sorry for the confusion.


Blogger Gonetomars said...

Well said - kol hakavod. E.

Sun Jun 12, 01:31:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Welcome aboard, Gonetomars! Pardon my ignorance, but what does your name mean?

All compliments cheerfully accepted--thanks!

I see from your website that you like Renaissance music. You might want to check out Salamone Rossi, an Italian Jewish composer and my pseudomymic namesake, if you haven’t already done so. Check out my Thursday, August 05, 2004 post, “Hashirim asher l’Shlomo—An intro to Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi,” at

Sun Jun 12, 05:36:00 PM 2005  

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