Thursday, December 06, 2007

Onan's sin: Marital sexual abuse

Ellen Flax (I believe she’s a rabbi) gave an interesting d’var Torah (word of Torah/Bible) on the story of Yehudah/Judah, Onan, and Tamar (found in Parshat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23), at Ansche Chesed’s Minyan Rimonim last Shabbat (Sabbath) morning. She posited that Onan was killed by HaShem not because he “spilled seed,” refusing to impregnate Tamar because her first child would have considered his deceased brother’s/her late husband’s child, but because he used Tamar for sex. Well, yes and no.

I suppose that we should first discuss the institution of yibum/levirate marriage. Here's a (the principle?) biblical quote discussing the matter:

Parshat Ki Tetze, Deuteronomy, chapter 25, verses 5-6:

5 If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one not of his kin; her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her.

6 And it shall be, that the first-born that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of Israel.

My understanding is that the institution of yibum/levirate marriage cut both ways. On the one hand, it was a way of attempting to ensure that a deceased man would have a child who was considered his descendent. On the other hand, it was also a form of economic protection for women, who didn’t have many respectable options for making an independent living. My impression is that a woman of the biblical era was dependent on the men of either the family of her birth or of her husband’s family for her financial support, and that, therefore, attempting to ensure that she had at least one child would guarantee her support by her late husband’s male relatives. A childless widow seems to have been returned to her father’s family for financial support, a development that may not have been welcomed, since her father may have thought that he’d already ensured his daughter’s economic survival by marrying her off. (I’m probably not the only one who knows older parents who’ve found themselves with adult children living at home again after a marriage that did not work out and/or for financial, health, or other reasons.)

It’s true that Onan was clearly using Tamar for sex, since he refused to try to get her pregnant. But, despite Ellen’s protestations that Onan’s death was not about children, I don’t think that one can divorce sex from children in this context. I can’t help thinking that Onan’s grandfather, Yaakov Avinu (Jacob Our Father), had two full-fledged wives and two, er, concubines (if I may be so politically incorrect as to use that term). In those days, before rabbis even existed, much less had forbidden polygamy, what was to prevent Onan from marrying other women, having children with them, and leaving Tamar chained to him in marriage and with no opportunity ever to have a child for the rest of her life, just to spite his deceased older brother? Alternatively, he could have "accused" Tamar of infertility and divorced her, which could have reduced both her financial circumstances and her possibilities for remarriage. Either course of action would have been abusive, and it could be argued, from a traditional perspective, that HaShem took Onan's life to prevent him from pursuing either one.

Afterthought: Perhaps it's no coincidence that, though levirate marriage was obviously an accepted practice even before it was presented as a law to the Jewish people, the loophole around that requirement doesn't appear until Deuteronomy (see Ki Tzetze link above, verses 7-10), several books after the one that contains the story of the gutsy Tamar (see first link in this post).

The story of Tamar gives new meaning to the old slang saying, "Take no prisoners." On the one hand, by discreetly accusing Yehudah of failing to fulfill his obligations while avoiding mentioning him by name, she did not take Yehudah prisoner. On the other hand, she showed the extraordinary lengths to which a woman is willing to go to avoid being imprisoned herself, and serves as a cautionary tale to those men who think that they can get away with being heartless.


Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

your ideas make sense, nothing really to add :-)

Fri Dec 07, 12:48:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Elie said...

I generally resonate towards the most straightforward meaning of a Biblical story. So I find Ms. Flax's interpretation just as non-intuitive as the midrashic one that makes Onan's transgression simple masturbation. It's clear to me that Onan's basic sin was disrespect for the tradition of levirite marriage, and the motivation - simple filial jealousy, or what we now kindly call "sibling rivalry".

This was a deep-rooted problem going back several generations in the family, and indeed to the very first siblings in history - Cain and Abel. See this post for an expansion of this theme.

Fri Dec 07, 10:01:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Elie, "Onan's basic sin was disrespect for the tradition of levirite marriage," but no one talks about the result: Essentially, Onan held Tamar "hostage," in that she could neither attempt to get pregnant nor be freed from her marriage without his consent. That's abusive.

That post of yours re sibling rivalry, of which there's practically an epidemic in the Torah, is a good one. Thanks for the link.

Fri Dec 07, 12:58:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just a thought from my recent attempts at semi-regular Torah learning. I don't disagree with any of your observations, BTW, but trapping the woman in the childless marriage was cruel to the brother, who would now be blotted out, cruel to Tamar, who was held prisoner, and generally disrespectful. They were hurt by his actions, yet the sages tell us that the sin was the intentional destruction of seed, not the violation of his obligations, why?

Well, in general, Halacha governs process, not result. The books of Jewish law cover the laws governing us, and how we find loopholes for them. I was learning the codes governing having a non-Jewish partner with a business, and while the Halacha clearly prohibits doing business on Shabbat (lest one come to write), we have plenty of loopholes to use a non-Jewish partner to conduct business.

With the in mind, the end result is considered, but the Halachah governs the means. So, we can't prohibit Onan from not impregnating Tamar, but we can require him to "lie with her" (obligation of husband to wife) and prohibit him from spilling his seed. As long as he engages in intercourse, observes Niddah, and doesn't spill seed, it is in Hashem's hands if she gets pregnant.

So, the interpretation of the story AND the Halachot gives us a situation where a man can't refuse his wife children, because he has to sexually perform and not destroy seed.

Turning it into simple masturbation makes the story seem less poignant, but focuses on a legitimate path to Halachah, because we can't just require someone to be a good person, we need to turn it into clean and actionable instructions, which is what the Sages did.

So I don't think that your observation is wrong, and the story illustrates how disgusting the behavior is. However, since we can't govern the intent, only the actions, we structure the laws to prevent transgressions that would do this.

Shabbat Shalom, Alex

Fri Dec 07, 04:26:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Alex, I understand your point. But there can sometimes be drawbacks to discussing actions rather than intent. Let's just say that this particular law can be very rough on single men who observe the additional law of shmirat n'giah (not touching any woman who is not a family member), and leave it mercifully at that.

Sat Dec 08, 11:35:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Batya said...

The pshat, words, are very clear. It's not one of those confusing things, though the fist son/ who died may be the one with the big question, becaue no reason is given.

Sun Dec 09, 06:37:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Batya, indeed, the p'shat is very clearly that Onan was punished for refusing to try to impregnate his wife. It's a pity that the legislation resulting from this sin ended up dealing with, shall we say, a man taking matters into his own hands, instead. I think that this is one instance in which legislation concerning action rather than intent created other challenges.

Sun Dec 09, 02:07:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

attempting to ensure that she had at least one child would guarantee her support by her late husband’s male relatives.

Sort of. The fundamental problem is that a wife is not her late husband's heir by Biblical law (Rabbinic law works around this). The property of a male who dies without issue would go back to his father, if living, and then to his father's heirs.

Levirate marriage solves this problem by providing a social and financial reason for the levir to marry the widow. The social reason is that it's seen as a duty. The financial reason is that if the first child is a boy it becomes the late brother's heir. The levir is the boy's guardian and therefore enjoys the benefit of the estate while the heir is an infant.

Tue Dec 11, 05:57:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Joe in Australia, it must have been a workable system, or Tamar wouldn't have gone to such lengths to participate in it.

Nice "commute," by the way. I think you're my first commenter from Down Under. Welcome aboard!

Tue Dec 11, 08:09:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only issue I have with the Onan story, is that no one can prove his intentions were not to have children. There are many unexplained ways to die and religion seeks to provide an answer, but still an inadequate explanation to the cause. My simple interpretation of the story is he simply died from a virus. I can't prove it to you but neither can you prove his masturbation. If his sin was actually masturbation I am sure many before him have died and the bible would have noted that masturbation is an illegal act and punishable by death. Instead everyone philosophizes what actually happened.

Wed Apr 21, 08:06:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

His alleged sin wasn't masturbation, it was coitus interruptus, withdrawing in the middle of the sex act so that his sperm wouldn't enter to impregnate. That the text gives his early withdrawal as the cause of his death is just an attempt at explaining why he died so young. As you said, "religion seeks to provide an answer."

Thu Apr 22, 08:32:00 PM 2010  

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