What’s in a name, Judah.
Chanukah is coming! But what Chanukah is about?
Well, to properly understand Chanukah, it’s helpful to properly understand this week’s Torah portion.
And to properly understand this week’s Torah portion, it is helpful to focus on an apparent digression.
To begin with, this week’s Torah portion is about Joseph. We read how his brothers hated him, out of jealousy, and how they sold him as a slave to the Ishmaelites and told their father that Joseph had been devoured by a wild beast. Which is a sense it’s true, or at least it’s a perfect metaphor because jealousy grasps the soul and the mind of human beings with the intensity of a wild beast indeed.
Then the story goes on with a digression, the story of Judah and Tamar, chap 38 of the book of Genesis, which is worth a resume because perhaps it is not popularly known as Joseph’s. Trigger warning, it is adults only because there is a lot of sex.
It goes this way. Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers, has three sons. Er, Onan and Shelah. He arranged for Er to marry a woman named Tamar, but Er was wicked and God killed him. The custom those days was for the brother to marry the widow and have children with her, but Onan was not interested (as you perhaps have guessed), so God killed him as well.
Tamar, at this point, expects to marry Selah, the surviving brother, to fulfil her dream to become a mother. But Judah, who has lost already two sons, is afraid to lose the third as well, so he’s reluctant to arrange the marriage. So Tamar dresses up like a harlot and seduces Judah, and also she takes a pledge for the payment: Judah’s staff (hallo, dr Freud!).
Judah sent a servant to settle the transactions, but Tamar was nowhere to be found, and the men of the place said that there had been no harlot there. About three months later, Judah heard that Tamar had played the harlot and become pregnant, and he ordered her to be brought forth and burned. When they seized her, she sent Judah the pledge to identify, saying that she was pregnant by the man whose things they were. That is Judah. This actually shows he has learnt the lesson because he proclaims that Tamar is צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי “more righteous, more just, more pious than me”. And the text informs us that Judah did not touch her anymore.
Judah has treated Tamar first as an object — to be given in marriage to the sons. Then as a low-class prostitute, one of those men sleep with, without even looking them in the face. It is safe to say Judah’s words (“she is better than me!”), and the following course of actions proves how much he’s changed as a human being and concerning people of his family. Tamar gave then birth to two twins, Peretz and Zerah. End of the digression.
In the following chapters, the Torah portion returns to the main topic, the story of Joseph. He is sold as a slave to Potiphar, the head the Pharao’s guard. And the narration focuses on Joseph’s vicissitudes and career. It’s pretty adults-only. Potiphar’s wife wants to sleep with him. Joseph refuses and is framed. Then he ends up in prison. Thanks to his talents as an interpreter of dreams, Joseph builds a reputation that will allow him to make an astonishing career at Pharao’s court. Next week’s Torah portion will deal with the career of Joseph as advisor of Pharao and as a prominent civil servant.
Joseph is quite a fascinating character. His career is one of the most intriguing among those narrated in the whole Torah. Let me recap what we read about him in our Torah portion. He fell off with his brothers, sold as a slave, makes a promising career under his first boss, falls off with his wife, ends up in prison, and elevates himself anew. It’s astonishing, it’s fascinating, it is engaging reading. Then why the digression? Not that there is any need to engage the reader; the plot is intriguing by itself. Why does the narration is broken? Why the story of Tamar and Jehuda at this point? What is going on?
And here is an essential point to understand. Judaism was not born as the ideological manifesto of a political party or a social movement. Not even born because it is a single person, a prophet, receives a divine revelation.
No. For us Jews, God speaks to human beings through a family, that of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob-Israel and his children. This is because what God wants from human beings is very often so difficult to understand. Just as within a family, there is never someone who is always entirely right and someone else who is entirely wrong. In any case, it is difficult to judge because we are constantly involved anyway. But at the same time, understanding what God wants from us human beings can be immediate, intuitive, instinctive, like the love that binds members of the same family to each other.
This portion of the Torah is indeed centred on the transformation of Jehuda, one of Joseph’s brothers who, devoured by jealousy, had the idea of throwing him into a well, of selling him as a slave, of lying to his parents. In the portion of the Torah next week, Jehuda will be the first to understand that he was wrong, take risks personally and defend the weakest of his brothers.
This is the powerful meaning we understand from the story of Judah and Tamar. That it is possible to change.
That the way, the place or the social class we are born into are not a trait of permanent identity,
Now, look around. Identity politics and critical race theory are telling precisely the opposite. It does not matter what you do; you are bound to be what you are born into. Does objective truth exist? No way, there are only narratives. Whatever you will say and think will reflect and allegedly defend and protect your privileges. Can a white person understand the suffering of the non-white? Can a Jew understand the Palestinians and perhaps advance some ideas to solve the conflict? Obviously not, says the critical race theorists. To him, your perception of the world is constantly filtered and conditioned by what you are, how you are born, by which privileges you always want to defend.
Birth is destiny. This is the gist of today’s culture.
But that was not different in Hellenistic times when the Maccabees arose to defend and re-consecrate the Temple in Jerusalem. Because birth as destiny was one of the fundamental values of the Hellenistic culture.
The Hellenists loved the sight of young, male human bodies; they wanted to place these statues in the Temple in Jerusalem where the Jews worshipped their God, a God who could not be seen. And they really did not get why the Jews wanted to exclude themselves from such an inclusive and tolerant cultural atmosphere. “What’s the problem with you Jews?” Why don’t you want to put an image of your God next to all the other divine images that we are so benevolent to allow? Why do you want to exclude yourself from this fantastic universalistic order of values?
That was the assimilation the Maccabees resisted against. We remember their victory by lighting candles. Lighting candles to counter darkness is an instinctive, natural act. That time darkness was Hellenism, with its fake tolerance and inclusivity, which was a posture. It excluded ageing bodies or bodies that did not conform to that idea of beauty. And, also, it was a society where you could not elevate yourself from the condition you were born into. Slaves were slaves: forever.
If you look at identity politics, the message is the same. You cannot change. How you are born will determine what you think and what you can do, birth is destiny.
The story of Judah and Tamar is disturbing; it comes from a time when marriages were arranged. Social stigma upon prostitutes was stronger than upon pimps (I am not sure we made so much progress). But Judah’s transformation is remarkable nonetheless; he enters into the narrative as a young man devoured by the wild beast of jealously, who commits a horrible crime. He then abuses the daughter in law but, in the end, learn how wrong he has been, And changes his course of actions.
There’s a reason we are called sons of Judah. Not only because Judaea is our land, the place where our civilisation flourished once and hopefully thrives nowadays. It is because our culture, our values are embodied, better than everything else, in the transformation of Judah, of his character and personality. In the impact, his transformation has on his family and on his world.
We light the candles of Chanukah to commemorate the victory of the Maccabees against the assimilation to the Hellenist civilisation. But guess what, the leader of the Maccabees was called Jehuda,
And it’s not just a coincidence.
27 November 2021–23 Kislev 5782, Shabbat Vayeshev
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue