As Jacob settles back in the land of his ancestors, his sons take us to the denouement of the book of Genesis, which for a large part is a detailed response to one of the first questions of the Torah, asked by Cain after killing his brother Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The epic story of Joseph and his brothers begins this week, and in the weeks ahead will lead us in convoluted fashion to the emphatic response, eventually said by Judah to Joseph, that he stands as surety for his brother. Indeed, the lesson “all Israel is responsible one for the other” flows from here. Yet, this week’s parashah reminds us that when it comes to the women in our families, we don’t always stand by them.
The story of Joseph is interrupted by the episode of Judah and Tamar. Judah married the daughter of a local businessman and had three sons. His first son, Er, married a woman named Tamar, but died soon thereafter. Judah had his second son, Onan, marry Tamar and thus fulfill the mitzvah of Yibbum, otherwise known as “Levirate marriage” and described later in Deuteronomy:
“When brothers dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married to a stranger, outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall unite with her: take her as his wife and perform the levir’s duty. The first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out in Israel.” (Dt. 5-6)
While Onan apparently fulfils the duty of the levir by marrying Tamar, but then violates its central principle as it says clearly in the Torah,
“But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and God took his life also” (Gn. 38:9-10)
Judah refuses to give his third son to Tamar, forcing her against tradition to return to her father’s house childless. Eventually through action Judah will refer to as being “more righteous than he” in an interlude between the two of them that leads to the birth of twins, one of whom will be the ancestor of King David.
This little episode reveals how the Torah and tradition, in its focus on “being surety for our brothers” has forgotten we have sisters (and mothers and daughters as well.) Many will know that a word in the English language, “Onanism” (feel free to look it up) has entered our language from this story. It is generally defined as first, “coitus interruptus” and secondly, as masturbation, from interpretations of Onan’s “letting his seed go to waste.” Indeed, the entire rabbinic tradition has many moralistic stories and legal teachings against both of these practices. Sadly, these teachings not just miss the point of the story as clearly told in the Torah, they undermine it as well.
The passage in Deuteronomy discussing Levirate marriage provides the background we need to understand Onan’s actions and transgression. It continues from the point quoted above as follows:
“But if the man does not want to marry his brother’s widow, his brother’s widow shall appear before the elders in the gate and declare, ‘My husband’s brother, refuses to establish a name in Israel for his brother, he will not perform the duty of a levir.’ The elders of this town shall then summon him and talk to him. If he insists, saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull the sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and make this declaration: Thus shall be done Thus shall be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house. And he shall go in Israel by the name of ‘the family of the unsandeled one.’” (Dt. 25: 7-9)
In other words, Onan was faced with two choices upon the childless death of his brother Er. He could marry Tamar and have a child by her, the first born son taking Er’s inheritance rights, OR he could refuse to do so, and in front of the leaders of the town have his sandal pulled off by Tamar as she spat in his face and gave him the name “the unsandaled one.” Onan instead in private pretends to be fulfilling his duty – only Tamar and he would know that he is not allowing her to fall pregnant – and so “God strikes him dead.”
Clearly this is just one more story in literature about the sexual exploitation of women – sadly one which is clear in the original Torah as to what is the crime of Onan, and one from which the rabbinic tradition has deviated. Interestingly, Rashi comments on the mysterious death of Er: “Er was guilty of the same sin as Onan, of spilling his seed, as it is written regarding Onan, ‘And God… slew him also’ (38:10)–Onan’s death was by the same cause as Er’s. And why did Er spill his seed? So that Tamar should not become pregnant and ruin her beauty” Thus a confusion has come about between the method of the wrong, “spilling the seed”, and the wrong actually perpetrated, which is the sexual exploitation of Tamar.
If only all the verbiage spilt in discussing coitus interruptus and masturbation had been spent on fighting the sexual exploitation of women by men, we may not have the same issues to this day with domestic violence, rape, slavery and so forth. We are not just our brother’s keeper, but also our sister’s, not just for “Israel”, but for all humanity. The Torah’s concern is not how we please our own self, but how we harm another.