Author Archives: Carol Selkin Wise

About Carol Selkin Wise

Carol Selkin Wise is a professor of Jewish Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Tamar’s Tragedy

Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

In terms of the Biblical worldview, Tamar‘s tragedy is evident: she has lost her husband, and she has no offspring to secure her status as a widow and give her life purpose. Tired of leaving her fate to male relatives Tamar takes action to secure her own position, thereby joining the circle of matriarchs who exemplify action to protect Israelite destiny.

When the Family Constellation Changes

As the Bible tells the story, Judah and Tamar are in-laws who have reached a crisis point in their relationship. Why? As Carol Meyers explains (Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context, 1988, pp. 133, 183), a young woman typically married into her husband’s extended family household. The new wife was expected to conform to household norms.
women of reform judaism
At first, Judah is more than willing to support Tamar’s rights. It is he who prompts Onan to perform his duty (38:8); however, when Onan dies in turn, Judah inwardly blames Tamar (38:II), although the reader knows that she is innocent (38:7, 10). Clearly, there is a failure of communication. Judah tells Tamar he will eventually allow her access to Shelah, while he privately intends no such thing. For her part, Tamar correctly surmises Judah’s true intentions, but she never confronts him, discusses it with him, or attempts less radical measures, such as mediation. Evidently, Judah’s abiding sense of loss and resentment are blocking his reconciliation with Tamar. Because of Judah’s failure to heal, Tamar is also unable to move on.

Even now, any new family member-whether spouse, in-law, or child-begins as an outsider. The attendant changes in family dynamics bring accompanying stresses. If conversion or adoption is involved, the difficulties of adjustment may be compounded, requiring increased patience and sensitivity. Recriminations, too, have never been uncommon when premature death occurs in a family.