Author Archives: Rabbi Matt Carl

Rabbi Matt Carl

About Rabbi Matt Carl

Rabbi Matt Carl is the associate rabbi of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn, New York, and is the campus rabbi at Hunter College in Manhattan. An alumnus of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Rabbi Carl has integrated service and justice concerns with other traditional aspects of the rabbinate.

Tamar & the Sex Trade

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In biblical times, a woman whose husband died childless would marry his brother in order to give her late husband a surrogate heir within the family line. This is the law of yibbum, which is what Tamar had in mind in Parashat Vayeshev when she remained a widow, waiting to marry Shelah, her father-in-law Judah’s third son. When Judah withheld Shelah, he denied her the only honorable recourse that a woman had during that time, when her self-worth and economic security were dependent on her having a husband and a child.

Tamar’s Desperation

With this mercy denied, Tamar had to resort to desperate measures. She changed out of her widow’s clothing, veiled herself, and waited for Judah on the road. Assuming that she was a prostitute, he slept with her and agreed to pay her. In seeking out Judah with the hope of conceiving a child, Tamar used the only tool available to her–her sexuality. 

american jewish world serviceThe pattern of economic conditions driving women (and less often, men) to sex work is, of course, not a thing of the past. In the Global South especially, societies are structured in such a way as to often make sex work the only economically viable option for women. Sex work accounts for the income of millions of women worldwide and the global sex industry is a vibrant and active business.

But of greater concern than the existence of sex workers who are driven into a trade because of a lack of real options is the fact that these women are often blamed for the industry’s existence and their role in it. Governments around the world arrest, prosecute, and imprison women for their participation. Yet their work is fueled by the cycles of sexism and poverty that were created by men, often the same men who are the clients of these targeted and condemned women.

This pattern is illustrated when Judah is told that Tamar is pregnant. “Your daughter-in-law has played the harlot,” Judah is told. “In fact, she is with child by harlotry” (Genesis 38:42). Tamar’s pregnancy is seen as proof of prostitution, and Judah’s immediate reaction is that she should be burned. He shows no hesitation with punishing a prostitute, even though he himself not only participates in the trade, but is also the direct cause of Tamar’s involvement in it.

Towering Over Others

Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

On a recent visit from his new home in Dubai, my cousin explained why there are so many conflicting reports in the media about the eventual height of the “Dubai Tower” currently being built there. It seems the rulers are concerned that another country will simply build something a few meters higher, preventing the tower from remaining in the position of “world’s tallest.” I wonder if the leaders of the United Arab Emirates ever said “come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves (Genesis 11:4).” Their competitiveness indicates the same idea as the descendants of Noah at the end of this week’s parashah.

American Jewish World Service

What’s So Bad About A Tower?

The Torah doesn’t answer this question directly; instead, it relates only that God sabotaged the tower by giving the workers different languages so that they could not communicate. The midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer attempts to fill in the gap. The tower, it says, was to be the pinnacle of achievement for a tyrannical despot who instilled in his people a set of disturbing values.

This ruler, Nimrod, had achieved his position of worldwide dictator through might and violence. He wanted to build the tower so that he, rather than God, could have total control of Heaven and Earth. The construction reflected this corrupt value system: it was said that if a worker fell off the tower, people hardly noticed, but if a brick fell, everyone wept. One can see that, in the midrash’s perspective, the project represented a complete perversion of priorities, valuing development over human life.

Worker’s Rights at Play

The same is true throughout much of the world. To use the U.A.E. as our example, it is a country with a towering economy that is kept intact by its migrant labor force which makes up as much as 80% of the country’s population. These “guest workers” do not have the opportunity to become citizens and have little political representation or access to social aid. They are the manual labor used for extravagant development projects rising out of the desert. They are employees who are denied access to the protections and generous benefits the oil-exporting state gives its citizens. Issues of immigrant labor forming the backbone of the workforce while being denied basic rights are familiar to countries around the world, including the United States.