Parashat Vayeshev

Tamar & the Sex Trade

Sex workers--like Tamar--are fueled by cycles of sexism and poverty.

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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.

Systemic Change

But executing Tamar will not end the sex trade or Judah's involvement with her, nor will it rectify the situation that brought Tamar to use her sexuality to fulfill an economic need. In our contemporary context, the same holds true. While individuals and governments alike demonize and punish women, it is the eradication of the oppressive systems that is needed. We must make systemic changes addressing the root of the problem to ensure women's economic equality and strength.

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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.