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Wily Women: Dr. Gila Vachman on Parashat Vayeishev

Dr. Gila Vachman
| 23/12/2019
Ethics
Jewish Law
Shavua Tov @ Schechter
Women & Gender

In Parashat Vayeishev, Tamar tricks Judah into helping her conceive an heir. Later on, Joseph, after defying his Egyptian master Potiphar’s wife, is thrown into jail, where he interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker.

Dr. Gila Vachman, lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, explores the connection between Tamar and Potiphar’s wife, two women using their feminine initiative to achieve their goals. What was the difference between them?

Full transcription below:

Is a feminine initiative, a woman using her charm or even her body, a good thing or a sign of immodesty? Does the Torah encouraged such an act or does it condemn it?

In Parshat Vayeishev, we read about two women: Tamar and Potiphar’s wife. Both act in uncommon ways to achieve their goals. Both use their bodies to reach what they want to do.

The first woman is Tamar. She comes from Canaanite origins and is taken as a wife to two of Yehudah’s sons. After they died, Yehudah sends her home to sit and wait for his third son to grow up. But he never sends for her.

Another woman might have silently accepted this bitter fate, but not Tamar. Tamar decides to act. She dresses up as a prostitute and seduces Yehudah. She gets pregnant and when he finds out without knowing he’s the father, he sends her to be killed. Tamar hints to him that the children she is bearing are his and when Yehudah acknowledges this he marries her and from this pair will emerge David, the king of Israel. This is probably a sign that Tamar was doing good.

Immediately, afterward.  We hear the story about Yosef and Potiphar’s wife.  It seems there is no connection between the two stories. One of them tells about Yehudah’s family and the other one tells about Yosef in Egypt.

But I think that Torah put these two stories together in order to teach us something.  Eshet Potiphar, Potiphar’s wife, seems to be a mirror image of Tamar, she does a very similar thing. She also uses her charm and her body to seduce Yosef but when he refuses, she falsely accuses him and throws him to jail. What a difference between Potiphar’s wife and Tamar.  Potiphar’s wife is acting out of selfish goals, trying to seduce in a very explicit way. When she fails, she throws Yosef into jail.

So, we can see this is sort of a twisted mirror image and we don’t even know Potiphar’s wife’s name. What the Torah is telling us is that the same act of feminine initiative, of a woman using her body could be a bad thing when it is done out of selfish motives, without respect. But when it is done out of noble motives it is well worthy of praise.

Dr. Gila Vachman studied at the Hebrew University where she received a BA (cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew literature, an MA (cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah as well as a PhD. She is a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the Hebrew University. Born in Kibbutz Yavne, married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.

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