That headline is not an antisemitic rant. It’s all in the Holy Bible. You may believe that God dictated the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and that he inspired the rest of Tanach. You may have your doubts, but accept the written word as the foundational document of Judaism, or of the Jewish people. You may have Christian or Islamic takes on the text. But it’s all there. Jews are descended from Judah, father of the Jewish tribe. And Judah was an unwitting accomplice in a forbidden sexual encounter with a fake harlot, who was really his daughter-in-law.
Just to remind you: Judah was one of the 12 tribes and the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. Judah married a Canaanite woman and they had three sons. The eldest, Er, married Tamar, who presumably was also Canaanite, though the text (Genesis 38) does not specify that. Er died young and childless. Judah then instructed his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar, so she could produce a male child who would continue his brother’s lineage. This is called a levirate marriage, from the Latin word for brother-in-law, permitted later in the Torah for the same purpose – to carry on the “name.” Carrying on Er’s lineage would also entitle a son born to Tamar to receive the double portion that Er was entitled to as the eldest child of Judah.
Onan, maybe because he would lose out on that double portion to Tamar’s son – the Bible doesn’t really explain why – “spilled his seed on the ground.” For this, God punishes him with an early death. (But Onan did gain a measure of eternity, since the act of spilling seed is known as “onanism” in Hebrew, English and many other languages.)
That left the youngest son, Shelah. But Judah considered Tamar a jinx, and feared for young Shelah’s life. He sent her back to her father, to stay “until Shelah grew up” – which was just a stalling tactic. Meanwhile, the years went by and Judah’s wife died. Judah set out to oversee the sheep-shearing. Tamar was anxious to have a child. She set a trap for Judah, posing on his route as a prostitute, who, as done in those days, kept her face covered. Judah the widower seeks comfort in the arms of “the harlot.”
Now the next episode, like a magnificent teledrama, shows Judah not having brought money with him to pay her. He promises to send her a “kid” (a baby goat). The not-recognized Tamar asks for a guarantee, as a pledge that would be returned when she would receive the kid. She asked for and received his signet, his cords and his staff.
Judah kept his word and sent a man and a baby goat back to the scene of the transaction, but he could not find the prostitute. After about three months, Tamar’s pregnancy began to show. Judah heard that his daughter-in-law had sinned, and ordered her brought to him for her fit punishment: to be burnt. She came to him, and with delicacy – without mentioning her father-in-law’s name – said, “The man to whom these (signet, cords and staff) belong is the father.” Judah admitted his guilt: “She is more righteous than I am, for I withheld Shelah from her.”
Tamar, her honor redeemed, gives birth to twins. The one twin shows his hand first and an identifying cord is placed on it, but the other, pushes him aside and arrives first. Accordingly, he is called Peretz, meaning the one who broke through.
This entire tale, that could make an epic number of seasons of Netflix, is told in 30 mostly short sentences.
What can we learn from this? We see that Judah was human and a man of the world, and rich enough not to carry money on him. He was a solicitous father, who had lost two bad sons, and wanted to save his third and last from death by marrying a “noxious” woman. He was fair, because he freely admitted his off-the-road interchange. He also, righteously, acknowledged that Tamar’s entrapment was quite proper. He was to blame because he had postponed her levirate rights with Shelah. Tamar was a woman in a man’s world who was deprived of her rights, so won by righteous deceit.
We’ll return to Judah, Tamar and Peretz later. But now, let us take a fresh look at the pastoral story of Ruth, the Megillah reading on Shavuot. For starters, the Megillah is written in a seemingly archaic Hebrew fitting to the book of Judges. But there are telltale slips scholars point to that show it was written later. The names of the main characters are all symbolic. Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law’s name, means “the pleasant one.” Her two sons who die young (sound familiar?) are named Mahlon, “sickly,” and Chilion, “finished off.”
The daughter-in-law who returns to Moab is Orpah, “showing the back of her neck,” that is who turned her back on Naomi. Ruth is a short form of Reut, which means “friendship, closeness.”
The story line, etched in four brief chapters, tells of Naomi and her husband Elimelech, from Efrat-Bethlehem flee the famine to Moab (Jordan today). There Elimelech dies, and later so do her two sons, who had married Moabite women. Naomi decides to go home to Bethlehem, and tells her two daughters-in-law to return to their families. Oprah takes her advice. Ruth in the oft-quoted statement of loyalty and love, says: “Wherever you go, I will go; and where you stay, I will stay. Your people are my people, and your God – my God. Where you die will I die…. Only death will come between us.”
On their return, Naomi and Ruth are impoverished; Ruth supports them by gleaning the barley left behind by the harvesters. The field belongs to the solid citizen called Boaz, who is a relative of Elimelech and takes note of the “Moabite damsel.” She works in his field right through the later wheat harvest.
Naomi counsels Ruth to sleep on the threshing floor where Boaz sleeps, presumably to guard his wheat. She ends up under his cloak, and explains that since he is a relative of her late father-in-law, he should have no qualms about their somewhat premature relations. Boaz tells Ruth he will do the right thing, as it were, and sends her home before daybreak to protect her good name.
In the finale, Boaz “redeems” her, in a kind of levirate ceremony, and he takes “Ruth, the Moabite” as his wife. They have a son whom Naomi helps raise. He is called Obed, and his son, Jesse, is the father of King David.
The Book of Ruth ends by tracing the genealogy of King David all the way back to Judah and Tamar’s son Peretz, naming each “begat” until Boaz, Obed and Jesse. That’s where Judah-Tamar are linked to Boaz-Ruth.
The Book of Ruth carries one basic message. King David himself, the founder of his line and symbol of Israel’s greatness is descended from a Moabite woman.
The Torah explicitly forbids marrying a Moabite “even unto the tenth generation.” (Deuteronomy 23:3) The rabbis of the Talmud, always on the alert to round corners, explain that the word for Moabite is masculine (moavi); thus a female (moaviah) would be permissible. But the rabbis were cautious about the Megillah or Book of Ruth really belonging to the period of Judges. It placed the book in the third part of the Bible: Ketuvim (Writings). This may show that the rabbis who set the Biblical canon also had their doubts about when it was written.
This should also bolster the modern scholarly theory that Ruth was written as a polemic for mixed marriage, which was forbidden by Ezra the Scribe after the return from the Babylonian exile in 539 BCE. Ezra tells the returnees to put away their foreign wives (who worship foreign gods) and the writer of Ruth says, in effect: “Ezra, what are you talking about? King David is descended from his great-grandfather’s mixed marriage. And I’ll go you one better, all descendants of our tribal father Judah are the result of a mixed marriage. Worse than that! Both Judah and Boaz were seduced. Don’t act so pure!”
Of course, people can take pride in two tough but loyal women who manipulated their men, as did the matriarchs before them. I concur. Furthermore, the Orthodox rabbis who wrap themselves into the holy cloak of separation of the genders and who set stumbling blocks before those who wish to convert should reread the Bible. They then just might follow the examples of those brave rabbis who wish to ease the way to conversion.
Judah-Tamar and Boaz-Ruth tell us clearly: Mixed marriages are part of Jewish history. In our Israeli and Diaspora societies today, it cannot be stopped. We had mixed marriage, and even pretend harlots and premarital sex among our textual forebears.
Shouldn’t we all, rabbis and laypeople, also be forbearing and welcoming?
The writer is a Jerusalemite who loves Jewish learning, which guided him in his various careers in the service of the Jewish people and its leaders in Israel. firstname.lastname@example.org