This week I want to look at the two women in Judah’s life:
First, who did he marry? A בת איש כנעני, but that may not mean what we think it means:
Note the two prooftexts; the first associates the Canaanites with unethical business practices:
The second is neutral; כנעני is just a synonym for סוחר:
In English we have lots of words that come from ethnic stereotypes (mostly negative). This is the only one I know in תנ״ך, but it clearly is meant that way. כנעני means “peddler”, even about Jews:
But this use only shows up in תנ״ך after the Canaanites were defeated as a nation, in ספר שופטים. The gemara argues that this use of כנעני has to mean peddler since “obviously” Judah wouldn’t marry a real Canaanite! But that is a matter of dispute:
Nonetheless, Ramban argues that this interpretation is correct in context:
But note that we don’t know her name. And it seems that Judah didn’t really know her either. When she dies, he sits shivah and goes straight back to work.
This was a practical marriage, made for his father-in-law’s business interests. It’s not wrong, per se, but Judah could do better. He was the leader of the שבטי י־ה, the ancestor of דוד המלך and משיח.
We get the sense that after the sale of Joseph, Judah gives up his leadership and just goes into business.
בת שוע was the perfect wife for Judah’s new role. I’m sure she was a fine woman. But ה׳ did not want his to give up his true role and so the story turns to Tamar.
Who was Tamar? We have only one hint initially, שמה תמר. But that says something:
Rabbi Menachem Kasher understands this based on the midrash:
[I have seen the opposite explanation cited in the name of the Michtav Me-Eliyahu.]
So we have a textual hint that she was a צדקת. She created her name with her actions. The midrash mentioned that she was בתו של שם הגדול. Where does that come from?
Ramban points out that this is not a halachic derivation, but a textual, midrashic one:
Why does the midrash identify Tamar as the daughter of Shem? We have spoken before of the idea of “בית מדרשו של שם”:
Shem represents the “תורה” of בני נח, the idea that righteousness exists outside of the narrow confines of Jewish tradition. And that we see from Tamar’s actions:
She was a model of חסד, of דרך ארץ. That is what it means to be a בתו של שם.
There’s another story we need to look at that is strikingly similar:
The parallel is impossible to ignore: we have a non-Jewish woman, widowed from a Jewish man, attempting a spiritual יבום with his relative. The man is unaware of what is going on as she engages in what we would judge as inappropriate actions to ensnare him. And in the end, she is vindicated and is the ancestor of מלכות:
ספר רות makes the connection between Ruth’s marriage and King David explicit. The aggadah sees the same connection in our parasha:
These apparently unseemly relationships are seen as integral to the Jewish monarchy. Why?
Much has been written about this question (see, for instance, Rabbi Moshe Eisemann’s Music Made in Heaven). But I think it’s really an optical illusion.
What Tamar and Ruth have in common is not only that they are not Jewish, but they are paradigms of חסד. There is a lesson there: חסד is not unique to the Jews or to the given Torah. It is what we call דרך ארץ:
The Maharal explains what דרך ארץ is:
The illusion is in the fact that we only see the stories of two of the ancestors of מלכות. That’s the way תנ״ך works; if things are good, nothing is said.
מלכות without דרך ארץ is tyranny. Everyone, but especially a מלך, needs an עזר כנגדו that complements their strengths. There are 10 names in the list from יהודה until דוד. We only have the stories of two of their wives. I think that is because these are the two cases where things didn’t work out, and they needed the women (with Divine approval) to grab them by the throat and shake some sense into them.