“A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read.” Rabbi Hisdah, Babylonian Talmud,Ber. 55b
By now enough of Genesis has gone by to hear repetitions, resonances, and echoes. Studying Torah this week raises questions about method: how we go about the process of reading our text, the ways in which the system of divisions, which function on a practical level, to enable the book to be shared over the course of a year (or three, depending on whether one uses the Babylonian or Palestinian cycle).
Parshah Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) is the 9th portion of Genesis. The “Joseph Cycle” is underway, and the narrative gains momentum as it rolls toward the next book, Exodus – what most Jews would consider the “point” of Torah. So what happens? The patriarchal narrative proceeds – is constructed forward, rather like the railroads of the 19th century, log by log and rail by rail, with three principal lengths: Joseph and his brothers, Judah and Tamar, and Joseph, Potiphar, and Potiphar’s wife.
Joseph is introduced. Favored youngest son of a favored wife – he tattles on his older brothers, who hate him. Joseph dreams of ruling them all, and they despise him more. Eventually, some of them plot to remove him. Joseph may, or may not, have been led to his brothers and their flocks in Shechem by an angel. Leah’s son Judah persuades the brothers not to kill Joseph, who conspire to sell him to the Ishmaelites, and then trade him to Midianite merchants. Joseph’s disappearance is attributed to an attack by wild animals, and Jacob mourns over his favorite son’s bloodied polychrome cloak.The Midianites take young Joseph to Egypt and sell him to the Pharoah’s chamberlain, Potiphar. (Genesis 37:1-36).
Joseph’s story is interrupted by the story of Judah and Tamar. After Joseph’s “disappearance”, Judah “went down” and married a local, Canaanite woman (like his uncle, Esau). Judah has three sons – Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er also marries a local woman, Tamar, but dies before she bears children. In accordance with tradition, Tamar is married to Onan, who “spills his seed” rather than produce a child for his brother’s legacy. For this offense against familial duty, God dispatches Onan. Fearing that his daughter is a “black widow”, Judah sends Tamar back to her family to wait until Shelah is of marriageable age. When Judah fails to recall her, Tamar pursues her right to procreate independently: disguised as a roadside prostitute, Tamar pursues sexual relations with her recently-widowed father-in-law, for a price secured by collateral – Judah’s staff and seal. The encounter results in a pregnancy, which exposes her Tamar to condemnation for prostitution. Tamar averts the threat of death (at the stake!) by producing Judah’s staff and seal. Tamar’s pregnancy yields yet another pair of twins, who also vie for priority at birth, but the “younger” of the infants overtakes the gate (Genesis 38:1-30).
Joseph’s trials return to the fore – with God’s favor, all that Joseph touches is successful, and his master Potiphar trusts hims entirely. Joseph’s beauty attracts the attention of Potiphar’s wife, who spitefully accuses Joseph of attempted rape when he refuses to violate Potiphar’s trust and rejects her advances. Imprisoned, Joseph succeeds again, and gains charge of the other prisoners. Jacob interpets the dreams of two fellow-prisoners, the Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker. Both are released, and receive the treatment Joseph read from their dreams.
During my last conversation about the week’s portion, I was told that I should skip over the story of Judah and Tamar, since it was entirely unrelated to the Joseph cycle. Typically, discussion of this parshah focuses on Joseph, that he was spoiled, that the family was dysfunctional, whether he was led to his brothers and the pit by an angel in the desert, whether this was some sort of payment for the slaughter of the men of Shechem, his prophetic ability to interpret dreams, his modesty in the face of success, his refusal of Potiphar’s wife. Having spent some time looking through the discussions of Vayeshev, I found only a couple that dealt with Tamar’s experience: one that read the narrative of Tamar’s twins as a a metaphor of divine asistance offered and withdrawn. The other honored her for her decision to join the “blessed” people, for saving the blessing for Judah, for forcing Judah to take on the parental responsibilities of his sons, from which he later takes responsibility for his own brothers (when all are reunited in Egypt – coming soon).
With the approach of Hanukkah and all the Zionist jingoism it prompts (at least since creation of the state of Israel), I’m especially sensitive to the “nation-building” march through Torah, which proceeds from patriarch to patriarch, covenant to covenant (or land grant to land grant). My interest is not feminist – I’m not particularly troubled by the apparent chauvinism motivating attention to Joseph rather than Tamar. What concerns me is the narrow concentration on Joseph’s sensational story, so familiar from Sunday school, and movies, and broadway shows, so important to the mythology of nation that informs Jewish identity – this focus, and our obeisance to the formal divisions of the text into verse, chapters, and parshot – prevent us from exploring the text in ways that might yield new meaning. We stop listening for the repetitions, resonances, and echoes.
What if we studied Torah as if it were a fugue, or the first movement of a symphony? Why not try to identify themes and motifs that stated, repeated (in a new key), varied, returned (in the home key? in another key?). Why not attend to the function of new thematic material, seemingly dropped into the middle of the development section? Why not reach backwards, to earlier material, even a lot of earlier material? How can we make sense of the particular now – even the parts that don’t seem to fit the theme – if we don’t account for what’s already happened. The pleasure of knowing a sonata well includes both the pleasure of familiarity (with themes, figures, harmonies), but also surprises and anticipation, the new meaning acquired by previously-heard strains when they return.
With respect to Parshah Vayeshev, this means taking the Judah-Tamar episode seriously. Within the portion, we are given two sexual episodes to work through. And earlier – we’ve seen husbands offer wives as sisters to local rulers (Abraham & Sarah, twice, and Isaac and Rebecca), a son bed his child-bride in his mother’s tent (Isaac & Rebecca), brothers slaughter a community for the purported honor of a sister (Dinah & Shechem). Compromising sexual situations are a theme, and there may be others: water rights and territorial control are implicated in the various sexual narratives. Do these themes work together, and how? What do they say about gender politics in Jewish tradition? Do they speak to connections between water rights and rights to women? Are the struggles for the bodies of women tied to the battles for territory? Are the promises between men and women connected to the covenants with God? What are we to make of the narratives of exogamy? I’m keeping my ear tuned to Judah’s frequency. I’m listening for the counter-themes of life among Canaanites.
The recurring themes I hear may simply be the constellation of epic motifs we should expect from a text as old, and epic, as Genesis. I hear echoes of Homer in the trials of the patriarchs. I expect the overtones would be richer were my knowledge of ancient near-eastern literature more extensive. I’m interested in understanding the place of Genesis in the music of antiquity; worrying, again and again, about family dysfunction, or Potiphar’s wife, renders Vayeshev monotonous, a crabbed and isolated voice.
So I want to know whose dream is read, or left unread? The baker’s? The cupbearer’s? Whose music is unheard? The text’s? The “redactors’ “? The reader’s?