Vayeishev Sermon 2017

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Vayeishev Sermon 2017

Cantor David Frommer

So, tell me if this story sounds familiar. A powerful person, well known in our Jewish community, commits sexual indiscretions with a powerless victim at will, but condemns the victim when their involvement threatens the offender’s honor and prestige. Who are we talking about here? Producers Harvey Weinstein and Bret Rattner, or actor Jeffrey Tambor, from the entertainment industry? Senator Al Franken or former Congressmen Anthony Weiner from elected office? Conductor James Levine from the arts?

Unfortunately, all those answers would be technically correct but, in this case, we’re talking about a pair of characters from a bit farther back in history. From all the way back in our Torah Portion of this week, Parshat Vayeisheiv, in fact. The two characters are different in every way, from their gender to their cultural background, but they share one unfortunate feature in common: they both abuse their power over someone who is vulnerable, and then attempt to blame their victims when faced with the consequences of their actions. These two characters are Potiphar’s wife, known in Jewish lore by the unfamiliar name of Zuleika, and our patriarch Jacob’s fourth son, known by the much more familiar name of Judah. 

We all recognize that the problem of sexual misconduct, though seemingly simple, is actually frustratingly persistent and complex. And though a ten-minute sermon can hardly do it justice, this Torah portion in particular does offer some valuable lessons that are worth considering as we navigate the debate on this subject in our broader, secular society.

In our first example, we consider Potiphar’s wife, Zuleika. Joseph encounters Zuleika after he is sold by Judah and the rest of his brothers into slavery, where he ends up serving as Potiphar’s chief steward.

“Joseph was of beautiful form, and fair to look upon,” the parsha tells us. “And it came to pass that his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph; and she said: 'Lie with me.' But he refused.” When Zuleika’s verbal advances are rebuffed, she becomes physical and grabs Joseph by his clothes, but he escapes, leaving her with his torn garment in her hand.

Now, with her own virtue compromised by this incriminating evidence, Zuleika seeks to discredit Joseph by slandering him to her husband and the other men in the house. “See, a Hebrew came to me to lie with me,” she says, “and as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment by me, and fled.”

This story, like the issue of sexual misconduct itself, is more complex than it initially seems. On the one hand, it seems a classic example of the old, patriarchal tale where a righteous man must prove his worthiness by resisting them temptations of a female seductress. But on the other hand, it seems like an ancient admission of the very modern sensibility that women can be the perpetrators of sexual misconduct themselves, just as men can be the victims.

The Midrash, rabbinic commentaries on the Biblical text, further shade the picture. Zuleika, they argue, actually acted out of confusion. This seems a bit far-fetched, but here’s where the rabbis are coming from. Zuleika, they imagined, believed she had interpreted a prophecy that she was to produce a child by Joseph, and so she pursued him according to this understanding. As it happened, she was both correct, but also mistaken. It was, in fact, her daughter, whom the rabbis believed Joseph later married and fathered children with, not Zuleika herself. While the stories of many offenders like Harvey Weinstein fall far beyond the pale of misunderstanding, those of others like Al Franken, as well as stories emerging from college campuses, speak to an environment in which confusion abounds between humor and harassment, or consent and coercion. Judging Zuleika more favorably than the text might warrant, the ancient rabbis are sensitive to the fact that actions in these situations are sometimes spurred by misunderstanding.

The rabbis also derive two other lessons from the story of Joseph and Zuleika. The first is that not all accusations are true. They note that a slave who assaulted his master’s wife would traditionally have been punished with death, but Potiphar chooses to merely have Joseph imprisoned. He seems caught in the middle, unable to ignore the evidence before him, but also suspicious that perhaps he is missing information, and that the accusation was motivated by passion or malice. The second lesson they derive is one of humility. Noting that the text specifies how handsome Joseph was, Medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimchi, the RaDaK, explains that Zuleika was so overcome by her desires that she risked everything to satisfy them, ignoring both reason and morality. And while most people do not succumb to such desires, it’s not because they haven’t had them. The rabbis warn us that, though we must mete out justice for those who are guilty of such transgressions, we must tread carefully, lest we forget how easily any of us could fall prey to the same impulses.

The story of Joseph and Zuleika reminds us that victims might not look like what we expect, that not all accusations are always true, and that we must maintain a healthy humility even as we fight for justice.

What, then, of our story about Judah? For most of the final chapters in Genesis, the main narrative revolves around Judah’s more famous brother, Joseph. But in our parsha, Vayeisheiv, Judah comes to the fore as the central character in a separate tale that is both sadly familiar these days but also refreshingly different.
Judah, our parsha recounts, married and had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. He selects a wife, Tamar, for his eldest son, Er, but Er was wicked in the eyes of God and God caused him to die. In ancient Israelite society, the primacy of the first-born son continued even after his death, and all family resources would be mobilized to ensure his line through the law of levirate marriage. This law required the deceased son’s brother to marry his widow and produce children in his memory. Er’s brother Onan, however, disobeys this law by secretly refusing to impregnate Tamar, so God causes his death as well. At this point, Judah believes that Tamar has been the cause of his sons’ deaths, and transgresses the law himself by refusing to marry her to his last remaining son, Shelah.

Tamar, seeking to obey the law and preserve Judah’s line at all costs, disguises herself as a prostitute and entices Judah to sleep with her, in exchange for personal effects like his staff and his ring. The next morning, Tamar has disappeared, and Judah is none the wiser, but several weeks later, she is revealed to be pregnant and brought before Judah in a public tribunal. Seeing evidence of her pregnancy, Judah orders her burned alive, but Tamar produces his personal effects, proving to everyone that the father is none other than Judah himself. At this moment, Judah not only admits his guilt, but praises Tamar for her courage. “She is more righteous than I,” he publicly proclaims, “forasmuch as I gave her not to Shelah my son.”

She is more righteous than I. We’ve heard a lot of vague and half-hearted apologies these days, when we’ve heard them at all, but what we haven’t heard are many public acknowledgments by the perpetrators that their victims are superior in righteousness, as Judah does. And yet how much do any words short of that really mean? The first lesson of Judah and Tamar’s story is the importance of accountability, not avoidance. She is more righteous than I.

But accountability is the easy lesson in this story. The hard lesson is that swift reaction might be satisfying, but due process will often be more just. It is no accident that the presence of court proceedings, however rudimentary, result in Tamar’s deserved acquittal, whereas the absence of due process results in Joseph’s undeserved conviction. Judaism has understood the importance of law since its very inception, striving to perfect its legal systems starting with the Torah and continuing through the Talmud and all the legal codes that followed. Of particular concern to the rabbis were cases of capital punishment, and they ultimately enacted so many safeguards around the process of conviction that most scholars believe such the death penalty was never actually enacted. We must honestly ask ourselves whether, for a religion that equates gossip with murder, if we haven’t lost a bit of that caution in our national, social-media fueled reactions to news of improprieties and allegations. And if that is the case, then it is up to us, as Jews, to recalibrate the conversation.

“We need to make sure the people accused believe there’s due process,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and one of the most prominent female executives in Silicon Valley, said in an interview. “There will be claims that aren’t true, and if people feel there’s going to be no process for vetting, that’s where the backlash against women comes.”

But, Ms. Sandberg added, the opportunity to address what women commonly face cannot be allowed to slip away. Sexual harassment “has always been about power,” she said. “We cannot have a rash of people coming out and people getting fired and then back to business as usual.”

That then, is our charge. This week, Time Magazine named as their person of the year the women who courageously brought their stories forward with the hashtag #metoo. In their honor, let us pursue justice as boldly as Tamar, seeking the highest accountability of Judah, but with the wisdom of sages like the Radak and Sheryl Sandberg maintain our perspective and humility. The problem is complex, but guided by our Jewish values, let us never underestimate our power to be a force for good in this world, especially to those who need it most.