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The Rabbis and Uppity Women

Richard McBee – 2004

             Uppity women are often thought of as the bane of the contemporary orthodox establishment.  All manifestation of feminism is considered in many right-wing orthodox communities as threateningly disruptive and frequently heretical, simply the first step to apostasy.  Nevertheless a gynocritical analysis of the parallel narratives of Tamar / Judah and Potiphar’s Wife / Joseph in light of rabbinic reactions will lead to a surprising understanding of the rabbinic point of view and a new perspective that provides a more complex and positive understanding of the biblical characters.

            Assertive women in the Hebrew Bible are hardly unusual.  Eve found it terribly difficult to passively obey Adam’s command, Sarah acted forcefully to oust Hagar and Ishmael while Rachel didn’t hesitate to abscond with her own father’s idols.  Tamar and Potiphar’s wife are two examples of assertive women that call out for special examination due to their textual proximity, the parallel nature of the texts in which they appear and the important consequences of their actions on future Jewish history.

            Genesis 38 and 39 are pivotal chapters that bring the narrative of Jacob and his family from the land of Canaan to the crucial exile in Egypt.  Genesis 38 seems at first to be a digression from the narrative of the sale of Joseph that began in chapter 37. The text focuses on Judah and his familial trials that the determined Tamar complicates.  Following this the text switches again back to the story of Joseph in the house of Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh.  These parallel texts seem at first to be simply setting the stage for future events, establishing a kind of literary foreground.  The disjunctive parallels will prove otherwise.

            After a superficial reading of the text the following themes emerge; Male desire, Female desire, Consummation and Consequences.

Male Desire:

Judah, thinking “her to be a harlot,” was sexually aroused. (38:15)

Joseph, “handsome and good looking (39:6) seems desirable and yet he is depicted as lacking desire, an innocent victim of Potiphar’s wife.

Female Desire:

Tamar is determined to secure a generative role in the family. Disappointed by being denied marriage to Shelah, changed her clothes and made herself sexually available; “covered herself with a veil and wrapped herself and sat in at the crossroads (38:14) posing as a harlot.

Potiphar’s wife is openly aggressive as she “cast her eyes on Joseph,” and implored him, “lie with me” and “spoke to Joseph day by day…to lie by her or to be with her.” (39:7 & 10).


Tamar demands a pledge of payment for her sexual services (38:17) and “he gave them to her and came in to her, and she conceived by him” (38:18).

Potiphar’s wife’s fails to have sex with Joseph even though “he went into the house to do his business…”  But “she caught him by his garment in her hand, and fled and got out” (39:12).  Infuriated, she accuses him of attempted rape.


Tamar is accused of illicit sexual behavior (38:24), is vindicated by the evidence of the individual, Judah, who impregnated her (38:25,26) and bears Perez, forbearer to David (38:29).

Potiphar’s wife is believed, Joseph is imprisoned, prospers (39:23) and through his dream interpretation is finally freed and becomes prime minister of Egypt.

            Evidenced by the outline above the two narratives unfold in poignant similarities and distinctions.  Both men were pursued by sexually aggressive women.  Tamar, the Jewess, was determined to become a part of the Judah’s clan by marriage and childbearing.  Potiphar’s wife, the non-Jew, simply lusted after the young good looking Joseph.  Tamar set a trap in order to mate with Judah just as Potiphar’s wife utilized a propitiously empty house to thrust herself upon Joseph.  Tamar is successful and is rewarded with important heirs while Potiphar’s wife fails in her sexual conquest of Joseph and disappears from the narrative.   From this simple text we shall see how the rabbis interpret.

Joseph’s Desire        

            The nature of the textual relationship between the two narratives is examined in the Talmud in Sotah 36b; “R. Hana b. Bizna said in the name of R. Simeon the Pious: Because Joseph sanctified the heavenly Name in private one letter was added to him from the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He; but because Judah sanctified the heavenly Name in public, the whole of his name was called after the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He. [all the letters in the Tetragramaton are found in Judah’s name]  How was it with Joseph [that he sanctified the Name]? As it is written, ‘And it came to pass about this time that he went into the house to do his work,’ R. Johanan said: This teaches that both [Joseph and Potiphar’s wife] had the intention of acting immorally. ‘…’ Rav and Samuel, one said that it really means to do his work; but the other said that he went to satisfy his desires.”

            First the Talmud establishes a fundamental relationship between the narratives in the enormously important matter of “sanctifying the Name,” meaning exposing one’s self to danger to avoid immorality and affirm heavenly sovereignty over one’s actions.  Judah risked public ridicule by admitting that Tamar’s pregnancy was his doing and Joseph risked the rage of an insistent woman (and that of her powerful husband) by refusing her advances.  Once this has been stated, though, the Talmud paradoxically questions the circumstances and intentions of Joseph’s actions.  The Sage Samuel states that Joseph entered the house with the intention of sleeping with his mistress.  His interpretation may be based on the textual use of “his work” that evokes work that is personally significant; i.e. fulfilling his sexual needs.

            The Midrash Tanhuma (Vayashev 9) accuses Joseph of even further complicity stating “and she seized him by the garment and went into bed with her.”  The Aggadot ha-Talmud (quoted by Kugel in footnote 4, pg 120) states that “the two of them went naked into bed.”

            The rabbis envision that Joseph’s desire (or weakness) was so great that he found himself naked in bed with his master’s wife who had propositioned him repeatedly. The Talmud proceeds in the narrative “ ‘And she caught him by his garment, saying…’ At that moment his father’s image came and appeared to him through the window and said, ‘Joseph, your brothers will have their names inscribed upon the stone of the ephod and yours with theirs; is it your wish to have your name erased form amongst theirs and be called an associate of harlots?’ ”

            The Talmud proposes that two elements were necessary to restrain the youthful Joseph; a startling image of his father Jacob and an equally convincing rationale, namely that your brothers who sold you and were willing to commit the sin of murder are nonetheless righteous enough to be remembered on the holy ephod ha mishpat while you may lose this honor by this sexual adventure. Both were necessary to snap Joseph out of his sexual passion and convince him to advance no further.

            Then the Talmud relates an astounding interpretation of what occurred.  “Immediately ‘his bow abode in strength’ – R. Johanan said in the name of R. Meir: that his strength subsided.”  The meaning, counter intuitive from the poetic and obscure text (Jacob’s blessing of Joseph at the end of his life) is that his erection subsided.  The next phrase of that verse is quoted that “And the arms of his hands were made active” meaning that “he stuck his hands in the ground so that his lust came out from between his finger-nails.”  Bereishit Rabba 87:7 offers an alternative apologetic version  in which Joseph enters the house intending to sin but finds himself flaccid and then (puzzlingly) scatters his seed issued through his finger-nails.

            It seems the Talmud understands that Joseph was so close to consummating his encounter with Mrs. Potiphar that, both of them naked in bed, he ejaculated on the ground instead of sinning with her.  The image of his fingers is understood as a metaphor for his penis.

            The Zohar Bereishit 1 ( 222a) seems to bring Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife to an even greater stage of intimacy as it relates that “and he thereupon resisted and withdrew. Hence it was that when Jacob came to bless Joseph’s sons he said: ‘I know, my son, I know.’ Repeating the word, as much as to say, ‘I know of the time when you proved in your own body that you were my son…’ ”   Joseph’s withdrawal can be understood in either a general or specific sense of coitus interuptus.  In either sense his ‘proof in his own body’ makes his experience as extremely physical as could be imagined.

            This passage in the Talmud encounters Joseph as a paradigm of righteousness, sanctifying God’s name in his refusal to succumb to sexual temptation even as it (and associated rabbinic sources) see Joseph as sexually driven and subject to a desire that was in fact almost consummated.   At the end of this incriminating passage the Talmud nonetheless declares that “Joseph was worthy that twelve tribes should issue from him as they issued from his father Jacob.”  Whatever one may learn from this passage one cannot but be impressed with the notion that the designation of righteousness is awarded to those who can somehow successfully, even if only barely, resist the most fundamental of impulses.



Judah’s Desire          

            Judah’s merit for sanctifying God’s name in public is actually based on an entirely totally different episode, that of crossing the Red Sea.  There his descendents are credited for being the first to plunge into the sea as Moses was about to miraculously part it in the crucial episode of the Exodus (Sotah 36b – 37a).

            His experiences in Genesis 38 are parallel and yet not, according to the Talmud, consummate to Joseph’s.  As summarized in Bereishit Rabba (85:3); “Judah went down; It was a descent for him, for he buried his wife and his sons” as clearly stated in the text.  Judah is enormously compromised in this ‘descent.’  He shamefully marries outside the clan, a non-Jewish Canaanite woman, who is the daughter of a business associate.  She gives birth to three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. After the tragic death of her first two sons Judah’s wife then dies.

            Judah re-emerges as the Midrash apologetically examines his encounter with Tamar at the crossroads.  “ ‘When Judah saw her..’ R. Aha said: A man should become familiar with his wife’s sister and with his female relations, so as not to fall into sin through any of them” (BR 85:8) This mild rebuke to Judah for not recognizing Tamar as his daughter-in-law is immediately mitigated by the Talmud that practically blames Tamar for his absentmindedness, commenting that Tamar was so modest while in his house she always kept her face covered.

            The rabbis, faced with a text that clearly describes Judah as an eager customer for paid sex, cannot countenance such a scenario.  Rather the Midrash (85:8) proceeds to describe how Judah initially walked right past the anomaly of a harlot with a covered face.  But it was not to be, therefore, “R. Johanan said; He wished to go on, but  the Holy One, blessed be He, made the angel who is in charge of desire appear before him, and he said to him: ‘Where are you going Judah?  Where then are kings to arise, where are the redeemers to arise?’  Thereupon ‘And he turned to her’ – in despite of himself and against his wish.”

            The Talmud and the Zohar are silent concerning Judah’s role except as it relates the need to recognize one’s female relatives.  Interestingly as Judah and Tamar haggle over the price for her services, Tamar suggests a pledge of “ ‘your signet and your cord and your staff’ R. Hunia said; A holy spirit was enkindled within her (BR 85:9)”  Her choice of these objects is understood as symbolically alluding to royalty, the Sanhedrin and the Messiah.  Here the rabbis valorize Tamar allowing a prophetic spirit to possess her even while the hint was lost on Judah in his lustful haste.  The clueless Judah is further mocked by the Midrash as it comments on “ ‘And Judah sent a kid of the goats…’ The Torah laughs at men.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Judah; ‘You did deceive you father with a kid of goats; by your life, Tamar will deceive you with a kid of goats.’”

            There are late attempts to explain Judah’s behavior, especially the Mizrachi (supercommentary on Rashi, by R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (1450-1525) who maintains that Judah actually married Tamar and that the kid that was sent was a wedding gift.  The MeAm Lo’ez (1689-1732) also goes to great lengths to justify Judah’s fornication.

Tamar’s Desire

            The text elaborates the loss of Judah’s two sons both of whom were married to Tamar.  His first son died because, as Bereishit Rabbah 85:4 states, “ ‘And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn…and Er,…was wicked in the sight of the Lord;’ – because he ploughed on roofs” a euphemism for anal intercourse.  The rabbis understand that Tamar’s first husband practiced ‘unnatural intercourse,’ equated with anal intercourse, because pregnancy would diminish her beauty.  Her second husband, Onan, practiced coitus interuptus, (or perhaps anal intercourse as well according to Yevamoth 34b) spilling his seed on the ground rather than impregnating her.  Tamar is depicted as an abused wife, tragically used by two husbands for their sexual pleasure without risking the procreation she fervently desired.    Tamar’s experience is depicted rabbinically as especially desperate.  Abused by two husbands as a sex object she is still convinced that she had an important role to play in the future of the Jewish people.  Her special destiny with the tribe of Judah is explicated in the Zohar Bereishit, 1; pg 188a, that states that: “since she was by nature chaste and modest. She was indeed virtuous and did not prostitute herself, and it was out of her deeper knowledge and wisdom that she approached Judah, and a desire to act kindly and faithfully (towards the dead). And it was because her act was based on a deeper knowledge that God aided her and she straightway conceived. So that it was all ordained [188b] from on high.”  So much so that the Zohar compares her to Ruth who also strived to build up the house of Judah.

            Her determination paradoxically made her especially vulnerable and therefore highlights her bravery in pursuing what she thought as prophecy.  As a daughter of Shem, (Bereishit Rabba, 85:10) the ancient guardian of Torah knowledge and a Cohen, she was liable to death by burning for the sin of harlotry.  And yet she proceeded to entrap Judah, convinced that this sexual strategy would be uniquely effective.   Luring him into the equivalent of incest she counted on his surfeit of sexual desire to practice what was clearly “unsafe sex.”

            Bereishit Rabba 85:7 lauds Tamar commenting on the verse “ ‘and covered herself with her veil,’  Two covered themselves with a veil and gave birth to twins, Rebekah and Tamar.”  The comparison with the matriarch is especially revealing.  Her use of blatant sexuality, to all appearances in fact playing the harlot to accomplish her ends is rabbinically blessed by the comparison with the matriarch Rebekah, another woman who schemed and deceived (fraudulently placing Jacob to obtain the blessing of the first born) to accomplish a ‘higher’ goal of advancing Jacob’s familial position.  Tamar even reassures Judah as to the halachic issues attendant to sex with strangers, as the Midrash says, “she opened his eyes by declaring to him, ‘ I am clean, and I am unmarried.’”  Tamar thus reassured Judah, son of the patriarch Jacob, so that she could have incestuous relations with her father-in-law.

Mrs. Potiphar’s Desire

            Mrs. Potiphar is no less determined to become impregnated by another potential leader of the Jews, the handsome Joseph.  Bereishit Rabba 85:2 links Tamar with her in the verse; “ ‘And it came to pass at that time,’ yet surely Scripture should have continued with, And Joseph was brought down to Egypt (39: 1)? R. Leazar said: This was done in order to bring two passages of ‘ descent’ together… R. Samuel b. Nahman said: In order to bring the stories of Tamar and Potiphar’s wife into proximity, thus teaching that as the former was actuated by a pure motive, so was the latter. For R. Joshua b. Levi said: She [Potiphar’s wife] saw by her astrological arts that she was to produce a child by him [Joseph], but she did not know whether it was to be from her or from her daughter.”

            While the Midrash accounts a pure purpose to Mrs. Potiphar’s quest it nevertheless finds itself at cross purposes, usually referring to her as bear or a she-bear who will punish Joseph measure for measure for his accusation against his brothers; “You said, ‘They looked at the daughters of the land,’ I will incite a bear against you” (BR 87:3). A further description of her characterizes her as simply wicked; “ ‘And she said: Lie with me.’ R. Samuel b. Nahman said; Accursed are the wicked!  In another passage [we find Ruth saying]. ‘Spread therefore your skirt over your handmaid,’ but this one [Potiphar’s wife] spoke like an animal, ‘Lie with me.’” (BR 87:4).

            The rabbis depict Potiphar’s wife as possessed with a determination seldom matched even in the pursuit of a commandment. She is willing to commit murder.            “ ‘Behold my master’ – [Joseph says] I am afraid of my master’ Then I will kill him,’ she urged. ‘Is it not enough that I should be counted in the company of adulterers, but I am to be counted among murderers too!’ he replied. Yet if you desire this thing, [sexual intimacy] ‘Behold my master’ –  there he is before thee! R. Isaac observed: The milk of white goats and the milk of black goats are one and the same!” [meaning that he is as good as I am] (BR 87:5).

            Her passion becomes breathlessly frantic, hunting him down; “Another interpretation: I am afraid of the Holy One, blessed be He. ‘ But He is not here,’ she urged. ‘ Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised’ (Ps. 48: 2), he answered.  R. Abin said: She drove him from room to room and from chamber to chamber, until she brought him to her bed. Above it was engraven an idol, which she covered with a sheet. [Joseph remarks] You have covered its face [for shame]; how much more then [should you be ashamed of] Him of whom it is written, ‘The eyes of the Lord, that run to and fro through the whole earth’ (Zech. 4:10)!”  And still she would not relent until she had convinced him to fornicate.

            The spectacle of Mrs. P chasing after this lad is embarrassing, evoking empathy for the adult wife of a powerful Pharonic official who is reduced to a panting after a 17 year old Jew.  She emerges from the rabbinic literature as a faithless wife who cannot contain herself.  The Talmud does explain an aspect of her frustration since her husband suffered castration as a result of purchasing Joseph. “ ‘And Potiphar, an officer of Pharoah’s bought him’, He bought him for himself (Rashi: for an immoral purpose, being inflamed by Joseph’s beauty), but Gabriel came and castrated him [Potiphar], and then Gabriel came and mutilated him for originally his name is written Potiphar but afterwards, Potiphera “ (Sotah; 13b).  Joseph’s presence has wreaked havoc in his master’s house, rendering Mrs. Potiphar’s husband into a eunuch and thereby depriving her of a sexual partner.  In the rabbinic mind she becomes simultaneously a victimizer and a victim of the same intruder.



            As is common in almost all rabbinic commentary the disjuncture between the biblical text and the rabbinic understanding represents the first necessary step to approaching the Biblical text. The rabbinic perspective normally deals with internal contradictions and confusions in the original text that demands explanation.  These interpretations of course reveal the opinions and prejudices of the rabbinic authors.  In these texts the meaning shifts are especially revelatory.

            The biblical text treats Joseph as an innocent if not somewhat hapless character.  He is young, prone to saying controversial things but nonetheless relatively passive as he is sold into servitude and then sought after by Potiphar’s wife. He piously protests her affections (39:8, 9) and finally must flee when she physically grasps his garment.  The rabbis see him as dramatically more active in the relationship.  He is sexually reckless, allowing himself physical intimacy with his master’s wife until a miraculous vision brings him to his senses.  At that juncture he has become so sexually aroused that he is forced to ejaculate on the ground, thereby committing an inadvertent sin of Onanism.  In the parallel text Judah’s son Onan is punished with Heavenly death for the same sin, there done intentionally.

            The rabbis have created a vexing problem by depicting Joseph’s righteousness as deriving from the very intensity of his passions.  Joseph is rabbinically canonized as a Tzadik by being depicted as being almost totally sinful.   Parenthetically the rabbis may be observing that there may only be a hairs breath of difference between a truly righteous individual and a sinner and such conflicting desires can easily be found in the same individual.

            The gynocritical may take this analysis even further, observing that Joseph is in fact a reckless and irresponsible character who is far from victimized by Mrs. Potiphar.  Her well meaning advances propel him into an advantageous position from which he can ascend to great power, which he does.  The Midrash even comments that Potiphar well understands that his wife’s accusations are false, but is forced to imprison Joseph “lest a sigma fall upon my children [that they might be the children of a harlot]” (BR 87:9).  Furthermore Mrs. Potiphar’s mistaken prophecy is actually fulfilled in that her adopted daughter, Asenath, the daughter of Shechem and Dinah (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, 50b. i. pg 288), becomes Joseph’s wife and mother to Ephraim and Menashe.  Mrs. Potiphar, far from fading into obscurity, is Joseph’s mother-in-law and grandmother to his children, the progenitors of two tribes of the Jewish people.  The wicked witch (or she-bear) is redeemed.

            Judah and Tamar present a similarly complex relationship.  The biblical innocence and prosaic stumbling of Judah is rabbinically revealed to be a harrowing descent into the sexual sin of incest (albeit unintentional) and teetering on the brink of an unjust execution.  The rabbis need to invoke Heavenly intervention to arouse him in order to justify Judah’s roadside tryst.  Appealing to his vanity and illusions of future grandeur as a sire of kings and redeemers Judah is sexually aroused, agrees to an exuberant price (a goat is a very valuable commodity) and quickly engages in anonymous intercourse. The rabbis see Judah as largely out of control even as they attempt to excuse his behavior.

            Tamar, a shadowy figure in the biblical text, who is mainly passive except for her extraordinary disguise and bargaining, is rabbinically depicted as an abused and desperate woman.  She knowingly commits the sin of incest and risks her own death to fulfill a prophetic vision of producing the antecedents to the House of David.  Her valorization by the rabbis may point to their interest in canonizing her as a matriarch of kings and progenitor of the Messiah.

            We may extend our reading of this narrative to substantially reassess the characters of Tamar and Judah.  Judah emerges as especially shallow and sexually driven.  His “descent” becomes an awesome punishment and warning against fraternal strife.  Seen in a sexual context he is the consummate user of others, treating Tamar as an object to be discarded once utilized.  After this episode and his reprieve of Tamar, there is evidence that he seems to have abandoned her yet again.  His sense of familial responsibility is minimal at best.  Tamar stands in remarkable contrast as an individual who struggled to fulfill her destiny within the familial system and once frustrated there, bravely turned to non-normative means to achieve her sacred purpose.

            Tamar and Mrs. Potiphar are extraordinary characters, deeply self-conscious of their historical and familial roles.  They provide a role model of women who are willing to do almost anything to fulfill their creative destiny within the Jewish people.  As paradigmatic Jewish heroines, they are the finest examples of truly uppity women.



The Tanach, D. Mandel, New York, The Soncino Press.

The Soncino Talmud, Sotah. Trans. Rev. Dr. A. Cohen. London, The Soncino Press, 1985.

Bereishit Rabba, (Midrash Rabbah), trans. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, New York, The Soncino Press, 1983.

The Soncino Zohar. London, The Soncino Press, 1984.

Midrash Tanhuma, trans. John T. Townsend, Hoboken, Ktav Publishing, 1989.

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer. Trans. Gerald Friedlander. North Stratford, NH, Ayer Company Publishers, 2004 (originally published London, 1916).

MeAm Lo’ez. Trans. Aryeh Kaplan. New York, Maznaim Publishing, 1977.

Kugel, James. In Potiphar’s House. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1990.

Gender and Judaism

Elliot R. Wolfson


Richard McBee

December 23, 2004

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