There is no better example of this than Judah and Tamar. Although her “air time” in the text is short, Tamar plays a pivotal role in one of Genesis’ most amazing character transformations.
We meet Judah as Joseph’s conniving and greedy older brother. When the brothers scheme to kill their younger brother Joseph, Judah, says, “What profit is there in that? Let’s sell him as a slave instead! (Genesis 37:26-27)”
But when the Joseph story reaches its climax, the man who callously sold his brother as a slave has repented so thoroughly of his horrible deed, that he is now willing to remain a slave to Joseph so that his younger brother Benjamin can go free. (Genesis 44:18-34)
What transformed Judah? It is important to note the chief biblical catalyst for Judah’s metamorphosis was his daughter-in- law, Tamar. Tamar was the wife of Judah’s late, eldest son, Er. According to the custom of levirate marriage (a childless widow would marry her husband’s brother and bear a child in his name), Tamar married Er’s brother, Onan. When he also died, Judah feared the same fate would befall his third son, Shelah. In a misguided effort to save his son’s life, Judah broke his promise and did not give Tamar to Shelah in marriage. Instead, Judah sent Tamar to live as a widow in her father’s home.
Sometime later, after Judah’s own wife dies, and Tamar realized that Judah has allowed her to languish in widowhood; Tamar acted with great courage and resolve. She disguised herself as a prostitute and tempted Judah to have relations with her. As a result, she became pregnant.
When he learned that Tamar was pregnant, Judah was incensed. Yet, when she showed him proof that Judah himself had impregnated her, he was forced to admit, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Genesis 38:26).
Although she does not gain a full measure of justice, Tamar refused to be a passive victim of the system, as it then existed. She showed fortitude and courage. She was willing to risk the consequences in order to stand against injustice. Sharon Pace Jeansonne wrote: “Dissatisfaction can either paralyze people or encourage them to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Tamar, fueled by her own resolve to struggle for what she believed in, never gave up” [Sharon Pace Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 106].
Tamar’s courage not only earned her the offspring she craved, but it also transformed Judah from villain to a hero so worthy that our people bear his name.
The sensitivity and empathy that Judah learned at “The Yeshiva of Tamar” enabled him to change the course of biblical history. Only when we learn to change, repent and try to repair our wrongdoings as Judah did do we become worthy practitioners of “Judah-ism.”