A tanna recited before R. Nachman ben Isaac: "He who publicly shames his neighbor, it is as though he shed blood." Whereupon he remarked to him, "You speak the truth, because I have seen [such shaming]-- the ruddiness departing and paleness coming over [the victim]”… Rabbah ben Bar Chana said in R. Yochanan's name: "It is better for a man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman rather than to publicly shame his neighbor"… [David said before God] “…he who publicly puts his neighbor to shame has no portion in the world-to-come." (B.Baba Metzia 58b)
Strong words! For the Sages, human dignity trumps just about everything else. Then how is it that in this same discussion, a woman who prostituted herself -- and seduced her father-in-law with extortion in mind -- becomes the Rabbis’ example of piety, one who was willing to choose death for herself before she would publicly humiliate another?
Mar Zutra ben Tobiah said in Rab's name -- others state, R. Chana ben Bizna said in the name of R. Shimon the Pious -- others again state, R. Yochanan said on the authority of R. Shimon ben Yochai: "Better that a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly shame a neighbor." Whence do we know this? From Tamar, for it is written, ...when she was brought forward, she sent to her father-in-law...(Genesis 38:25)." (B.Baba Metzia 59a)
The back story: Judah’s firstborn son is Er. Judah marries him off to Tamar, but Er dies before having children, so Judah gives his second-born son, Onan to Tamar according to the law of levirate marriage. Onan refuses to impregnate Tamar:
Then Judah said to Onan, “Join with your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your brother.” But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and [God] took his life also.
(And yes, the term onanism, meaning coitus interruptus, derives from this story.)
As the Torah understands levirate marriage, it is Judah’s duty to give his third son, Shelah, to Tamar as a husband, but Judah does not fulfill his obligation because he fears for his son’s life.
Therefore, many years later, Tamar dresses as a harlot and waits along the route Judah will surely take to visit his sheepshearers. Judah takes the bait, but Tamar extracts a pledge for the payment Judah promises: his seal and cord, highly personal items. Tamar conceives and months later, when she was found to be pregnant, Judah says, Bring her out and let her be burned (Genesis 38:24). She is promised to Selah and although Judah has no intension of honoring their betrothal, Tamar is nonetheless about to be accused of adultery. Hypocrisy often knows no bounds.
Here is where the allusion to Tamar made by R. Yochanan (on the authority of R. Shimon ben Yochai) becomes clear. Rather than publicly reveal the identity of the man who impregnated her, Tamar sends the seal and cord to Judah privately, lest she humiliate him before his clan.
Judah recognized [the seal and cord], and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38:26)
Tamar chooses her own humiliation, and risks execution, to protect Judah from public humiliation. How many of us could do that?
When we speak of risk today, we are often speaking about financial investments and business ventures. Malcolm Gladwell tells us in “The Sure Thing” (New Yorker, 1/18/2010) that successful entrepreneurs avoid uncertainty and look for “the sure thing.” The image of risk-taking entrepreneurial cowboys is mythical. Warren Buffett has written, “I put a heavy weight on certainty. If you do that, the whole idea of a risk factor doesn't make any sense to me. Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing." (The Warren Buffet Way, 1994)
Outside the business world, risk-taking often involves ethical situations. Tamar knows what she was doing, and it involves an existential risk. Many of us say we would risk our lives to protect our loved ones, but how many of us would risk our lives to prevent another from public humiliation, or for some other ethical principle we cherish?
Tamar gives birth to Perez (Genesis 38:29), the direct ancestor of David (Ruth 4:18-20). King David was the mashiach (anointed one), the original model for our image of the messiah. Tamar is richly rewarded for her courageous, compassionate, and principled risk-taking, yet she has no way of knowing that she is the progenitor of the line of David, and as tradition holds, some day the messiah.
What risks are you willing to take, and for what principles? When would you be willing to risk your own life? While I hope none of us ever truly faces such a situation, it’s something to ponder.