Vayeshev 5771

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Scott Greenberg

Can a girl ask a guy to prom? I was having this discussion today with a group of my friends at lunch. Even though prom is months away and the issue was completely theoretical, we were split on the issue, and the discussion became heated. While some of the guys had an “over my dead body” reaction and proclaimed that they would never say yes if a girl asked them to prom, other guys seemed fine with letting the girls take the initiative.

Surprisingly, the girls were divided as well. Most argued that the concept of the male asking the female to prom was a sexist, 1950s conception of gender roles which doesn’t belong in today’s equal opportunity culture. However, some of the girls stated that they like being asked to prom and preferred not to have to take the initiative.

What would the Tanach say about this issue? Well, we know that the Tanach was given in a very male-centric culture, where women played a marginal role in the society. Thus, you’d expect that in the Tanach, men always initiate relationships with women, and not the other way around.

Surprisingly, that’s not always true. While Jacob does work 14 years for Rachel, Ruth also sneaks into Boaz’s room at night. While Shechem rapes Dinah, Delilah also pursues Samson. The relationships of the Tanach are split between those initiated by men and those initiated by women.

In fact, in this week’s parashah, Vayeshev, we see, right next to each other, two relationships that are initiated by women, in Genesis 38 and 39.

The first of these episodes is the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah, one of Jacob’s 12 sons, has three sons himself: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er marries a woman named Tamar, but he dies. Tamar marries Er’s brother Onan, but Onan dies as well. It’s Shelah’s turn to marry Tamar, but he isn’t grown up yet, so Judah tells Tamar to wait. But, even when Shelah is grown up, Judah holds back from letting Shelah marry Tamar (because after all, the first two had died!). So Tamar dresses up as a prostitute and waits on the side of a road for Judah to come by. Judah is tempted, so he and his daughter in law sleep together. Here is a relationship, initiated by the woman.

The second of these episodes is the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph. Joseph (Judah’s brother) has been brought to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. Joseph quickly rises up to become Potiphar’s most trusted servant, the overseer of all the goings-on in Potiphar’s household. Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Joseph, so she asked him to have sex with her. Joseph, mindful of his master and of God, refused to lie with her. In a rage, Potiphar’s wife told her husband that Joseph had tried to seduce her, and Joseph is thrown in jail. But this too is another sexual encounter initiated by a woman.

These two stories are literally right next to each other in the Torah, and it begs us to compare and contrast them. Yes, both have a woman who tries (or succeeds at) seducing a son of Jacob into having sex. But the two relationships couldn’t be more different.

What’s Tamar’s motivation in having sex with Judah? It’s plain and simple: she wants a child. Her first two husbands have died, and she can’t marry another. The midrash sees her yearning to have a child with Judah specifically, because she saw prophetically that his descendants would be the leaders of Israel someday. Tamar’s motives are pure, and she succeeds in having a relationship with Judah. And, lo and behold, one of the descendants of that relationship was… King David!

What was Potiphar’s wife’s motivation in trying to seduce Joseph? One hint is from the verse: “She cast her eyes upon Joseph.”

This implies that Potiphar’s wife was physically attracted to Joseph’s looks. She was cheating on her husband because she had found a young and good-looking slave. It’s true that a midrash says that Potiphar’s wife wanted to share in the line of Joseph just like Tamar wanted a share in the line of Judah, but there seems to be little support in the text for this. The bottom line is that Potiphar’s wife’s motives are much more base, and she fails in seducing Joseph.

What can we learn from this? The Torah seems to be cool with women starting relationships with men. But, like any relationship, it has to be started for the right reasons. Relationships occur because both partners care about each other, share the same values, and are invested in the union. Relationships that are started for the wrong reason will fail.

So yes, girls, you can ask guys to prom.