Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Vayeishev 5780

Parashat Vayeishev 5780

December 19, 2019

Thomas Mann’s Portrayal of Tamar—A Self-Reflection?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeshev
By Rabbi Len Levin

I first encountered Thomas Mann’s portrayal of the biblical heroine Tamar (from Joseph and His Brothers, pp. 1016–42) as a high school student; it was assigned reading in our Jewish day school. I have never been able to see her otherwise since.

Thomas Mann was arguably the greatest German writer of his age. He worked on his massive fictional rendition of the Joseph saga from 1924 to 1942, years of turbulence and tragedy for Germany and Jewry. He modeled his portrayal of Rachel on his wife Katia, who came from an assimilated German Jewish family. Seeking a leading female character for the fourth part of his tetralogy, he chose Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah who became the progenitress of the two leading clans of the Judah tribe, Peretz and Zerah, and ancestress of the Davidic dynasty.

Mann masterfully reworks the bare bones of the narrative of Genesis Chapter 38 into a vivid saga. In his telling, Tamar came from a family of olive growers near Hebron to become an eager disciple of the elderly Jacob, who taught the worship of the one God of the world and whose family was covenanted to God’s blessing. Dissatisfied with the pallid Baal-worship of her ancestors, she was determined to join the people of the blessing and work her way into their history and destiny. She combined beauty and intellect with a fierce sense of ambition and desire to make a difference in the world.

Mann places Tamar midway in age between Judah and his sons, more attracted to Judah but settling on Er, Judah’s firstborn, as the more available option. This match did not end well, as the text relates. Mann next credits Tamar with originating the custom of levirate marriage, an idea which Jacob adopts and legislates for Israel in perpetuity at her initiation. The tragic result of this ploy, with Onan’s death, left Judah twice bereaved, a pathetic parallel to Jacob now mourning the loss of his beloved Joseph whom he believed dead. As Jacob is loath to give up Benjamin, so Judah understandably is protective of his remaining son Shelah.

The rest of the story is more fully spelled out in the biblical text—how Tamar donned the garments of widowhood at the family’s behest; how after years of waiting she seduced Judah on his way back from a sheep shearing celebration; how when he condemned her to death for whoring she produced the tokens he had left with her, proving his paternity without explicitly naming him, thus eliciting Judah’s confession, “She is more righteous than I”; how she gave birth to twins, thus symbolically replacing his first two sons who had died. The listener of the biblical tale knows the sequel—how Peretz became the foremost of the Judah tribes, producing Nachshon, Boaz, and David.

Mann’s enlargement of the biblical narrative consists of entering into the characters’ personality and motivations, and especially in making Tamar a precursor of Ruth and thus a prototype of the proselyte in Jewish history. (The rabbinic midrash invents a Terahite ancestry for her, for which there is no basis in the biblical text.) This tempts me to speculate about Mann’s own personal motivation for this move. Though Mann was reticent about his own feelings about Jews and Judaism, two facts beg for interpretation. The first is that he married a Jewish woman, Katia (though she converted to Lutheranism during the marriage). The second is that he devoted eighteen years of his life to his masterpiece on the Joseph saga, and in the course of this project did exhaustive research on the rabbinic midrash on that narrative, using it as well as the biblical text as scaffolding for his own imaginative recreation of the story. When I read about Tamar sitting at Jacob’s feet, eagerly taking in his recounting of the wisdom of the past transmitted by his family, I detect more than a hint of Mann himself, taking in the lore of the Jewish tradition in order to ponder the mystery of the fate of the Jewish people in the course of world history.

The Bible often addresses questions of doctrine and speculation through the medium of narrative. One of the questions attracting attention and discussion today is the status of Judaism itself—is it a religious or an ethnic identification? On this question, different voices within the Bible debate pro and con. On the one hand, there is the injunction of Abraham and Isaac to their favored sons, not to marry among the Canaanite women, but to go back to Aram to marry among their kinfolk. On the other hand, there are the examples of Tamar and Ruth, women of the local nations, who married in and became heroines and progenitresses of the royal line. To this we must add Jethro, who proclaimed the one God and gave Moses crucial advice on setting up the governance of the Israelite people, and his daughter Zipporah, whom Moses married.

And in recent memory, we must include Thomas Mann himself, who though he identified as a German writer throughout his life, was a fierce advocate of democracy and humane values during the crisis of the twentieth century, and who proved his friendship to the Jewish people by giving us an enduring imaginative recreation of its heroes and heroines.
Rabbi Len Levin is Professor of Jewish philosophy at AJR and editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism.