Tamar had been convicted of conceiving a child by harlotry, and was about to receive her fiery death sentence. At the last moment, Yehuda recognizes his mistake and publicly admits his role in the pregnancy and Tamar is saved from death. A basic question about this episode is why Tamar was deserving of death? Rashi explains that Tamar was actually the granddaughter of Noah, and daughter of Shem. Since Shem was a priest, the punishment for this type of indecency committed by the daughter of a priest was death by fire. According to this explanation, Tamar was not liable to this punishment because of some remnant of her marital relationship to one of Yehuda’s sons, but rather because of the special status of her own family. The problem, as Nachmanidies (the Ramban) points out, is that there is no source anywhere else in the Torah that a widowed and unmarried woman is liable to this severe punishment – no matter whose daughter she is. He therefore offers a different explanation, based on the assumption that Yehuda was a leader and ranking officer of his land and had royal status. We do find in Tanach that one who defames the monarch is liable to any punishment meted out by the king; Yehuda therefore exercised his royal right by (personally) ordering Tamar’s execution. In contrast to Rashi’s explanation, the approach of Nachmanidies does pin the basis of the severity of her sentence on a vestigial connection to Yehuda’s distinguished family. Nachmanidies’ explanation adds a new twist to another aspect of this episode. Yehuda has to admit his involvement in his former daughter-in-law’s pregnancy in a very public way to save Tamar. Admitting one’s mistakes, even among family and closest of friends, is never easy – all the more so in a public, high-profile execution case. If the person faced with making the admission is a high-ranking political figure the challenge is obviously much greater. According to Nachmanidies, Yehuda was not someone that could take responsibility for Tamar’s pregnancy quietly. The fact that Yehuda had the strength to overcome his public shame in spite of his aristocracy sheds a different light on the challenge he faced in being true to himself and God and fessing up to his actions.
On Tuesday, chassidic-reggae-rapper Matisyahu issued a personal, awkward and surprising press release. In doing so, I believe, he demonstrated strength of character reminiscent of Yehuda’s. He revealed that he had posted online a picture of himself that he had taken after shaving off his beard earlier that morning. “No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. ” He went on to explain that when he first embraced Judaism in his early twenties, his new enthusiasm mixed with a feeling of insecurity led him to loose touch with his own intuition. This resulted in his adoption of Torah laws and practices – and personal style – that he wasn’t ready for in his heart of hearts. Eventually, this incongruity caught up with him until he felt compelled to make small adjustments that would help him reassert his individual sense of spirituality and personal voice. (For more information, see the original tweet here, his later clarifications here, here, and here, plus an overview, here). For baalei teshuva, Jews that adopt an Orthodox lifestyle later in life, experiences very similar to Matisyahu’s are a nearly universal rite of passage at some point in their life. Changes in lifestyle and appearance are never easy vis-a-vis one’s relationship with his or her peers, family and acquaintances. For a person in the international public eye, the challenge becomes even greater – as is evident from the thousands of reactions that have been posted on Facebook and other sites. The comments are mostly supportive and encouraging, but many are critical and portray him as a traitor to his religion or confused. In my mind, the publicity surrounding Matisyahu and his spiritual journey is an opportunity to remember Yehuda’s strength and that we owe it to ourselves to be true to our own inner voice, no matter what the public fallout may be.