Parashat Vayeshev

Tamar & the Sex Trade

Sex workers--like Tamar--are fueled by cycles of sexism and poverty.

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The founder of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, believed that any flaw he found in another person must also be present in him. When Judah finds out that he was the propagator of Tamar's transgression, he says "tzadkah mimeni"--she is more right than I (Genesis 38:26). To read tzadkah mimeni through the lens of the Ba'al Shem Tov, we see a deep transformation in Judah.

He finally sees the face of the accused and, rather than looking for her guilt (or, to be fair, even her innocence), he looks inside himself and admits what he has done wrong. In this one phrase he implicates himself in the drama, both as client of Tamar's sex trade and as the propagator of an act of sexism--denying her his son--that stole Tamar's viable option to begin with, leaving her with no recourse.

The first step in ending the sex trade is for governments and societies to look within themselves. Rather than prosecuting and demonizing sex workers, we must change the structures that make this kind of work the only viable option for women struggling with poverty. The sexism that allows the sex trade to flourish must be examined in government policy and in our own personal biases.

Parashat Vayeshev illustrates this accountability on a personal level. As Judah eventually did, each of us must look inside ourselves and search for those ways in which we, and the societies and governments that represent us, reinforce unjust structures. We can, and should, look at those we judge and find a way to say "they are more right than I."

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Rabbi Matt Carl

Rabbi Matt Carl is the associate rabbi of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn, New York, and is the campus rabbi at Hunter College in Manhattan. An alumnus of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Rabbi Carl has integrated service and justice concerns with other traditional aspects of the rabbinate.