Judah initially goes along with Tamar’s request, and his son Onan is given to her. But he’s not happy to be stuck in the relationship, and God ultimately kills him (!) as a punishment. Judah - concerned that his third son Shelah would meet the same fate as his two older brothers - decides not to arrange for Shelah and Tamar to be married, as ancient custom dictated.
Tamar is outraged. A significant ethical and economic wrong has been done to her, as well as to her late husband’s memory. She finds herself in a situation in which she feels morally obligated to right this wrong. What does she do?
She becomes a sex worker.
She disguises herself so that Judah will not recognize her. She approaches him on the road he typically travels. She invites them to couple together (which he happily does, not realizing that he is being intimate with his daughter-in-law). Tamar becomes pregnant, and later reveals the truth to Judah. He comes to realize how unjust he was to her in preventing the custom of levirate marriage from being fully carried out. And the Biblical narrator (later in the Book of Ruth) ultimately lifts Tamar up as a heroine for her actions - so much so that the text indicates that King David (and by implication the future hoped-for Messiah) are both direct descendants of her.
King David and the Messiah - descended from a sex worker who deceives her father-in-law into sleeping with her in order to have a child with him? That’s a hard story to wrap our minds around.
I have a similar story to tell from our trip, that is equally hard for me…and maybe it will be hard for you, too….to make sense of.
You may recall from my earlier posting that on Thursday evening of last week, I made it to the baseball game in Santo Domingo. What I neglected to put in that posting was the encounter my group had earlier in the day.
We spent the morning and lunchtime with an organization called COTRAVETD. COTRAVETD is an advocacy program for trans sex workers in the Dominican Republic. The organization - like all of the organizations we visited during my trip - is supported financially by American Jewish World Service.
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, let me begin with the word “trans.” Trans is an umbrella term that refers to people whose sense of gender identity does not align with the sex organs they were born with. Those who identify as trans courageously decide to live their lives (and present themselves publicly) in accordance with their authentic gender identity. (For more info on 'Trans 101', and how you can become a Trans Ally, see this wonderful material from PFLAG. If you are interested, check out my Rosh HaShanah 2014 sermon on gender identity here. And, you can read our Reform Movement's historic resolution about trans advocacy here.)
Trans men and trans women and all of the trans individuals who identify themselves on other points of the gender spectrum are human beings just like us. They are created in God’s image, just like us. There is a spark of divinity and humanity in them, just like us.
I’ve already written to you about the heartbreaking stigma in Dominican society that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people face. The courageous testimony that I heard from COTRAVETD members made it clear that there is even more violence, even more hatred, and even more discrimination aimed at trans people in Dominican life.
The trans women that we met with explained to us that - as a direct result of that discrimination - trans women only have three options to make a living in the Dominican economy today. They can earn a pittance as a maid/domestic worker. They can earn a pittance as a hairdresser in a salon. Or they can earn a much greater sum of money by choosing to voluntarily commodify their bodies by way of sex work.
The trans women we spoke with explained to us that Dominican doctors won’t medically treat trans individuals (a crime that is only made worse because of the unique medical care that sex workers need). They explained to us that they are also victims of violence on a regular basis: beaten by the john’s who abuse them, and beaten by the police who should be protecting them.
As difficult as it was to hear these heart-wrenching stories (and make no mistake: many of us were crying) as we listened to these new friends tell us the stories of their lives, and the price they’ve paid for living gender-authentically as they absolutely believe they were created to be. Not just in terms of the economic price they’ve paid. And not just in terms of the physical abuse. But nearly every one of the trans people we met were thrown out on the streets….disowned by their parents and siblings….the moment they came out.
We spent a good deal of time reflecting before and after the visit with AJWS’s President, Ruth Messinger. (It was such a gift to travel with Ruth!) We had a candid conversation about some of the reasons that our American Jewish community (and even progressive AJWS stakeholders) question whether AJWS should be funding an advocacy organization to support sex workers. Perhaps you are asking yourselves: if AJWS is so inclined to support sex workers, shouldn’t it be to ‘rehabilitate’ them in order to get them to stop doing sex work….perhaps in a similar vein to the many fine Jewish organizations that have been mobilizing over the last few years to organize against human trafficking?
But we also acknowledged that human trafficking is distinct from sex work. In human trafficking, women are coerced to work in the sex industry.
This is different. No one is forcing or coercing my new COTRAVETD friends in to entering sex work. They are willingly/voluntarily doing it, because of the rampant transphobia in Dominican society today. They have basically no other choice if they want to earn any money. By trying to prevent them from doing sex work, we are essentially denying them the human right to earn a living for themselves.
I know this is a difficult and complex subject….one that is worthy of further conversation in person (it goes without saying that I welcome your thoughts on this!). But I’ll leave you with my impression: there was holiness in what Tamar did, even though Jewish tradition most certainly doesn’t approve of ‘sex work.’ She had been ethically wronged. And she rightly commodified her body because it was the only way for her to right that wrong.
So too with my new trans sex worker friends. They have been ethically wronged because nearly everyone in their country calls them “freak” and “monster.” They have nowhere to go. And no way to make a living for themselves, except by commodifying their bodies, to right the wrong society has imposed on them.