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Restoring the ‘Self’ and the
‘Harlot by the Side of the Road’:
A Self-Psychological Analysis of
the Story of Tamar

Professor Gila Safran-Naveh

University of Cincinnati

[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]



Imagine being in your empty office one sunny afternoon. A knock on your door brakes abruptly the stillness of the day. You get up lazily to open the door and there she stands. An exotic-looking woman framed by the walnut structure of the open door, stares at you insistently. A dark mane of wild hair flows freely around her velvety olive-skin. Her brightly colored veil moves down her young and voluptuous body. Without waiting to be asked in, the woman bursts into your office and sits down with a long sigh in your favorite leather chair. Ignoring your bewilderment, she proceeds to gathers up her long skirt, made up of carefully chosen rectangular patches of red, yellow, and violet silk. She looks vengefully into some unknown distance. A clover and musk oil satchel divides her glistening breasts. Unperturbed by your silence, she says softly, as if speaking to herself: "I can take care of myself, you know. I do not need your help, I need nobody’s help. I came to you just in case. My name is Tamar and this is my story:"

Tamar’s Case Narrative

"It happened at the time that Judah went down from his brothers, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her, and she conceive and bore a son, and he called his name Er. Again she bore a son, and she called his name Onan. Ye again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. She was in Chezib when she bore him. And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the sigh of the LORD; and the LORD slew him. Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform the duty of a brother in law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother." But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also. Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter in law, "Remain a widow in your father's house, till Shelah my son grows up" - for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house. In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua's daughter, died; and when Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearer, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. And when Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep," she put off her widow's garments, and put on a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is in on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, "Come, let me come in to you," for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, "What will you give me, that you may come in to me?" He answered, "I will send you a kid from the flock." And she said, "Will you give me a pledge, till you send it?" He said, "what pledge shall I give you?" She replied, "Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her, and he went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she rose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garment of her widowhood. When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman's hand, he could not find her. And he asked the men of the place, "Where is the harlot who was at Enaim by the wayside?" And they said, "No harlot had been here." So he returned to Judah, and said, "I have not found her; and also the men of the place said, "No harlot has been here." And Judah replied, "let her keep the things as her own, lest we be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her." About three months later Judah was told, "Tamar your daughter-in-law played the harlot; and moreover she is with child by harlotry." And Judah said, "Bring her out, and let her be burned." As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father in law, "By the man to whom these belong, I am with child." And she said, "Mark, I pray you, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff." Then Judah acknowledges them and said, "She is holier than I, inasmuch as I did not give her my son Shelah." And he did not lie with her again"

GENESIS 38:1-30


In this paper, I revisit Genesis 38:1-30, the Biblical tale of Judah and Tamar who are considered by the Hebrews to be the foremother and forefather of their most beloved king, David.

Extant literary and religious studies have focused solely on Judah, the ambitious and powerful leader of the Hebrews, who was at the time enmeshed in battles to consolidate his authority in the land. He clearly was in dire need of a son, a strong heir to succeed him to the throne and perpetuate Judah’s name and his rule. I show below that in focusing solely on Judah, these studies have failed to uncover an early "misogyny," a remarkable case study of a Biblical woman who restored her-SELF by using amazingly modern psychological therapy techniques. I show that when carefully examined, this case narrative could play an important role in present issues concerning definitions of "the SELF" as cultural, religious, and socio-political products, and usher in new definitions of the Self as the site of a continual process of transformation and reshaping. In Self-Psychological terms, this ancient case study could be seen as "the site where thwarted developmental needs are being mobilized anew," or "inter-subjective site of Self-Soothing" in Stchollorow’s sense.

This remarkable case of Tamar, the Biblical woman who was successful in restoring herself, can serve today quite effectively as a felicitous model for Self-assertion, Self-definition, and engendering of self-continuity. I claim that this narrative about a biblical woman in search for identity, who did not resort only to acute violence when receiving repeated narcissistic injuries, could serve as a model for the therapists dealing with patients who hope to heal from repeated narcissistic wounds.

One might be prompted to ask, What would the modern day therapists do, had Tamar indeed have come to their office that sunny afternoon? Likewise, To what extent can a tale become a true case study and what are the limitations of such undertaking? Or, To what extent was Freud essentially doing text analysis when psychoanalyzing the Ratman or President Schreiber? Finally, it would be interesting to ask in this context, In what ways does literature, with its use of an arsenal of tropes and rhetorical strategies, inform psychological discourse? And, In what ways does psychology, with its hands-on experimental data, help us understand our literary output as a viable model for our ongoing psychic activities?

The Biblical narrative depicts Tamar, who, having received what Self-psychologists headed by Heinz Kohut call acute narcissistic injuries--wounds to the "SELF," instead of dissipating only in the predictable narcissistic rage, goes on to mastermind with great success her restitution to a fully accepted member of her society. Most importantly, her attempts at recovery from psychic fragmentation takes place despite her lowly position of "widow living in the house of her father," a position which signified in those days utter social powerlessness.

Tamar's case, viewed as a successful therapeutic event of psychic integration, can also be seen as a sign that she achieves, in the Spatio-temporality of the narrative a complete integration of her SELF in that society (Freud 1933:123-4, Peterfreund 1971:224-45). That is to say, the newly integrated SELF, generated over time via a network of complex discursive paths, will function as her life experience, in addition to helping her recover from the state of psychic fragmentation in which she finds herself in the present. It is as if Tamar acts as her own therapist and soothes her SELF successfully (Vygotsky 1962:213-53).

My reading of Tamar's case focuses on a three pronged semiotic exchange, which she accomplishes masterfully. It presses on her orchestrated shift of "signs of power" and "signs of sexuality" or "lack of sexuality", which result in Tamar's targeted self-transformation from a "widow," the sign of impotence, loss, and barrenness, to a "holy woman" the sign of power, acceptance, veneration, and, ultimately, sanctification. In other words, Tamar uses a remarkable vindictive ploy, which consists in changing her bodily signification and function. She commodifies her body; namely she makes her body a commodity and circulates it as a valorized asset in a psychosexual economy of exchange, in order to achieve a change from a state of powerlessness and hopelessness to a state of power and holiness. More importantly, according to a plan know only by her, Tamar changes her-SELF from being a dejected widow at the house of her father, to being an accepted member of her society, the sanctified wife of the land's powerful leader, pregnant with a desired heir.

In terms of the transmutations of functions of her "body" as they relate to "passivity" and "activity," Tamar transforms from a "passive," "body-in-pain" and "a body-in-loss," to an "active," but "transgressing body," the "body of a pregnant harlot." Next, she changes from the "active" "desirable/available body," of a harlot, to the "passive but sexual" "embodiment-of-an-heir-to-the-throne," "a body-in-gain." Finally, Tamar changes again her body into a "passive," "embodiment of holiness," which is also an "embodiment of inaccessibility". But this is in essence a ritualized enactment of a carnal, flourishing body.

The succinct Biblical text is silent about Tamar's fate or her feelings of grief and shame when God strikes mysteriously dead her two husbands, having "displeased the LORD." Biblical scholarship mentions only in passing that both of Tamar's husbands died. The second husband, Onan, had been ordered to go onto his brother's widow according to the law of levirate marriage. Yet, despite the scholarly silence, it is not difficult to infer that Tamar must have been deemed yishah kathlanith, or what ancient Hebrews called a "femme fatale." In essence this can be viewed as an additional act of violence to Tamar’s narcissism. Finally, Judah sends Tamar in shame and in disgrace to her father's house to mourn her husbands as a widow, with a vague promise.

For reasons easy to surmise, neither the Biblical narrative, nor classical scholarship--Talmudic or later interpretations-- acknowledge Tamar's feelings of utter despair, helplessness, and hopelessness or empathize with her situation. However, given that other cultural and historical sources provide us with detailed accounts of the hellish existence of the ancient widow (a SELF completely at the mercy of social control, a body in morning, forbidden, degraded, marginalized, and ultimately forgotten), it is easy to imagine what Tamar's life might have been like after she was sent back to her father's house with a vague promise, which Judah does not honor. This data provides us with further insight into Tamar’s case.

Heinz Kohut claims that "assertiveness, anger, rage, and destructive aggression, refer to innumerable subtly different qualities and meanings" (Kohut 1972:615-658) and, Anna and Paul Ornstein assert that "anger and rage can hide or compensate for momentary, or long term feelings of helplessness… Each can be evoked by an acute injury to the self, namely, a narcissistic injury, or wound, and each reflects the self's attempt to regain power and punish the offender" (Ornstein and Ornstein 1995:102-111). Furthermore, in self-psychological terms, clinically observed narcissistic rage, which usually comes as the aftermath of an acute narcissistic injury (Ornstein and Ornstein 1995:102-104) is a complex mental state with a number of distinctive features and cannot be simply reduced to an underlying biological drive. Narcissistic rage, complex and multifaceted, might arise also from a matrix of pre-existing self-pathology. Some speculate that narcissistic rage is potentially embedded in fragmentation-prone, or protractedly (archaically) fragmented-self, a self which is vulnerable to ridicule, shame, and humiliation. (This clearly seems to be the case with the experienced SELF by Biblical women who were treated as chattel, continually at the mercy of their fathers, husbands, or brothers, and who had little or no recourse in their society). Kohut points out (Kohut 1977:635-646) that, a self so utterly disgraced and mortified, reacts after such injury with a particularly destructive form of rage, considered "narcissistic" and defined as the prototype of destructive aggression. This type of aggression differs vastly from "mature aggression" as expressed in "self assertion," argue Ornstein and Ornstein in presenting Kohut's insights. The need for revenge for 'righting a wrong' for 'undoing a hurt' by whatever means, and a deeply anchored, unrelenting compulsion in the pursuit of all these aims, which give no rest to those who have suffered a narcissistic injury--these are the characteristic features of narcissistic rage which set it apart from other kinds of aggression (Ornstein and Ornstein 1995:111). The danger may escalate further. In the typical forms of narcissistic rage where there is utter disregard for reasonable limitation and boundless wish to redress injury and obtain revenge. The most intense experience of shame and the most violent forms of narcissistic rage arise in those individuals for whom a sense of absolute control over an (archaic) environment is indispensable, because the maintenance of self-esteem and indeed of self depends largely on the unconditional availability of the approving-mirroring self-object or of the merger-permitting-idealized one (Kohut 1972:640).

My analysis of the case of Tamar is sensitive to the very important insights of self-psychologists' outlined above, but hinges also on Lacan’s understanding that experience (an individual's life) is representable through a structured narrative and that the intra-textual interaction and the interaction with the text itself, which takes place in a highly ritualized environment aims, like in all other cases, to produce "the coherent narrative" (Lacan 1966:214) which becomes "the SELF." This is to say that, the narrative (the account given in the therapist’s office of lived experience) is an account interpretable in terms of a semiosis and interpretable in terms of the circulation of signs and of sign relations, which produce new knowledge.


But new knowledge is the aim of the therapist as well. In analyzing massive clinical data, Ornstein and Ornstein ascertain that:

"In an environment where anger cannot be expressed and healthy channels for its diffusion are not provided, the interpretative focus of the hurt individual cannot shift to the broader context of experience from which that anger or rage has arisen. The enraged individual is thus unable to step back from the immediate (or long term) function, which anger or rage serves for that individual."

I propose that in the case of Tamar, contrary to such claims, in "playing the harlot," namely in taking off the "widow garment" and in "covering her face" and "wrapping her-self" in the "harlot veil," Tamar succeeds to externalize her feelings, not as expected, in a destructive narcissistic rage, but through mature rage, and thus succeeds in taking control of her life via self-assertiveness, despite the complete absence, in that Biblical society, of the conditions of possibility for her negative affects to be made accessible or be expressed freely.

Relegated to her father's house, Tamar had no "approving mirroring self-object." Moreover, labeled a "femme fatale" whose two husbands have just died and a shamed daughter who returns dressed in "widow garments," Tamar seems a very likely candidate for "self-fragmentation" and prone to narcissistic rage, which results from this deep feeling of helplessness. Indeed, Tamar is helpless vis-à-vis Judah and cannot protest overtly when she is being sent back to her father's house, and again helpless when Judah, her powerful father-in-law, fails to keep his promise to her, namely to give her in marriage to his youngest son Shelah, when the latter is grown up. The Biblical text clearly points to the person against whom Tamar might experience narcissistic rage and self-psychologists anticipate rage against her father, her father–in-law, and her dead husbands. Yet, contrary to usual prognosis, Tamar acts according to a surprising program, known only by her, on a very different register. Contrary our expectations, Tamar accomplishes her revenge and achieves at the same time a kind of "(ancient) self-soothing" not through destructive behavior, but to skillful cunning and ruse. The emphatically grasped anger is a symptom and a form of communication that shows the way to the basic problem--to its narcissistic roots, or to its roots in the individual oedipal or archaic self. Tamar's clever project revealed in her actions allows her to get to the roots of her rage and, therefore, enable her to heal herself. I claim that in taking off the "widow garment" and putting on the "harlot veil" and covering her face she re0inacts God own "hiding his face" "mastir panim". In this exchange of signs, Tamar operates quite an extraordinary psychotherapeutic feat. By putting on the mask of harlotry, namely by "playing the harlot" and allowing herself to embody another, unknowable self, Tamar focuses on the subjective experience of her anger and not on the destructive and counter-productive question against-whom-she-is-angry. In the subtle shift from "a body in anger" to "a body-acting-out-its-anger" and in focusing on the current events, Tamar can experience her reactions to these events, with empathy and allow old registers of behavior to surface. Thus she can achieve psychic integration on her own. In the shift from "widow" to "harlot" who "covers her face," i.e., puts on a mask--not unlike in Greek plays--Tamar allows herself to experience the very source of her anger, while, at the same time, she succeeds to remain undetected, unknown, and unrevealed to others. In other words, to produce her desired transformation from a "powerless widow in pain and in loss" to a "holy pregnant woman," Tamar stages her being a "harlot," "plays" the harlot, a step as dangerous as it proved redemptive to a woman in her condition. To rid herself of the identity of "widow," the sign of exile and "de-eroticized body," analyzable in Lacan’s terms as a "barren body," Tamar forges an intermediate stage. She wraps herself up in "the-veil-of-a-harlot," the sign of "eroticized body" in the economy of our psychic lives, but which automatically becomes the "body in shame" and "the-body-of-evidence-of-transgression"—she is, after all with child.

In conceiving to Judah a son, Tamar transforms her body into a "body-for-consumption," and changes from the original "body-of-a-widow-consuming-itself," to a "body producing," a veritable "embodiment-of-the-heir." Still another transformation is accomplished from a "harlot," the sign of a transgression to "holy" the sign of a "sanctification." So, while Tamar makes her body again inaccessible, this time, it is also the locus of the "body of the new leader" and "deification."

The interplay between Tamar's accessibility, visibility, and attainability is interesting to follow as well. When wearing the "garment of widow," Tamar is "visible" but is clothed in the sign of inaccessibility, a "body forbidden." When she "plays" the harlot, Tamar, garbed in a veil and with her face covered, is the sign of a "body available" but remains invisible and unknowable, and neither Judah, nor his man recognizes her. Finally, when being declared by Judah "holy," Tamar becomes again knowable and visible but at that point her body is transformed into a "revered body," which is, by definition, also a forbidden body.

If as Theresa de Lauretis claims, the body is the sight of cultural inscription and the source of an ongoing resistance to such inscriptions, by calling into being a personal plan of actions, Tamar becomes agency. She becomes the site of a cultural clash, the locus where social control looses in favor of self-control. A subject in a quandary, Tamar is not the puppet of her culture. She actively disassociates from the entanglements of her culture and mobilizes her body in an act of self-empowerment and self-definition to achieve psychic continuity. She exchanges powerlessness (widowhood), exile, forbiddance, and visibility without attainability, for sexuality, and further exchanges sexuality for power and holiness. She commodities and offers her body, literally, in exchange for Judah's own signs of power, "the signet, the cord, and the staff." To turn her SELF into a SIGN of POWER, Tamar operates an additional shift when being apprehended as a "transgressing body." In appropriating the signs of power which belong to Judah (the signet, the staff, and the cord), she is on her way to becoming the "embodiment of power," a "sanctified body" and the producer of the body of the new leader. In terms of "consumption," we may trace Tamar's self-transformation from being a widow whose body is in a "state-of-consumption," and potentially a "body-consumed-by-flames" (she is summoned to be burnt at stake for harlotry), to a "producing body," a body thriving.

Tamar is thus the agent of a self-change accomplished through the circulation of her body, as the locus of the entwinement of sings and of signification, the site where new meaning is engendered. In the circulation of her body, Tamar is the agent of self-change and the producer of another self, both defined at the crossroads where signs of powerlessness and impotence are exchanged for signs of availability and transgression and again for signs of power. Instead of settling for a "kid of Judah's flock," she produces the "kid" that will rule Judah's flock.

Surprisingly modern conceptually and Self-Psychological in orientation, in the case of Tamar--unlike in the Middle age notion of a body that cannot age, corrupt, feel pain, or change in any way--the manipulation of the body and the cultivation of bodily experience becomes the place of production of new meaning, of new knowledge, and ultimately the locus of restoration of the self.

By focusing on Tamar's ingenious ploy to change from a widow to a holly mother of Israel, we get a better understanding of successful healing process and self-empowerment. Indeed, in analyzing the tale of Judah and Tamar from a Self-Psychological perspective we get a better understanding of the successful transformation of an individual from a state of narcissistic rage to an acclaimed member of her society. At the same time, we get a better grasp of the mechanism by which subjectivity is being engendered and perpetually reshaped at the ever shifting juncture of self-control and social control.

Dr. Frank Lachmann said very eloquently in his address at the 1999 meeting of Self-Psychology that:

In the quest for understanding love, pleasure, and sexuality, poets and musicians have been ahead of psychologists. Psychology is ultimately an art form, which shares with literature and music the need to look for the "elusive music behind the words" and accede to interpersonal interaction in order to co-construct interpretation and to ultimately understand the meaning of our existence in the world as subjects.

In the door thus opened to interdisciplinary research, it is not unlikely to see Tamar standing wrapped in her harlot veil before a silent therapist.



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