Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Family / Jewish Home > “Tamar Established a Great Fence”: On the Torah Approach to #Metoo

“Tamar Established a Great Fence”: On the Torah Approach to #Metoo

How should we consider the MeToo movement, which conquered the world as is knocking on our own doors? The biblical episode of Tamar and the "great fence" that the Sages relate to her provide us with a befitting opening position, and teach us a lesson concerning the Jewish attitude to sexual assault victims.

Shevat 5782, January 2022

The tragic biblical tale of Tamar is among the harshest of episodes described in Sefer Shmuel (II Shmuel, Chap. 13). Amnon, son of David, becomes infatuated with his sister Tamar, and at the advice of Yonadav he tricks her into being in seclusion with him. Feigning illness, Amnon orders all others out of the house and then asks Tamar to serve him a meal in his private chambers. Amnon then tries to seduce Tamar, but she refuses his advances and begs him to relent. Despite her pleas for mercy, Amnon proceeds to cruelly rape Tamar.

After the deed, Amnon’s love for Tamar transforms into intense hatred, and he banishes her from his home, ignoring her petitions to take her as his wife. Once outside, Tamar decides to publicly demonstrate her shame: “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing; she put her hands on her head and walked away, screaming loudly as she went” (13:19). Ultimately, she is found by her brother Avshalom, who calms her and brings her into his home. When opportunity chances, Avshalom instructs his men to avenge Tamar’s shame by killing Amnon, who indeed dies at their hands.

Scripture describes Tamar as a righteous woman. In words that recall the episode of Shechem and Dina, she warns Amnon lest he commits this heinous crime, “for such things are not done among Israel” (13:12). Moreover, the Midrash learns of Tamar’s courage from the words “he overpowered her” (13:13): Tamar struggled with him, yet he overwhelmed her. However, for purposes of the present article, I wish to focus on Tamar’s actions after she was cast out of Amnon’s home. Based on the Talmudic interpretation, her actions do not reflect the frenzied actions of a grief-stricken woman, but rather those of somebody, not unlike her Bereishis namesake, wishing to make a powerful point:

The Sages taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha: at that time Tamar established a great fence. They said: if this could happen to the daughters of kings, all the more so could it happen to the daughters of ordinary people. If this could happen to modest women, all the more so could it happen to licentious women. Rav Yehuda says in the name of Rav: At that time they decreed against seclusion and about single women […] rather say: They decreed against seclusion with single women (Sanhedrin 21a-b).

As I will explain below, I believe that with these short words, our Sages make Tamar into an ancient precursor of the MeToo (or #metoo) movement, thousands of years before its present incarnation. Of course, Tamar’s actions are quite different from those of the later movement in both form and substance, as I will briefly mention below; yet, the similarities between them are, in my opinion, worthy of emphasis. Especially given the public atmosphere currently pervading Charedi society, it is certainly worth reviewing and learning the lessons of the episode of Tamar.


Tamar Established a Great Fence

The most natural thing for Tamar to have done after being assaulted was to remain silent. We know this to be true from countless cases of rape and sexual assault, in which victims, often out of shame, confusion, and a burning desire to escape deep into themselves, remain silent. In our own community, we have the added factors of family, status, and the perennial shidduch issue, which provide further cause for keeping victims’ lips sealed—cause that was probably around even in the biblical era. If the Pasuk would have described Tamar as silently accepting her fate, keeping the incident hidden, and quietly returning to the royal palace, we would not have batted an eyelid. But she didn’t.

Rather than shutting up and trying to rehabilitate herself, Tamar places ash on her head, tears the royal garment that clothed her, and screams at the top of her lungs. She talks. Chancing upon her, Avshalom knows precisely what befell her, whereupon he quietens her and leads her into his home. Yet, Chazal inform us that her wandering outdoors, crying and disheveled, had already made its impact, and that “at that time Tamar established a great fence.”

As the Sages saw it, Tamar did not tear her clothing for lack of self-control; on the contrary, she did so consciously and with the intent of performing a public service, erecting a fence to prevent the next case of sexual abuse. By publicizing the assault she underwent, she made a public outcry indicating an acute need to take action. The people, indeed, took note: “They said: if this could happen to the daughters of kings, all the more so could it happen to the daughters of ordinary people. If this could happen to modest women, all the more so could it happen to licentious women.”

Yet, the fence that Tamar built still requires elucidation. Fences are usually related to rabbinic decrees, in line with the duty to “build a fence around the Torah.” Yet, the original statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha makes no mention of such a decree, which occurs only later, in the later statement of Rabbi Yehuda (citing from Rav). What, then, is the nature of the fence Tamar erected? Rather than a halachic fence, it seems Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha does means to highlight a change in the people’s state of mind: Tamar brought about a transformation in the public mindset concerning sexual assault. Moreover, it seems that even the halachic decree mentioned later was a direct result of this change in the public mindset.

To explain this matter, I will present a short introduction to the laws of Yichud (seclusion).


Yichud: The Concern for Consensual Sin

The wording of the Mishnah in Kiddushin (4:12), which is the primary source for the prohibition against Yichud—the seclusion of a man and woman who are forbidden to one another—indicates that the concern is for consensual sin rather for a non-consensual act. The assumption underlying the prohibition is that in situations of seclusion individuals are liable to be drawn after their urges, and fall into sin.[1] The Rambam, in his brief description of the prohibition, writes simply that “this matter leads to the sin of forbidden relations” (Issurei Biah 22:1).

This is the reason why under certain circumstances, in which the Sages decided there was no concern for consensual sin, the prohibition of Yichud does not apply. One example of this is when a woman’s husband is present in the same town. Under such circumstances, we assume that the woman in question will not consent to the advances of a foreign man. In the wording of the Rambam, “the fear of her husband is upon her” (22:12). Another circumstance, cited by the Gemara in Rava’s name, is when a woman is present together with her daughter: the presence of the daughter will ensure that the woman does not “give herself to sin” (Kiddushin 81b).

The question is why: why are we concerned only for a consensual act of sin, and not for the more intuitive concern—intuitive for us, living in the twenty-first century—of non-consensual acts? Even if we believe that a given woman will not “give herself to sin,” as Rava assumes for certain circumstances, this does not mean that the man with whom she is secluded will not coerce the act upon her. Why are we unconcerned that situations of seclusion will lead to rape and assault?

Simply put, it seems the explanation is that the Yichud prohibition comes to preclude forbidden sexual acts (such as between a married woman and a foreign man) and that because such prohibitions are generally transgressed under conditions of mutual consent, this is the only eventuality that we are concerned for. Of course, it is possible that such transgressions will be committed by force, in which case they become even more severe, to the degree that a third party can (and must) save the victim by killing the attacker (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 8:7). Yet, this is the rare exception, in which a person does not only fall to sin but even coerces the sinful act upon a victim. The Yichud prohibition does not take this rarity into account and relates only to the regular case of consensual sin.

In other words, the Yichud prohibition manifests a concern for the human frailty that brings us to sin before God, but not the combination of such frailty with an evil that brings us to consciously hurt others. The prohibition was thus limited to the concern for consensual acts—until Tamar came on the scene.


A New Type of Yichud Prohibition

Emerging into the public domain with her forehead ashen and her clothes tattered, Tamar directed the spotlight to an altogether different type of issue, which had hitherto failed to attract rabbinic attention. In modern terms, we call this issue sexual assault. Suddenly, the Sages were confronted by a phenomenon that the regular prohibition of Yichud, which relates to forbidden relations alone, does not handle. Rather than a sinner, they had to look a victim in the eye.

The case of a penuya, a single, unmarried woman, does not warrant the regular Yichud prohibition; intercourse between a man and an unmarried woman, though certainly improper and possible sinful—its precise status is subject to a dispute among halachic authorities—did not carry sufficient severity for a Yichud enactment. However, Tamar highlighted a different kind of concern, one of sexual violence, assault, and victimhood that was not hitherto addressed.

Why was it not addressed? We cannot say with certainty, but it is possible that such cases were an uncommon affair. Though lacking the deterrent dimension of sin, an unmarried woman was firmly under the protection of her father, and perhaps this was generally enough to prevent such attacks. Moreover, it is possible that since rape is presented by the Torah as a civil offense rather than a criminal one—just as the seducer, a rapist must pay the father a fine (if the girl is a virgin[2]) and marry her (Devarim 22:29)—the woman’s suffering and agony was not given sufficient attention[3].

One way or the other, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha describes a change in mindset in the wake of Tamar’s bold actions: “They said: if this could happen to the daughters of kings, all the more so could it happen to the daughters of ordinary people. If this could happen to modest women, all the more so could it happen to licentious women.” Tamar awakened a new type of concern, not for sin against Hashem but for the fate of a human victim.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha goes a step further in stating that our concern extends even to licentious women. In the case of Dina, on the Pasuk “Dina, the daughter of Leah, went out” (Bereishis 34:1), the sages emphasize the partial responsibility of the victim herself, as noted by Rashi: “[She is termed the daughter of Leah and] not the daughter of Yaakov, for on account of her ‘going out’ she is named after Leah, who was also unrestrained.” By contrast, in the wake of Tamar’s deed, the Sages could determine that a woman’s chastity or otherwise does not determine her status as a victim: we need to care for her either way.

This new mindset received its halachic articulation in the enactment of yichud penuya, the seclusion of an unmarried woman, as cited from Rav. If the regular Yichud prohibition assumes that the woman is a partner in crime, no less blameworthy than the man, the new prohibition, reflecting concern for the victim, assumes she is blameless. It is a new type of Yichud prohibition: not one that is concerned for sin before Hashem, but one concerned for sexual assault—for the fate of the victim.[4]

When Tamar went out besmirched and disheveled into the public domain, she did not think of her own fate, but rather of that of fellow victims, present and future. Indeed, she succeeded in establishing “a great fence” for their protection. From here, we transition smoothly to the twenty-first-century #metoo movement.


Tamar’s Activism Against Sexual Assault

It would, of course, be a gross anachronism to speak about the fence established by the biblical Tamar (or the one ascribed to her by the Sages of the Mishnah) in terms of the 21st-century #metoo movement. Nonetheless, a short comparative discussion could be of some benefit.

The #metoo movement, which began somewhere in the first decade of our century and gained huge popularity since 2017, raised the banner of breaking the wall of silence often surrounding victims of sexual assault and abuse. Its basic purposes (naturally, as time goes by, these shift and mutate) are to empower victims, to help them internalize the fact that they are not alone (hence #metoo), and to provide them with empathy and support.

The movement succeeded in deeply influencing everyday norms of reporting sexual assault and harassment (one poll found that 54% of Americans are more likely today to speak out if they would be victims of sexual misconduct[5]), and it was a powerful trigger for changes in workplace policies and even in legislation on matters related to sexual assault.[6] In other words, #metoo made a cultural impact, and, in turn, even impacted the law.

Respectively, these are also the results noted by the Gemara notes in the wake of Tamar who would not be silenced. Initially, as the words of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha reflect, she brought about a change in the culture, in the popular state of mind. Following this, the change was enshrined in halacha by the decree against the seclusion of a penuya. Albeit not #metoo—she did not have the benefits of social media at her disposal—but Tamar, as the Talmudic tradition sees her, was certainly ahead of her time.

At the same time, the #metoo movement is not without its detractors and its price tags. The movement enjoyed great success in vilifying the great and powerful predators of society—Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Larry Nassar, and the like. But for other cases, in which facts remained murky or when the alleged offenses were in the penumbra zone between the improper and the criminal, #metoo raised tough questions over the negation of basic rights to due process and to the presumption of innocence (Aziz Ansari is a famous example), alongside the ominous possibility of malicious abuse of #metoo by false accusers.

Even the episode of Tamar came with its price tag. Avshalom, who saw his sister in her disgraced condition and gathered her to his home, never forgave Amnon, and after two years he found the opportunity to avenge his sister and have him killed: “Watch, and when Amnon is merry with wine and I tell you to strike down Amnon, kill him! Don’t be afraid, for it is I who give you the order. Act with determination, like brave men!” (13:28). Amnon’s cruel end befell him without trial and conviction; moreover, it was not in line with the sentence he deserved based on the Torah justice system.

Tamar established a great fence, but, much like #metoo, it came with a price tag. The Sages, it seems worthy of adding, understood that it was a price worth paying.


Our Own MeToo?

The backdrop to this article is of course the recent Walder episode, whose echoes have not ceased to reverberate around the Charedi space. The episode has sparked a flurry of complaints against sexual abuse and harassment, and these might even transform from a trickle to a full flow. It sometimes feels as though we are standing on the brink of our own MeToo moment, and we should therefore ask ourselves: what is our approach towards it?

By way of introduction, it is worthy of note that among other nations, up until and sometimes including the modern period, the law considered rape an infraction of property rights—at the very least this was one factor—and principally defended the interests of men, the stability of marriage markets (shidduchim, as we call it), and society in general. One court decision, holding for the first time that the law does not make an exception for rape within a marriage, noted that “the [traditional] purpose behind the proscriptions was to protect the chastity of women and thus their property value to their fathers or husbands.”[7] By contrast with this mindset, Talmudic Sages over two thousand years ago recognized that rape is a crime against its immediate victim: “They said: if this could happen to the daughters of kings, all the more so could it happen to the daughters of ordinary people. If this could happen to modest women, all the more so could it happen to licentious women.” We care about victims.

Concerning the customary reaction of victim silence that #metoo fights against, Tamar teaches us that insofar as the victim possesses the requisite strength and conviction, silence is not the optimal response to sexual assault. It grants control and power to predators and gives them the self-confidence to continue sowing terror and destruction in the souls of their victims. The realization of Avraham Avinu’s destiny, to “keep the way of Hashem, to perform do charity and justice,” and the achievement of those blessings that Avraham was promised, depend on speaking out, complaining, reporting. Yet, the same aspiration to realize a society of “charity and justice” also behooves us to minimize the negative costs, and to refrain from a simple copy-paste of the western #metoo movement.

For one, we need to ensure that the positive trend of complaining and reporting should not undermine the basic duty to “walk modestly with Hashem” (Micha 6:8). Even concerning the act of Tamar, the Netziv writes that she was careful to refrain from trampling the modesty norms of her time, explaining that she refrained from stating explicitly that she was raped, for this would infringe basic modesty principles, but rather implied it by covering her hair with her own hands (Devar Ha’Emek, II Shmuel 13). In my humble opinion, the simple reading of the verses indicates that Tamar did violate modesty norms and that doing so was presumably required for her to project her message, in a similar vein to the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest (see footnote 3). The point, however, is well made: we need to establish a working mechanism that will enable full reporting in a way that does not undermine public modesty standards.

Together with this, we need to ensure that basic rights to a fair trial and to the presumption of innocence should not be denied, even in the name of compassion and empathy for victims. For this purpose, I can only repeat the call I have already made in the past for a body (or bodies) that will serve as a worthy address for victims. This will provide victims with a less jarring and exacerbating path for posting a complaint, and will also know how to deal effectively with cases, merging Torah insight alongside a full partnership with professional bodies and legal and welfare authorities.

Finally, it is important to note that #metoo is not an isolated social phenomenon, and comes together with much baggage that Charedi society is clearly (and justifiably) unwilling to adopt. A separate piece will be required to discuss the dimensions of this issue at length, but for the present, it seems worthy to emphasize the simple need to establish an educational process in the area of sexual assault and to ensure the upkeep of clearly defined social norms that minimize the risk of abuse and attacks. This is exactly what was done in the wake of Tamar’s actions: a change of mindset on the one hand, which placed the focus on victims themselves, and a legal enactment on the other to minimize the risk of recurrence. Today, it seems we very much need them both. And we have a “tall tree”, as the Hebrew saying goes—a Tamar, a date palm—on which to rely.


[1] The Mishnah teaches that a man must not be in seclusion with two women, while it is permitted for a woman to be in seclusion with two men. The Gemara explains that the reason for this is the lesser discretion of women, which makes them more susceptible to being lured to sin. It is thus clear that the concern is for a consensual sin rather than a coerced one.

[2] See Sifri, Ki Teitzei, no. 244, which explains that no fine is paid in cases of rape of a woman who is not a virgin.

[3] This recalls the tale of the Yochanan the High Priest’s daughter, told with some differences by several Midrashim. Briefly, one of the decrees of the Greeks against the Jews was that at every Jewish wedding, the bride would first sleep with the Greek general (jus primae noctis), and only afterward return to her husband. This practice continued for some time, until the daughter of Yochanan was to be married, at which time “she let her hair grow wild and tore her clothes and stood naked before the people.” Yehuda and his brothers were filled with anger and wished to punish her for her impudence and the danger to life that her actions cause, yet she replied to them: “Ought I to be embarrassed before my brothers and neighbors and not in the eyes of the uncircumcised and impure? For you want to abuse me and send me to sleep with him!” Upon hearing the retort, the Hasmonean leaders understood how untenable the situation was. They plotted to kill the general and succeeded (Midrash for Chanukkah, noted in Eisenstein, Otzar Ha-Midrashim, p. 185). Initially, the real-politic consideration of saving lives and maintaining the peace tilted the scales in favor of acquiescing with the evil decree. Yet, Yochanan’s daughter was able to focus the leadership’s attention on an aspect they had hitherto overlooked—the suffering of the bride, the immediate victim—and this led Yehuda and his brothers to understand that the matter must be stopped. I thank Mrs. Vardit Rosenblum for making the connection with the Midrash.

[4] It is noteworthy that this interpretation will raise several halachic ramifications that are not raised by authorities. For instance, what is the halacha of a non-married woman in circumstances under which there is no concern for consensual sin? If the concern is only for consensual relations, as in classic cases of Yichud, there would be no prohibition, but if the concern is for rape then the Yichud prohibition would nonetheless apply. Certain Rishonim (such as the Rosh) raise the new Yichud prohibition (with a penuya) together with the classic Yichud prohibition, indicating that they are substantively similar, while others do not do so. This matter requires further analysis, and I will try to write separately on the matter.

[5] See

[6] Examples are tightening of workplace regulations, outlawing certain nondisclosure agreements, and other similar legislation.

[7] People v. Liberta, 474 N.E.2d 567, 576 (N.Y. 1984). See Alexander Wald, “What’s Rightfully Ours: Toward A Property Theory of Rape,” 30 Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 488.


Photo by Wade Lambert on Unsplash

3 thoughts on ““Tamar Established a Great Fence”: On the Torah Approach to #Metoo

  • You write: “On the other hand, we need to ensure that basic rights to a fair trial and to the presumption of innocence should not be denied, even in the name of compassion and empathy for victims. ”

    The presumption of innocence is lost with the existence of victims, in the plural, on the recommendation of secular experts. the person must be removed from having the possibility of future contact. In this type of situation, makin ve’onshin shelo min ha’din might be more applicable than revered figures’ comments about penetration. HaShem yerachem.

  • Might there be potential opportunities for disbelief/ denial if a girl reports to a sensitive rabbi or ‘ vad’ ( or like)
    That their esteemed cohort molested her?
    For a regular molester , establishing a first line of defense, might work, providing they plan to apprehend the guy; and not just send him to another neighborhood.

    • Yes, this might be a concern, which is why it is so necessary that whichever body is established should: 1) be diverse; 2) include legal professionals & social workers who accompany each case; 3) have a direct relationship with Israel’s welfare system; have maximum transparency, while respecting the privacy of relevant individuals.
      While no system can be perfect, I think this is absolutely necessary to advance in this area. The fact is that the majority of victims, certainly those within Haredi society, will not go to the police and authorities, which is why some kind of internal body, supported by rabbis and communities, is essential.

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