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Joseph and Chanukah – Assimilation and Intermarriage  

12/12/2018 05:19:00 PM


The stories about Joseph in the Torah that we are reading during these weeks address surprisingly contemporary themes.  Assimilation is on our minds at this time of year.   How much of Christmas to tolerate or allow in to our lives?  For example, do you correct people who say “Merry Christmas” to you?  Do you go to Christmas parties or share the holiday with non-Jewish family or friends or politely decline?  What if you are part of an intermarried family?  Do you celebrate each other’s holidays?  How comfortable do you feel with each of your choices?
The Chanukah story is a perfect example of this dilemma – especially if we read it as not a conflict between Jews and a tyrannical government but between Jews who disagree over which Greek customs are acceptable and which cross the line into assimilation or apostasy. 

Yes, the tyrannical Syrian-Greek government was existential threat to Jews who wanted to practice Judaism.  This is not the only piece of the story, however. Long before Antiochus, many Jews adopted Greek culture, language, etc.  Observant Jews like the Maccabee (or Hasmonean) family opposed this assimilation.  The Jews themselves were bitterly divided over this.  Once Antiochus imposed his religious laws and desecrated the Temple, that was the last straw.

Chancellor Arnold Eisen of JTS said in a recent commentary: 
How much distinctiveness should Jews maintain in a society and culture like ours that offers unprecedented opportunity and freedom? How much distinctiveness can we maintain without putting our acceptance in jeopardy? And—perhaps the most difficult question on the communal agenda these days—how much distinctiveness can Jews afford to sacrifice without losing Jewish children and grandchildren to the ways and identity of the majority?

Joseph faces this exact dilemma in Parshat Miketz.  He rises from the depths of prison to become “ha-shalit ha-aretz” the ruler of the land – second only to Pharaoh in power. Pharaoh gives him two gifts when he raises him to this position in order to forcibly integrate him into Egyptian society and culture.  First, an Egyptian name – Tsafenat Pane-ah “the sustainer of life” (because of his responsibility to manage the famine and food distribution) and an Egyptian wife, Osenat – the daughter of an Egyptian priest.  These two gifts trap Joseph in obligation and in the pleasures of “belonging” in this new culture which has rewarded him so richly.
How Egyptian to be?  How much of his former identity and family ties to hold on to?  He is certainly Egyptian enough when he meets his brothers again that they do not recognize him.  And yet, he does not forget the God of his father Jacob, and becomes the savior of his people.  

Dr. Eisen says:  “Consider the irony: the survival of the children of Israel is secured by this child of Israel who, married to the daughter of a gentile priest, brings his family down to Egypt, where he and they loyally serve the Pharaoh. The survival of the Children of Israel in a later generation will be secured by another Israelite, that one from the tribe of Levi, also married to the daughter of a gentile priest, who will lead a rebellion that liberates his people from Pharaoh’s service/slavery. (The Hebrew word for “slavery” and “service” is the same.) Had Joseph and Moses not been at home at Pharaoh’s court, wise in the ways of ministers and kings, skillful at magic arts beyond the capacity of Pharaoh’s magicians (dream interpretation and the working of miracles), and gifted with the right word at the right time and inside knowledge of Egyptian society and culture; and had they not, despite all this, retained a strong sense of divine mission and purpose—they would not have been able to perform the redemptive tasks assigned them.”

There is a general belief held by some that the reason for Jewish survival is that we held on to our beliefs and our traditional language and names and customs in spite of everything.  That’s not really true.  The generations after Joseph gave their children Egyptian names like Moses and Aaron – and later in the time of the Chanukah story, Greek names.  Many of those who fought with the Maccabees and later were part of the Hasmonean government had Greek names. Great sermons have been given in German, English, Polish, Spanish, Arabic, etc. by rabbis who dressed like their gentile neighbors.   In an article titled “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish history” former JTS Chancellor Rabbi Gerson Cohen said ““a frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity, but that in a profound sense, this assimilation and acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source of renewed vitality.”

Global Judaism and Jews are richly diverse in culture, ethnicity and custom.  It's not just about languages and names.  Despite strong religious opposition, our people have intermarried in every country where they have settled, just like Joseph and Moses.  The intimate encounter with the host culture, inside the family, is what produced distinct Jewish variations.  Think of the differences between Jews from Moscow or Tashkent, London or Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai or Johannesberg.  Intermarriage requires Jews to carefully consider what their religious and cultural identity means to them, and to make conscious choices. 

We remember Joseph and his choices every Shabbat when we bless our sons.  “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe”.  Ephraim and Menashe were the sons of Joseph and Osenat.  These children of intermarriage are the ones we hope our children will emulate!  Why is that?  We bless our daughters with the names of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.  We remember Ephraim and Menashe because, although raised Egyptian, they became part of the new Jewish community in Egypt and their descendants were Jews.  We want our children to have the strength to remain Jewish while assimilating – to be enriched by their contact with the dominant culture and use those gifts to renew Judaism and the Jewish people.

The lesson of Chanukah and the Joseph story and many other stories through the centuries is that if we assimilate too completely, we lose Jewish continuity – but if we don’t want to ghetto-ize ourselves or for Judaism to stagnate, a certain amount of assimilation is necessary.  As Dr. Eisen says – “that means learning to speak new languages, and letting Torah speak in those languages.”  


We have adapted laws and customs to new circumstances time and time again, and found new insights and pathways in Torah and texts because of our fresh perspective – and ARGUED WITH EACH OTHER about what the boundaries should be and how to maintain them.  And luckily, Joseph is with us every year at Chanukah to guide us!

Sun, July 21 2019 18 Tammuz 5779