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Parashat Miketz, 5778

December 13, 2017
Joseph: The First Diaspora Jew?
A D’var Torah for Miketz
by Rabbi Len Levin

“Pharaoh then gave…Joseph for a wife Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On… Joseph named his first-born son Manasseh, meaning ‘God has made me forget my hardship and my parental home.’” (Genesis 41:45, 51)

“They served Joseph by himself, and the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.” (Genesis 43:32)

Jews have migrated to many lands over the centuries. In each case, pioneers had to make a fresh start as the first Jews in a non-Jewish environment. Among the problems they had to face: How does a Jew maintain one’s identity in a strange land? How to maintain a distinctive way of life? What to eat? Whom could one marry to carry on the heritage?

As we follow Joseph’s adventures in Egypt, he seems to be the only Hebrew wherever he goes – in Potiphar’s house, in prison, in Pharaoh’s court. Presumably he eats what everyone around him eats. Most likely that consists of grains and vegetables in prison, richer fare in the palace.

He maintains a direct line to God, who inspires his interpretation of dreams. But this is a private, inward spirituality, relying on “the God who helps those who help themselves,” putting his conflicted relations with his family of the old country behind him. He apparently marries into the aristocracy of his adopted land. But on this point, see below. Like many pioneering wandering Jews of future eras, he succeeds brilliantly by general worldly standards, but his ties to his ancestral people seem to be hanging by a thread.

The rabbis were inventive in devising solutions to Joseph’s ostensible acts of assimilation. According to the midrash, his bride who went by the name Asenath, was really the daughter of Dinah by Shechem, and by one account she wore a tag around her neck that said, “Whoever cleaves to this one, cleaves to the seed of Jacob” (commentary of Bahya ben Asher, 13th century Spain). And when Joseph ordered meat to be served to his brothers, he called on his son Manasseh, whom he had instructed regarding the laws of kosher slaughtering (also according to Bahya). But Thomas Mann, in his masterful work, Joseph and His Brothers, rejects these suggestions as fanciful. You may take your pick on whether to accept them.

When Ezra came from Babylonia to Jerusalem (c. 450 BCE) to revitalize the transplanted Jewish community, he took a strict stand against intermarriage. Some say that the Book of Ruth may have been written to protest this policy. A few centuries later, Hanukkah was instituted as a festival to commemorate the struggle to stay Jewish against the inroads of an alien civilization. At the height of the conflict with Syrian Hellenizers, some Jews suffered heroic martyrdom, rather than eat the meat of non-kosher animals.

In our age, we are responding to the challenge of how to maintain and foster Jewish identity in an open, multi-ethnic society. Google local restaurants and you will find instantly the many ways a person of our day can eat – French, Italian, Chinese, Indian, vegetarian, or classic American, with “Jewish style” – but only occasionally kosher – as an additional option.

Our grown children go off to college, to work, and to singles’ scenes. Studies show that many of them fall in love first, and worry how they are going to raise their families afterwards. With the smaller families of today, it is very unlikely that a reunion with eleven brothers who keep the family traditions will be on the horizon for our children (unless one is from a Hasidic family, to begin with – but that is a whole other story).

Today, being identified as Jewish often is a deliberate choice, more than any previous time in history. One maintains one’s own Jewishness by lifetime learning about Judaism from all sources – school, books, Internet, classes, community programs. One makes a Jewish home and family by agreeing with one’s partner to observe a Jewish lifestyle — Shabbat, holiday observances (in this season, Hanukkah candles), food choices that will make a statement about affirming Jewishness (whether by cuisine, family recipes, keeping kosher, or special foods for Jewish holidays). One perpetuates Judaism into the next generation by raising children in the Jewish lifestyle of the home and providing for them to learn about their Jewish heritage in synagogue or community schools and camps.

In the end, Joseph was reunited with his brothers. His progeny became two large tribes in Israel. The Israelites became numerous in Egypt, coalesced into a nation, and ultimately, went out from slavery into freedom. But that is the subject of a later holiday.  Tune in for that next spring.

Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.