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Parashat Vayeishev-Hanukkah

December 3, 2015

Joseph and Judah as Paradigms
by Rabbi Len Levin

Everyone loves Joseph. But my mentor Maurice Samuel did not. In Certain People of the Book (1955), he relates how Joseph’s taunting his brothers and later manipulating his awesome power to scare the living daylights out of them reminded him of experiences of being taunted and bullied. Samuel tells the story of Joseph and the brothers from the brothers’ point of view.

Samuel also made a broader, more serious analysis of the historic role that Joseph played, according to the biblical narrative. Joseph was the first in a line of Jews (including Samuel Hanagid of 11th century Spain, Benjamin Disraeli, and most recently Henry Kissinger) who rose to positions of power in the non-Jewish political world. Though occasionally using their position to benefit their people of origin, their primary allegiance was to their gentile patrons. The brothers’ not recognizing Joseph is perhaps symptomatic of an ambiguity of Joseph’s identity–is he really one of them, or of the alien world in which he made his home? The mistrust between them persist to the end, and into later history where the Josephite tribe of Ephraim often marches to its own drummer, causing problems for the rest of the Israelite nation.

Judah, too, follows a checkered course. We read in Chapter 38 that he “went down” from his brothers, married a Canaanite woman, and begat children who turned out poorly. In the end, his Canaanite daughter-in-law, Tamar, performed an act of sacred transgression, seducing him and bearing twins, the older of whom (Peretz) became ancestor of the chief Judahide clan and of the Davidic line. Indeed, Tamar is the precursor of Ruth in many ways. In the final volume of Joseph and His Brothers, Thomas Mann paints an idealized version of Tamar as a proselyte who learned at Jacob’s feet and strove in every way possible to find the path to the God of Jacob’s people.

Both in his private family and in his relations to the broader family, Judah is a ba’al teshuvah, returning to the path of right after having strayed. This is seen most dramatically in the final act of the Joseph saga. After having instigated the sale of Joseph to the Midianites, Judah offers to sell himself to slavery in order to spare Benjamin this fate. Though the reconciliation of the brothers that follows is fragile and imperfect, it is a step in the right direction, enabled by Judah’s heroic self-sacrifice.

The story of the patriarchs and matriarchs–culminating in the story of Joseph and his brothers–plays out in a world in which the Abrahamic-Jacobite clan dwells amidst other nations and ethnic groups. American Jews should find this easy to relate to. Similar questions arise in these milieus: Whom should one marry? To which family or group will one be loyal? How will our children identify? How much of one’s energies and career should one consecrate to the general culture, and how much to the Jewish people?

In this light, Joseph is the model of the Jew who achieves brilliant success in the general world but has a lot of work to do to repair relations with his family of origin. Judah does not follow a straight course either, but in the end (with the help of Tamar) he does the most to create a solid future for internal Jewish continuity.

The Hanukkah story, too, is about choices that Jews have to make, faced with the temptations of an attractive culture with different values and different standards of success. The Hellenistic Jews in the story are dazzled by the beauty of idolatrous Greek art and the physical prowess of the gymnastic athletes. In the end, it is the family of the Maccabees, together with the Hasidim of antiquity (precursors of the Pharisees and the rabbis), who set loyalty to the Torah tradition as their highest priority.

Who are we? What are the opportunities and seductions in the broader world in which we dwell? How shall we contribute our share, as Jews and as human beings, to the broader world, while at the same time perpetuating and nurturing our own ancestral traditions and our distinctive path to God?

As we read the stories of our forebears, we identify with various characters of the stories. The identifications we make, and the way we interpret their stories, can provide us with ways to work out imaginatively how we tend to respond to the challenges in our own world.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God Is Subject To Murphy’s Law.