Joseph and the Not-So Technicolor Dreamcoat

I’m always tempted, when the annual Torah reading cycle gets to the Joseph story, to just let my eyes glaze over. I took a seminar on the Joseph story in grad school, and read it all in Hebrew along with Rashi’s commentary, and you know when you’ve read something before and you kind of go, “Eh, I know what this says”? That’s usually what happens to me. This year, it had been long enough (twenty years!) that I remembered only the very basic outline of the story and didn’t really remember the Rashi for any of it.

"Joseph Recognized by His Brothers,"  Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers (public domain)
“Joseph Recognized by His Brothers,”  Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers (public domain)

My brain was finally ready to re-engage with the story, and things were quite different this time. I appreciated the family drama much more than I had before. And I thought much more about how the Torah seems to hint that  being like another nation might be good but then undercuts that alternate narrative.

Prof. Susan Niditch, writing at TheTorah.com, discusses the curiosity of the Torah advancing a positive view of the Egyptians. It’s an important point, since generally the biblical authors are pretty anti-Egypt. We should also, I think, realize that this is subject to some qualifications not only within the broader biblical context — really, mostly the biblical authors are down on Egypt, with the narratives in Genesis being occasional exceptions — but also (and especially!) within the Joseph story itself. 

Prof. Niditch’s article isn’t focused on events that come after Joseph reveals his identity to Judah and his brothers, so she doesn’t focus on the anti-assimilation message bundled into the Joseph story. That’s one big piece of the story that drew my attention this time around.

As some backdrop: As Prof. Niditch points out, Joseph’s success in Egypt is pretty plainly laid at the feet of the God of the Bible. Joseph explicitly attributes his dream interpretations to God, and he tells his brothers that it was a divine plan that led them to sell him into slavery in Egypt. Here’s the outline of events that comes from Joseph’s revealing himself to Judah and his brothers: with Pharaoh’s blessing, bids his brothers go back to Jacob to tell him that Joseph is still alive and wants them all to come to Egypt. On the journey to Egypt, Jacob passes through Beersheva and offers sacrifices there “to the God of his father, Isaac” (Gen. 46:1). That night, God speaks to Jacob (now called Israel) and tells Jacob not to be concerned about going to Egypt, because it is in Egypt that the nation of Israel shall become great, and because God will bring the people up from Egypt to fulfill the promise to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham and Isaac.

Eventually, when Jacob and the rest of the family arrive in Egypt, Joseph has them appear before Pharaoh and tells them to ask to be allowed to settle in Goshen. Why Goshen? Because Joseph’s family are shepherds, “every shepherd is an abomination to Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34). (Where is Goshen? If it existed as a distinct place, it was probably between the Sinai Peninsula and the eastern delta of the Nile River.) Somehow Goshen is both part of Egypt and yet not part of Egypt: it’s sufficiently Egyptian to be under Pharaoh’s control, but not so Egyptian that Joseph’s family’s primary occupation as shepherds would end up disturbing the Egyptians.

These pieces — the narrative portraying Jacob’s reassurance and the request to settle in Goshen, some sort of place apart — serve in the broader narrative to foreshadow that things will not stay rosy for the Israelites in Egypt. Interestingly, there’s not any major problem of belief posed by the narrative: Jacob and Joseph both seemingly remain devoted to Yahweh. Later on, we’ll read in Exodus 1 that at least Hebrew midwives maintain some level of devotion to the God of Israel. And in fact there’s no real question of the Israelites denying who their god is when they’re in Egypt: Moses and Aaron act to persuade the Israelites that they are God’s messengers and that it’s time for the Israelites to act — they have to persuade the Israelites to believe in them. Yet even (on the telling of the biblical narrative) several hundred years after the movement of Jacob and his family to Goshen, the Israelites are apparently still living there: “And I will separate out on that day the land of Goshen, upon which my people stand” (Ex. 8:18).

The narrative here, then, is not quite so positive toward Egypt and the idea of seeming Egyptian as perhaps it appears on first blush. Joseph’s success in Egypt isn’t really something to be credited to the Egyptians; the credit, the story says, belongs to the god of Israel. In fact, after arriving in Egypt, the Israelites will live separately and are almost by nature unwelcome in Egyptian society, and the Torah is okay with that. That is consistent with the Torah’s (and the broader Tanakh’s) overall approach toward what today we’d likely call assimilation, and it’s consistent with the Torah’s theology generally. The story of Jacob at Beersheva is almost necessary to sustain that theology: after all, a reader is entitled to wonder, as Jacob et al. head to Egypt, “Wait, what about the promise of an inheritance in Canaan?” The text tells the reader that Egypt is a waypoint, not the final destination.

Why is all of this important? This part of the Joseph story allows us to remember that the tension between belonging to a place and belonging to a separate people is written into Judaism’s foundational texts. This isn’t a new thing; it’s not simply the post-Enlightenment West that has created opportunities for Jews to resemble the lands in which they live.

But more than that: there’s a tension in how we respond to the opportunities we find. Consider the broader narrative, just as a story: Joseph comes to Egypt and becomes in almost all respects an Egyptian (more on that later). He shaves his head, takes an Egyptian wife, and is embalmed when he dies. But when he brings his family, he warns them that what they do for a living will set them apart from the Egyptians, and so it’s necessary that they live somewhat apart.

Then we come to Exodus’s first chapter, and we read that the Joseph has died, Egypt is led by a king who doesn’t know Joseph, and the Israelites have grown so numerous that Pharaoh and the Egyptians conclude that the Israelites are a threat. But let’s back up a moment and ask: in the world of the narrative, after the passage of time, how would the Egyptians know who was who?

Looking in the text for an answer: the Torah portrays the Israelites as settling in Goshen because of their distinctiveness. By the middle of the story of the ten plagues in Exodus, the text says that the Israelites are still in Goshen. (Let’s not fight the narrative too much right now, and set to one side that 1) keeping all your slaves in one place is a really bad plan, and 2) there’s almost no way Egyptians would have allowed humans treated as property to remain culturally separate and concentrated in a single area.) The Torah’s answer to the challenge of Egypt was to resist joining the majority culture. That’s not a surprise if you’ve read elsewhere in the Torah about not behaving like other nations, about divorcing foreign wives, etc. And the Torah as a text is consistent about that: the Israelites are portrayed as remaining separate from the time they come into Egypt until the time they leave. The text portrays only Joseph as taking on Egyptian mannerisms. Even so, Joseph’s body will not remain in Egypt, according to the Torah, but will instead leave Egypt along with the Israelites (Ex. 13:19).

There are, to be sure, a few texts here and there in the Tanakh that suggest more universalist approaches. Ruth and Jonah come most readily to mind. But Ruth suggests that Israelites should be willing to open the gates to allow more people in, not so much that Israelites should look out. Jonah seems universalist in religious orientation more than national orientation — and Jewishness is more than just a religious orientation. And when zoom out a little bit more, we can understand the broader narrative arc involving Jacob as being one that’s got an anti-outsiders edge: after all, the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34 is essentially a story of revenge against Shechem’s people.

So while the Joseph story suggests an openness to Egyptian culture or at least the possibility of being part of another nation’s body politic, we shouldn’t take it for more than it’s worth. Joseph’s striped coat is not a technicolor dream coat of pluralism. If we value our multiple identities and greater integration with other cultures and with the nations in which we find ourselves, we need to acknowledge that we do so because we’ve made a judgment that we don’t wish to be truly separate — not because Joseph is our model or because The Torah Says So(TM), but because that’s how we’ve judged our obligations and our places in the world as Jews and as people.

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Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

Hanukkah Is not Your Cell Phone

Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

By אליעד מלין (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At least two organizations, PJ Library and JewBelong, are floating around memes about Hanukkah that have me…unimpressed. Basically, they tell you that your cell phone with a near-dead battery lasting for eight days is what Hanukkah is about. (I put these two memes at the bottom of this post.)

I can’t even with this idea. (And yes, here’s a preliminary “get off my lawn.”)

Let’s talk tachlis here. (“Talk tachlis” = Yiddish phrase that’s pretty equivalent to “let’s get down to brass tacks.”) These memes basically peddle the idea that modern, educated Jews should rest assured that their knowledge of the story of “the miracle of the oil” is enough to understand Hanukkah. It’s like when your cell phone is going to shut down, but somehow manages to just keep on plugging.

Um…no. Continue reading

Dancing at Three Weddings — A Rosh Hashanah Talk

The following is the written version of my Rosh Hashanah talk at the congregation I serve, Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that goes, “With one tuchus, you can’t dance at two weddings.” That makes sense, except maybe for when twins get married at the same time.

So what happens if one tuchus tries to dance at three weddings? I’ll give you a hint: look around. The answer is in this room.

You get Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Secular, humanistic, Judaism. Three weddings. A colleague of mine, Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, says it’s two weddings. I’m not so sure it’s just two.

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Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting, "The Destruction of the Second Temple"

Living in a Long Tisha B’Av Moment — Tisha B’Av 5778

I’m going to come at this the long way around.

I spent last weekend — really, not even 36 hours, including an overnight stay at a hotel — in Philadelphia at a training on organizing and activism that Bend the Arc Jewish Action conducted. Some of the training was a little duplicative of things I had encountered or learned elsewhere; some of the training deepened my ability to do things I already knew about, or expanded my thinking on things. I met people — even people who live here in the D.C. area — whom I might not otherwise have met.

And we talked about Tisha B’Av.

We sort of understand Passover as quintessentially tied to the idea of refugees and journeys to freedom. In some respects, Tisha B’Av is the dark mirror of that.

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One Credible Statement

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in his essay “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire,” wrote of efforts at post-Holocaust theology, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

I agree with almost none of the rest of Greenberg’s theology, but I agree with that statement.

If you are capable of seeing the reports of children ripped from their parents at the U.S. border, of seeing children fenced in cages, of hearing a child scream for her mother, and are capable of then saying, “But…,” you have violated Greenberg’s dictum. If you cannot acknowledge that this is an absolute moral wrong, you have violated Greenberg’s dictum. There is no, “But why aren’t you talking about Hamas?” There is no, “What about North Korea?”

Children are being torn from their parents and left in camps, huddling under blankets, behind chain-link fences below lights that never turn off. Cruelty is being used as a tool. Cruelty is being made into policy for cruelty’s sake.

This is, as Bend the Arc has declared, a “moral emergency.” It takes no special understanding of the Torah or of anything else to recognize this.

If you are a Jew (however identified) living in the United States, let me be clear to you: this is the moment. This is the moment when “Never again” actually puts an obligation upon you to act. Because this is a moment Jews have known for centuries.

We have seen this before. We know where this can go. It doesn’t matter that “it probably won’t” or “this is different.” This is our government committing ethical wrongs because it can and because its leaders relish the ability to do so.

This is your fight. This is our fight. This is our obligation to prior generations’ burning children.

Need a starting point on how to fight? Here’s one.

There is one credible statement to make in the presence of burning children: “We are fighting this. We will fight this. We can’t promise we will win – but we will fight. Once we couldn’t – now we can. And we are, and we will.”

I’ll see you on the protest lines.

Step Forward

Rev. David Breeden, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Humanist, recently wrote an article on Medium that included the following explanation of Humanism:

As a set of ethical principles, Humanism’s core value is that people matter more than ideas. Humanists see people as of central concern not because of our specialness as a species but because of our capacity to both heal and destroy ourselves, the planet, and all living things. Devotion to nature and life is a core value.

Since Humanists do not speculate concerning an afterlife, we focus on growing beyond systems of oppression here and now. These systems include race, gender, nation, location, class, patriarchy, and hierarchy. In other words, any boundaries that damage the human heart and mind or prevent the full expression of each individual to be fully human.

Humanist commitments are always both individual and communal because human beings can’t be fully human in isolation.

I’ve been dwelling on these three paragraphs as my congregation enters b’nei mitzvah season (we do group ceremonies that tend to be concentrated toward the end of the school year). Some of what has made it stick is that it’s just well expressed, and catches some of what I want to make sure my congregation conveys to our students.

But the greater part of its stickiness for me is connected to the daily reminders that our current political and social climate is simply an affront to human dignity, which is the bedrock of Humanism. The revelation of the U.S. government’s policies of separating, upon apprehension, undocumented immigrant parents from their children is the latest example, and is perhaps the most individually grotesque and dehumanizing of the Trump administration’s policies.

It is unquestionably cruel to knowingly adopt legislative measures that have the obvious consequence of destroying individuals’ ability to obtain health care. But in some ways, it’s exactly the sort of thing governments do all the time: it’s anonymized, almost automatic distribution or redistribution of money. It’s heartless, and it’s cruel, and it’s bad policy and bad governance from both a financial and a human perspective.

But destroying the private insurance market is orders of magnitude different from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents stripping parents of their children and planning to place those children in detention areas on military bases. This isn’t detached enactment of changes to federal taxation and expenditure provisions; this is requiring that humans tear other humans from one another.

There’s no excuse for this. Even if you (erroneously) believe that the U.S. economy cannot sustain additional immigrants, and even if you (erroneously) believe that immigrants take jobs from other Americans, we can perhaps discuss legitimate policy questions about how much immigration is appropriate. But if you believe that tearing children from their mothers and potentially warehousing them on military bases is in any way appropriate policy simply because of undocumented immigration status, or is in any way not needless trauma upon those victimized and even upon the rank-and-file ICE and CBP agents who are tasked with engaging in this behavior, we have nothing to talk about.

Tearing children from their parents because their parents are undocumented immigrants is oppression. It damages the heart and mind of each person wrapped up in the system – victim and perpetrator alike. It damages the social structure as well as individuals.

If you claim to be a Humanist, you have an obligation to speak up and to try to find ways to help.

If you are Jewish, you likewise have an obligation to speak up and to help. Our obligation as Jews is even greater, because our history is one of wandering and of children being torn from their parents. Ours is a tradition that had this pain forced upon it time and again for the better part of two millennia. If you are willing to claim that your father was a wandering Aramean – if you are going to declare that your forebears were slaves in Egypt or anywhere else – you are doubly obliged to step forward and to say “No.”

So, what can you do?

  • At the very least, you can sign this ACLU online petition
  • You can contact your Congressperson, your Senator, and executive branch agencies and demand this practice end
  • You can donate to organizations like the ACLU and its allies, who are pursuing litigation to stop the practice
  • You can donate to organizations like the American Immigration Council and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are stepping into the breach and providing attorneys to represent detained immigrants – because there’s no right to appointed counsel in most immigration proceedings

Step up and take action. Human lives and human dignity hang in the balance.

A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

10,000 Lawyers for Shavuot

Tomorrow evening marks Shavuot. Among many Jews, Shavuot is called z’man mattan torateinu, the traditional reckoning of the day when the Torah was given to the Israelites at Sinai (literally the time of the giving of our Torah).

In some respects, the biblical story tied to Shavuot is more foundational to Judaism’s self-understanding for much of the past 2000 years than is Passover: engagement with the text and the rules laid out in the Torah is in large part what gave Judaism its shape after the destruction of the Second Temple. Many Jews mark Shavuot with some amount of Torah study, including the notable practice of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which is more or less an all-nighter of Torah study.

Finding special meaning in the rules of the Torah on account of the idea of revelation – which is what Shavuot essentially celebrates – isn’t much of a Humanistic Jewish pastime, and so the traditional understanding of Shavuot doesn’t fit easily for many Humanistic Jews. There’s a historical foundation underneath Shavuot that connects to the first fruits of the harvest in the land of Israel, and that connection to nature moves many Humanistic Jews. Others take the idea of study and broaden it out, so that Shavuot ties to the broader ideas of Jewish learning and the vast expanse that is Jewish literary history.

This year, however, I’ve found myself centering the ideas of Torah and covenant – though not revelation – in my own understanding of Shavuot. And I promise that, by the time we’re done, you’ll understand the title of this post.

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Of Sex, Leprosy of a House, and Humanism

(NOTE: The following was the script I prepared for delivery as a d’var Torah, aimed at folks who had never encountered Humanistic Judaism before, at a special Humanistic Jewish Shabbat service I led at Sixth & I Synagogue on April 27, 2018. As it happens, I forgot to print my talk, and delivered substantially the same talk – but not in these words. So, here’s the prepared speech that went…sort of…undelivered.)

If you follow the Torah reading cycle – and actually, even if you don’t, because it turns out calendars don’t ask for our opinions – this week is a double Torah portion: Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.

Achrei Mot and Kedoshim are usually pretty high up on the list of Torah portions that, if you’re having a bat or bar mitzvah, you really don’t want to get. They’re not quite as apparently boring as last week, when there are multiple chapters on what to do about leprosy. There’s even a process for what happens if your house gets leprosy!

Even if they’re not as weird as all that, this week’s Torah portions aren’t exactly the easiest topic-wise, because they touch on all manner of rather adult topics: other than setting up the process for Yom Kippur, these portions spend a lot of time talking about forbidden sexual relationships.

In fact, when you double-up Achrei Mot and Kedoshim, you double-up how much time you spend reading about forbidden sexual relationships. I mean, sure, there’s also a sort of affirming chunk in Leviticus 19 that seems to restate some of the really basic, “everyone agrees murder is bad” rules. Do we really need both Leviticus 18 and 20? Do we really need to read twice about the people you’re not permitted to have sex with?

But, I’m actually sort of excited to talk about this section of the Torah. As seemingly weird as some of these laws are, they’re actually really important – even if you don’t follow any of them. Continue reading

A Museum Review for You—A Review of the Museum of the Bible

You may or may not have heard that a Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, D.C. I have…feelings about putting a museum like this across the street from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a block from the FBI’s headquarters and from the U.S. Department of Education, and catty-corner from a State Department facility. The symbolism of that choice ought not be lost upon those of us concerned about separating church and state. (If you think it’s some neutral facility with no axe to grind, I have lovely real estate in the Everglades to sell you.)

Looking for field trip opportunities for the students at the congregation’s school, I went with our school director to the Museum to see whether and, if so, how students from our school might benefit from a field trip. Since we did the legwork, it seemed like a good idea to write up my impressions.

And, having written it up, why not share it with you?

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