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.

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

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

Photograph of a long wall, at least three times as tall as the people walking next to it, trailing as far as the eye can see, with Jerusalem on one side and the Palestinian town of Abu Dis on the other.

Marking the Boundaries

Maverick Rabbi Breaks Ranks Over Intermarriage” shouts a Times of Israel title. “The Problem With Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Intermarriage Proposal,” teases the op-ed in the Forward. “On Marriage and Covenant” comes forth from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Yet again, the Conservative movement thrashes about, trying to figure out what to do about…well, any number of things. Continue reading

Interior photo of the synagogue in Oni, Georia; facing wooden pews in multiple rows, ornate columns, and a raised dais.

Everyone Belongs Here

Though he published it a couple of years ago now, for some reason I only recently encountered Rabbi Menahem Creditor’s article at Huffington Post entitled “Children in the Sanctuary.” Rabbi Creditor’s article reflects on occasions when he observed a child crying or making noise in a synagogue service. On several occasions, Rabbi Creditor observed a congregant telling a child’s parent that the child should be removed and saying, “‘perhaps your child doesn’t belong in synagogue.'” He calls these “the least synagogue-ish” words he has ever heard.

He’s right. But it’s not only children.

Continue reading

A stack of $100 bills, bundled together with a strip of paper.

Due You Feel Like I Due

In a few weeks’ (two? three? it’s close) time, I’ll be in Michigan for another week-long, in-residence course with IISHJ for the rabbinical program (this in addition to the numerous regular, weekly live interactive sessions, etc.). This one is on congregational leadership, so it covers things like organizational dynamics, roles of the rabbi and other leaders, etc.

A stack of $100 bills, bundled together with a strip of paper.

Bills, bills, bill. From 401kcalculator.org.

It also addresses synagogue membership and dues models. This is an issue that gets a lot of attention and a lot of press–not the least of which is a result of the negative feelings of many about the notion of dues payment to begin with. I’ve written about this before, and I’m obviously far from the only one to have done so. I claim no particularly special insight on this topic.

But something about the discussion concerns me, and it’s the overlap of reading a book on alternative dues models, seeing yesterday a Kveller article making “The Case for Pay-What-You-Can Synagogue Dues,” and reading various other items that prompted me to express the concern.

It is this: synagogues and synagogue-supporting think tanks are latching onto changing dues structures in response to financial pressures associated with reduced membership, on the thinking that much of the reduction in membership is related to dues structures. No doubt some of this is true; some synagogues have seen a rebound in membership numbers and in dues-derived revenue after leaving the fixed-price dues structure and adopting a different model.

Continue reading

Jewish Disability Awareness Month in Y(our) Community

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM). I’ve blogged about it before here, here, and here. And now, right here.

(If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you’ve possibly already seen some of what’s about to follow. Sorry about that.)

I decided that I wanted to see if I could find any JDAM-related events happening in Indianapolis, so I did what any person these days would: I hit up Google for information. That led to an interesting result: the first five results in Google point to this blog.

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One Additional Thought on Schooling

I posted recently a broadside at the supposed panacea of Jewish day school education as a means of keeping Jews Jewish. There was an additional thought that, because it wasn’t squarely about the merits of the argument as a means of advancing Jewish affiliation and identity, I omitted. But I think it’s important, and it deserves a post.

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