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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A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

A Convenient Jew

I don’t do politics here, but I do worry about Jewish identity here. I put that disclaimer in

A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

Shmura Matzo – Creative Commons Licensed Image

because I’m going to talk about a political person, but not a political issue.

I encountered someone’s opinion on Bernie Sanders’s perceived authenticity as a Jew that, frankly, has me uncomfortable–not for its political content, but for its take on what it means to be Jewish.

On a Facebook post on a friend’s wall, a friend of this friend said that Sanders always seemed to be a “convenient Jew.”

This critique, for some reason, just struck home with me. I mean, it’s a logical fallacy wrapped in a larger one: whether he was or was not correct isn’t affected by the sort of Jew he is (that’s the “big” logical fallacy–an ad hominem argument), but there’s also the suggestion that Sanders isn’t Jewish enough (that’s a “no true Scotsman” fallacy). It’s that second one–that maybe Sanders isn’t Jewish enough–that struck me.

What exactly does that mean?

I think, picking away at the paint on the statement, what we’re really talking about is something like this: Sanders’s statements on Israel (the comment was in response to an article on Sanders’s statements on fatalities in Gaza) aren’t…something (?) or something enough (?)…and so Sanders’s Jewishness is a thing that’s convenient to trot out when it serves his purposes, but otherwise is not important to him.

That definition makes it so that Jewish identity’s primary arbiter is not the sum of one’s attachments and actions. It’s…something else. A demand that a Jew in public life be loud and proud about her or his identity? I’m not sure.

But ignoring the whole person’s attachments and actions with respect to Jewish life is a problem.

Secular Humanistic Judaism has long held to the following definition:

In response to the destructive definition of a Jew now proclaimed by some Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we, therefore, affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.

See http://www.shj.org/humanistic-jewish-life/issues-and-resolutions/who-is/

If you meet this? You’re good with me. And we ought to be opening the gates wide, mindful that it will soon be Passover: “All who are hungry ― come and eat. All who lack ― come celebrate Passover.”

All the rest is commentary.

And if this makes me an INconvenient Jew? Well, I’m good with that, too.

(Also: I’ll mod the living beeswax out of your political comments on this post. I’m not having a political discussion here. To paraphrase Lesley Gore (also Jewish!), it’s my bloggy and I’ll mod if I want to.)

(Tapping) Testing. Sibilants.

Is this thing on?

Hey! I’m back! Again.

Seriously, I’ve been very, very busy. Sorry about that, but job, other job, editing, weddings (including officiating a Star Wars-themed wedding!)–I’m a busy person.

I came across something on Tablet that I thought was interesting. Mark Oppenheimer, who has written at some length on religious issues, particularly on Judaism and on the secular movement’s apparent issues with sexism, has a review of the late Edgar Bronfman’s book, Why Be Jewish?. The review is interesting in its way–it compares Bronfman’s book with two others bearing the same title, one by Meir Kahane and the other by David Wolpe. I suppose if you were looking for a study of the “Why should I be Jewish?” genre it would be a good place to start. (Spoiler: there really aren’t any books in this genre that I would give to someone who asked, “Why be Jewish?,” and I get the sense Oppenheimer wouldn’t, either.)

But what I found particularly useful is Oppenheimer’s characterization of what it means to be a Jew–that it’s a sort of family status.

But the Jew, as opposed to the Jewish person, is simply a member of this family that was, according to Kahane, chosen by God and given the Torah at Sinai—the family that, according to Bronfman, somehow kept its identity over millennia and developed a rich heritage worth perpetuating. Neither understanding of my family story satisfies me perfectly, but I think they are onto something. They’re mishpochah. Not Jewish, but fellow Jews.

What Bronfman feared, Oppenheimer suggests, was that Jews would become “Jew-ish” rather than “Jewish”: someone who is a Jew and is perhaps peripherally associated with the family, but not involved in or with it.

It strikes me that there’s something to this family analogy that I like better than others.

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Who’s a Jew? Maybe you!

I’m still working on another post that I think says things that need saying about a fundamental tension in modern liberal Judaisms. But I’m taking a moment here to put down a marker on a different issue–Jewish identity.

A post by Elad Nehorai at Hevria, entitled “On Loving Jews Who Aren’t Jews,” is making the rounds and provoking considerable anger. (Elad Nehorai also blogs as Pop Chassid.) Hevria’s “About” page includes the following:

We are a group devoted to spreading the idea of positive creation in a spiritual context. We want to make this world beautiful. And we want you to join us.

This statement has proven itself to be a little ironic in the last few days as Nehorai’s “On Loving Jews Who Aren’t Jews” has made its rounds.

Why?

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Judaism as Je Ne Sais Quoi

(This weekend, IISHJ is holding a colloquium on the future of Judaism at the Birmingham Temple. I can’t be there due to a business trip; I’ll be in Dallas at a convention. But in the spirit of the colloquium, here’s my feeble attempt at figuring out exactly what Judaism is. The short answer is: “I know it when I see it.” That not being good enough, I’ve written this. In addition, congratulations to Ed Klein and Susan Averbach on their upcoming rabbinic ordinations during the colloquium. Mazal tov to them both!)

Last week, I responded to the idea that we should focus on how people “Do Jewish” as a way of getting past essentializing labels like “What shul do you go to?,” and I ended with the note that ideas matter. I want to attack the problem of Jewish identity from the other direction.

Ideas aren’t enough, either.

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Asking How You “Do Jewish” Isn’t Enough

Rabbi Ben Greenberg has an article at the Rabbis Without Borders blog about Jewish identity and whether, when we ask about someone’s congregational affiliation, we are asking the wrong question.

On the one hand, I agree with him: “Are you ______?” and “Which synagogue do you belong to?” are essentializing, unhelpful questions in many cases. Asking how you “do” Jewish may be a better place to start.

On the other hand, I cannot agree with him on his premise for the question, because he writes out portions of the Jewish community.

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More musings on justice

It’s kind of amazing how quickly it feels like we get to the end of each year’s Torah reading cycle. (Cue old-man voice yelling at kids to get off my lawn.) This week’s parasha is the double portion Nitzavim-Vayelech. We’re nearing the end of Deuteronomy, and we are only a few weeks away from starting all over again at Genesis 1:1.

Deuteronomy is a mixed bag in terms of general reading interest. Sometimes it’s a slog, reciting in no particularly obvious order various legal provisions. But Nitzavim, in particular, has some of the most used (abused?) verses: Deuteronomy 30:9-20, part of the book’s beginning-of-the-end oration.  Continue reading

Tish’a B’Av (and counting)

I had planned to post yesterday for Tish’a B’Av. I started writing a post, but the draft didn’t save, and by the time I noticed the draft hadn’t saved, it was too late in my day to start again. It was going to be a barn-burner, too, an approving response to Rabbi Michael Lerner’s article on Salon.com, and his subsequent post at the Tikkun Magazine website, about how Israel is destroying Judaism as he knows it.

But then the draft didn’t save. (Side note to the WordPress admins: why is it easier to create a post where there won’t be an automatic save of the draft? Not a very friendly feature, I think.)

So here we are, Tish’a B’Av (and counting). (Using the Hebrew number isn’t going to get any search engine hits.)

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On the Worrying Economics of Torah Observance

Tablet Magazine recently ran a story about the rising costs associated with maintaining Orthodox-level Jewish observance (the article focuses on Toco Hills in Atlanta, a heavily-Orthodox suburb). From food to housing to education, the article notes, it’s always been costly (when compared with how others fare) to be strictly Torah observant. It’s expensive to keep kosher in a manner that will pass muster in those communities. Housing costs get driven upward because of the need to live within an eruv (a legal fiction that defines a kind of private space in which the laws for carrying items between public and private spaces on Shabbat do not apply) or otherwise be within walking distance of a synagogue. And public education simply “won’t do” because no one teaches Torah and Talmud in the public schools.

(“Legal fiction,” by the way, does not mean that something is false. It means that the entity, concept, etc., is created by a legal enactment because it would not otherwise exist. Your Latin lesson for today: “fiction” comes from the same Latin verb–facio–as our words “fact” and “manufacture.”)

You could say many things about the economic circumstances at work here. It’s possible, for example, to “blame the victim.” I won’t do that here, and wouldn’t do so in any case. My concern is a systemic one.

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Think

True confession: I love The Blues Brothers. The first movie, not the second one. Does anyone actually like that one?

In the original movie, there’s a scene where Jake and Elwood go to recruit Matt “Guitar” Murphy for the band and his wife musically and …gently?…discourages him. (Aretha Franklin is, as always, fabulous.)

So, why bring this all up?

The song is called, “Think.” And the movie takes place in Chicago.

And I was just in Chicago. At a talk that has everything to do with thinking: I attended the “CRASH” lecture that Rabbi Benay Lappe of Svara delivers just before the beginning of each new go-round of the Svara Beit Midrash.

Svara, by the way, means (in part) thinking. (See what I did there? Chiastic parallelism–one of the patterns of construction in Biblical Hebrew poetry.)

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