Torah Portion: Miketz
Book of Genesis
December 11, 2015
I grew up being told by teachers and leaders of the Jewish community the greatest threat to the Jewish people was internal not external, spiritual not physical. In a word, assimilation: The process of being “absorbed” into the majority culture. One of the popular proof texts brought in support of this prognostication was the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis.
The Joseph narrative stands out as arguably the most dramatically well-crafted narrative in the Hebrew bible. Joseph’s dreams of superiority to his brothers incurred their hatred that, in turn, caused them to cast him in a pit leaving him to die. A group of merchant traders later take Joseph from the pit and sell him as a servant to Egyptian nobility. Again, it is Joseph’s dreams that lift him from the depths of slavery to the position of second only to Pharaoh. It is also his forecast of “seven years of plenty and seven years of famine” that bring his brothers down to Egypt to purchase grain. The narrative then informs us, “When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he pretended to be a stranger, and spoke harshly to them. . .For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Gen. 42:7-8).
How is it his brothers could not recognize their own “flesh and blood”? Torah scholar Pinhas Peli writes, “Joseph seems to like his new role as well as his “robes of fine linen” and the gold chain Pharaoh puts around his neck. . .He does not want to be looked upon as the “court Jew” and does all he can to become an “insider.” He welcomes the change of his name from the Hebrew Joseph to the Egyptian Zaphenat-Paneah. . .He feels very much at home in [Egypt]. . .His assimilation into Egyptian society is complete, flawless. He has no qualms about it.” Peli suggests Joseph, in his new incarnation, is totally unrecognizable to his people. He further suggests the turning point in Jewish history was not Joseph’s sudden recognition and acceptance of his heritage when he sees his brothers, but his brothers having come down to Egypt. Had they not come before Joseph as a reminder of his past, the story of the Jewish people might have ended here. They rescued Joseph from the jaws of assimilation. According to this view, the brothers (the same ones who cast Joseph in a pit to die) become the guarantors of Judaism’s future.
For the generation of Jews who grew up after me, how pronounced are the effects of assimilation today? In the past 30 years in North America there has been a proliferation of Jewish Day Schools, most colleges and universities boast a Jewish Studies program, Jewish communal organizations have grown three-fold, Jewish summer camps are prospering, and Jews have risen to positions of power and authority, not just as Americans or Canadians but as Jews. However, during this same period, the interfaith marriage rate for Jews has topped 50%, and less than 50% of Jews affiliate with a synagogue or Jewish institution. It is quite reasonable for someone to conclude that the Jewish people’s metaphorical glass is half-empty. It can also be argued that it is half full!
One of the great Jewish historians of the 20th century, the late Prof. Gershon Cohen of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, said in a speech delivered in 1966, “To a considerable degree, the Jews survived as a vital group and as a pulsating culture because they changed their names, their language, their clothing, and with them some of their patterns of thought and expression. This ability to translate, to readapt and reorient themselves to new situations, while retaining a basic inner core of continuity, was largely responsible, if not for their survival, at least for their vitality.”
Is it possible assimilation is less a threat to the Jewish people than a strength? Is it also possible a greater cause of concern are Jews unable, or unwilling, to make Judaism part of the fabric of the 21st century?
Rabbi Howard Siegel