After a week of remarkable cultural convergence, a week of “menurkeys” and sweet potato latkes, Jewish tradition served up Parshat Miketz for a fascinating dessert course this Shabbat, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
Did you make travel plans in search of food on Thursday? So did Joseph’s brothers, when they were starving. Did you have an awkward family gathering around the dinner table? So did Joseph and his brothers. Did you give gifts of honey, gum, and pistachios to relatives? Close enough. But the similarities between the story Miketz has to tell and the events of this past week don’t end there.
Thanksgivukkah is only the latest in a long line of examples of the love affair between Jews, Judaism, and American civic culture. For as long as Jews have lived in the United States — and indeed, everywhere Jews have lived — they have survived, and often thrived, by adapting and reshaping their religious traditions in a process of creative engagement with the culture of the non-Jewish majority. Even the modern state of Israel, despite having traceable roots in Jewish liturgy, history, and theology, owes its theoretical genesis as much if not more to nineteenth-century European nationalism and the emergence of ethnic nation-states.
In the United States, thanks to constitutional protections guaranteeing freedom of religious expression, the limited ability of rabbinic authorities to control or even influence individual Jewish behavior, and relatively mild antisemitism, Jews have been particularly free to play with the meanings and modalities of Judaism and Jewish culture. Often, they have done so in an effort to demonstrate, both to themselves and to their fellow countrymen, just how very American their Jewish values and traditions are.
Historian Jonathan Sarna referred to this phenomenon as “the cult of synthesis,” the process by which Jews have staked their claim to an American identity by placing themselves and their values at the center of the American historical narrative and national mission. In stories, songs, poems, and pageants, American Jews have highlighted Jewish contributions to American life, such as military service and medical research, and stressed the extent to which values and traditions supposedly drawn from the Old Testament have shaped American civic and political life. Yearning to be accepted as fully American and anxious to stem the tide of prejudice, Jews and other minority groups have relied on this tactic of synthesis to prove their suitability for citizenship and inclusion.
Consciously or unconsciously, many public tributes to Thanksgivukkah echoed these sentiments. An article in Time magazine noted the many parallels between the two holidays, often taking some creative license with one festival or the other to make the thematic synthesis stick. Both celebrations provide opportunities to enjoy food and family, the author noted, and they allow us to express gratitude for the blessings in our lives, including religious freedom and material prosperity — blessings which America has bestowed upon immigrant Pilgrims and immigrant Jews alike.
Seen in this light, Hanukkah seems like the ultimate celebration of American values and history. This year, freed completely from the shadow of Christmas, Hanukkah has emerged to become the ultimate American holiday, combining food, family, freedom, and shopping in a package deal that Santa simply can’t match.
But wait! you say. Isn’t Hanukkah, in its purest, original form, a victory for Jewish continuity in the face of pressures to assimilate? Put away the presents and the menurkey for a second. Aren’t we really celebrating the accomplishments of the Maccabees, who stood up to King Antiochus, the Seleucids, and even some sympathetic Judaeans who preferred togas to Torah? This year, more than ever, as we light our menurkeys and dip our latkes in cranberry sauce, then, is it time to ask: have we lost the reason for the season, the “true meaning of Hanukkah?” What would Judah Maccabee do?
I don’t think there is one “true meaning” of Hanukkah, and I don’t think our collective Thanksgivukkah celebrations, in all their commercialized, middle-brow, and gustatory glory, are necessarily an unfortunate corruption of the Festival of Lights. Rather, today I want to think about Joseph’s life and career for a few minutes as a model for a middle path between assimilation and isolation, and an idea to carry forward as we as a community continue to grapple with what it means to be Jewish in America in the twenty-first century.
There is one tradition in the corpus of rabbinic commentary in which Joseph, like his Maccabean descendants, puts up the ultimate resistance to assimilation, even while climbing the Egyptian social and political ladder almost all the way to the top. In this view, despite being uprooted from his family as a teenager and not having contact with other family members for more than a decade, Joseph nevertheless remained steadfast in his commitment to the faith and future of his people. When Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce him, he refuses to commit adultery, a “sin before God.” In the presence of Pharoah, as a lowly and vulnerable prisoner, he attributes his acumen for dream interpretation to God, even though it would be to his clear advantage to tout his own talents. And then, even as he ascends to rank and power in Egypt, he manages to raise two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim, who grow up to identify with their father’s familial traditions despite living in relative isolation in foreign surroundings.
Indeed, when we bless Jewish sons at the Shabbat table on Friday night, we ask that God make them as Ephraim and Menasheh, borrowing the language of Jacob’s blessing which we will read in the Torah in two weeks. Simply put, we want children to inherit and pass on our love for Judaism, even and especially when doing so involves making conscious and difficult choices. According to this view, Joseph is the ideal Jew and the ideal Jewish father, who not only remained true to himself and the tradition of his ancestors, but also successfully raised two children to continue in that path.
As much as that interpretation of Joseph’s accomplishments in Egypt may be instructive and inspiring, in my view, it fails to tell the whole story. You don’t have to look too closely at the tales told in Miketz to see Joseph becoming quintessentially Egyptian once he gets out of jail. Following his promotion, Joseph is decked out in royal robes and gold jewelry, the attire of an Egyptian ruler. As the Etz Hayyim chumash notes, the very word for this robe, bigdei-shesh, includes “an Egyptian loan word for cloth of exceptional quality.” Like his father Jacob, Joseph also gets a new name, but his is conspicuously Egyptian: Tzafnat-Paneach, which translates as “God speaks, he lives” in Egyptian. (There also may be an Aramaic translation of the name, which means “decipherer of hidden things). Joseph, or Z.P., as I like to call him, then takes the daughter of an Egyptian priest for his wife, marrying into the local religious nobility.
Millenia before The Bangles made it popular to “Walk Like an Egyptian,” Joseph seems to have the routine down. He dresses Egyptian, marries Egyptian, takes an Egyptian name. And, of course, he speaks Egyptian. In his early confrontations with his brothers, who have come down to Egypt to purchase food, he is unrecognizable to his Hebrew family because of his new clothes, lifestyle, and language pattern. Clearly, Joseph had it both ways. He is a model neither of complete assimilation or complete isolation. The reading of the Joseph story that appeals to me, then, is to see him as the first to make it as a Jew in the wider world — incorporating himself into the language, culture, and life of his society while maintaining a sense of Jewish identity.The message of Miketz, in my reading, is that we can embrace hybridity without losing our sense of being a distinct group with a shared history, liturgy, faith and so on.
Hebrew and Egyptian. Jewish and American. And this year, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. For centuries, Judaism has evolved in conversation and engagement with the world around it. With Hanukkah cut off from Christmas this year and paired instead with Thanksgiving, I think we’ve been able to have a different and productive set of conversations this year about its significance. Aside from the reframed commercialism of this unique Thanksgivukkah holiday season, anything that re-energizes Jews about Judaism, history, and culture is a positive in my book.
Today, in 2013, we can be thankful that we live in an open, multicultural society that allows for freedom of expression and celebrates diversity. That very openness, however, means that being and doing Jewish now is always a choice. If a vibrant, centrist Judaism-by-choice is going to thrive in the crowded and confusing American marketplace of ideas and identities, it needs to continue to adapt and change if it is going to remain attractive and meaningful.
In the last century, American Jews constructed identity and meaning out of their ethnic and social ties to other Jews; out of financial and political support for the state of Israel; and out of a visceral sense of mission emanating from the aftermath of the Holocaust. Conservative Judaism thrived in the postwar era by betting on the suburb and giving Jews synagogue-centers: places to meet and feel comfortable doing recognizably Jewish things with each other. In 1955, that was a pretty good bet, but times have changed. Today, as a Jewish community we are increasingly becoming more and more a “post-” society: post-ethnic, post-denominational, post-Zionist, and so on. The old wine is in search of new bottles. Finding ways to continue to reclaim and refresh our traditions in engagement with new technologies, new demographic realities, and the political issues of the day will be our challenge in the years ahead. If we take Joseph as our model, I think we’ll be off to a good start.