Joshua Weinberg

A Girl Named Joseph

Friday December 16, 2022 – כ״ב כִּסְלֵו תשפ”ג

No, this is not a re-gendered Jewish version of a Jonny Cash song. Rather, it’s the title of a poem that came under fire this week in Israel.

Was Joseph, the son of Jacob, transgender? Of course, the text doesn’t necessarily say that, but a number of midrashim hint at the possibility. Nurit Zarchi, an Israeli author and poet, in her intense and beautiful poem “והִיא יוֹסֵף” (“And She Is Joseph”) not only allows for the possibility of such a thing but actively suggests it. She waxes lyrical about Rachel tucking in the curls of her “daughter” to appear as though she was the beloved son Jacob wished for from his most cherished wife. Zarchi, and her poem, came under fire from the incoming Deputy Minister of Jewish Identity Avi Maoz, who lambasted the educational system for wildly distorting the holy and profaning the sacred by teaching such things as part of the public school’s TaNaKh curriculum. This, of course, is not true. The poem is only one of many suggested texts for literature studies and specifically not Bible. But that is of no concern to Maoz, whose almost singular focus is on combatting the “evils” (as he sees it) of gender fluidity and non-heterosexual identity.

Maoz’s war on identity has upped the ante of the fierce expression of identity politics in Israel. A transition from a “politics of ideas” to a “politics of identity” is, perhaps, the major change that Israeli society has experienced in recent years. Sociologists, historians, political scientists, cultural critics, journalists, political commentators, and public intellectuals all offer interpretations of this shift. When exactly did this change occur? Was it the result of a single dramatic event or an inevitable by-product of the long and painful process of building a new society? Could this shift be a natural manifestation of an identity crisis that Israel is undergoing 75 years after its establishment?

This week we read the story of Joseph, and we will celebrate Hanukkah, the essence of which is inherently about identity. Some see Hanukkah as being about the preservation of Jewish identity. We might argue that one’s focus on particular aspects of the holiday tells a lot about one’s identity. And so we ask – What exactly do we celebrate on Hanukkah and what can we glean about ourselves when we do so?

Is it the Maccabees’ and/or God’s military victory over the Assyrians? Is it a spiritual victory of Judaism over Hellenism? Is it the miracle in which one small jar of oil gave light in the Temple for eight days? Is it a holiday celebrating the victory of the Jewish people against religious oppression?

It’s important to recognize that we live in a post-binary reality that reaches beyond the framework of past dichotomies. To draw lines between what was Jewish and what was Hellenistic more than two millennia ago might not be a particularly relevant question for today’s North American Jews. The modern era eschews such dichotomies in favor of a multi-identity reality. A modern Jew holds multiple identities, and multiple loyalties, and is a traveler in an open marketplace of ideas in search of new synergies and meanings.

For decades past generations warned about assimilation and the shedding of one’s core identity. In the “old country” one could be either Polish or Jewish. Growing up there were many youth group moments in which we agonized over the semantics of being an American-Jew vs. a Jewish-American. One’s answer highlighted and emphasized one’s priorities and level of assimilation versus dedication to the Jewish people.

For an increasing number of Jews in North America today, Jewish identity feels like a liability. Many college students hide external symbols of Jewishness for fear of antisemitism. Many choose to disassociate with establishment Jewish life from fear of guilt by association with the extreme right-wing policies of the Israeli government.

This is the challenge facing many liberal and progressive Zionists. If I were to wear a t-shirt with an Israeli flag on it around campus, people might assume that I support right-wing ultranationalist politics. The same could be said for one who flies a large American flag outside their house. It is unlikely for a passerby to see the flag and conclude that:

“that family, by flying their American flag, must be staunch first amendment advocates who value freedom of speech! They must work tirelessly for voter advocacy, and the protection of minority rights as citizens of a liberal democracy in which freedom and tolerance are core values.”

So it is with Hanukkah. In addition to the mitzvah of lighting candles on Hanukkah, the rabbis explained that we do so for the purpose of “פִּרְסוּמֵי נִיסָּא / Pirsumei Nisa” – to publicize the miracle[1]. We are meant to place the Hanukkiyah where it will be visible to passersby, such as in our window or outside the door (except in times of genuine persecution).

One might be concerned about a different halakhic concept known as מראית עין or mar’it-ayin. This refers to actions that are fully permissible but because they might seem to observers to be in violation of Jewish law are prohibited to prevent passersby from arriving at a false conclusion.

In today’s world, someone who fulfills the obligation of pirsumei nisa might be required to clarify which miracle they are celebrating. Do we celebrate the nationalist triumph of the Maccabees over the evil Antiochus and support the Hasmonean dynasty, or do we emphasize the universal concept of shedding light in moments of darkness thereby emphasizing our story of being persecuted and teaching that until everyone is free, no one is free?

For the Zionist Movement, there was no larger and more important symbol of the Jewish people’s national resurgence than the Maccabees. They demonstrated devotion to their cause, fought against assimilation, preserved their identity, and showed physical strength and military prowess. Judah Maccabee became a folk hero and the term Maccabee/מכבי became not only the name of Israeli sports teams but also Israel’s HMO health clinic.

However, those descended from the Maccabees, known as the Hasmonean dynasty, were not particularly laudable characters. Judah and his brothers’ power and pride evolved into unhinged power and corruption, eventually leading to the dynasty’s downfall.

What began in glory ended in ignominy. The nine Hasmonean rulers recognized by the Roman senate engaged in the same political intrigues, self-aggrandizement, and bloodshed as the previous regime. When two brothers who were not eligible claimed the kingship, they called on a representative of Rome to arbitrate. Foolishly repeating the mistake of the Hellenized Jews, the contending brothers opened the door to the Roman conquest which ended their rule (King Herod (72-4 BCE) killed the last of them) just 103 years after the Maccabean rededication thereby ending Jewish sovereignty in Israel for the next 2,000 years.

The ill-fated reputation of the Hasmoneans led to the holiday of Hanukkah being ignored within decades of its establishment until a new narrative of hope was created and disseminated including the story of a miracle of oil lasting eight days.

The problem with the Hasmoneans was that they combined the crown of priesthood with the crown of royalty. Practically speaking, it placed too much authority, both civil and religious, into one entity.

Sound familiar?

Even in biblical times we Jews maintained checks and balances between the prophecy and the monarchy. In today’s Israeli government, we are witnessing a situation in which they are inseparably enmeshed.

One could easily connect the story of Hanukkah to the modern State of Israel founded by those who believed in the right for Jewish self-determination and the survival of our people against all odds, a true testimony to the power of the meager over the mighty.

Fast-forward 75 years to today. When Israel was established, Jewish nationalists regarded their newfound power as a means of self-defense. However, that original impulse evolved into today’s radical ultra-Nationalist extremism. Just as the Hasmonean dynasty over-reached, so too have several prominent right-wing nationalists created a distorted version of our national liberation Movement and turned it into an ultra-Nationalist supremacist manifestation.

I fear that Jews outside Israel will reject the mitzvah of pirsumei nisa for fear of marit ayin. Lighting a Hanukkiyah on Sunday night ought to say: “our candles are here to spread light and joy in places of darkness, and we reject the Hasmonean dynasty’s history of aggression and belligerence.”

This year let the purpose of our lighting the Hanukkah candles be a celebration of the miracle of yesteryear and a commitment to maintaining Jewish identity as an essential part of my being.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] שבת כ״א ב׳
.ת”ר נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ אם היה דר בעלייה מניחה בחלון הסמוכה לרה”ר ובשעת הסכנה מניחה על שלחנו ודיו

Shabbat 21b
The Sages taught in a baraita: It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside so that all can see it. If one lived upstairs, one places it at the window adjacent to the public domain. In a time of danger, one places it on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill the obligation.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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