Joseph and how to react to antisemitism

The story goes that when Lord Derby asked Sir Lewis Namier, the great historian of Georgian England, why he, as a Jew, didn’t write Jewish history, Namier replied: “There is no modern Jewish history, only a Jewish martyrology.”

Year after year, we recite in the Passover Haggadah, “in each and every generation they stand against us trying to destroy us.” Indeed, the specter of antisemitism rises zombie-like throughout the ages and continues to haunt the Jewish people. The return to our homeland has not eradicated the hatred nor has the seeming complete acceptance and success in the Western world. We will forever remember the names of Tree of Life Synagogue, Chabad of Poway, Jersey City, and now Monsey as new sites of murderous anti-Semitic attacks on the shores of the United States, the land of the free and home of the brave.

News outlets filled with stories of those who violently attack Jews on the street, in stores, and in synagogues. Adding to the tragedies, social media buzzes with mutual incriminations. Jewish opponents of President Trump’s actions and rhetoric quickly blame his supporters and especially the Jews, among them, for aiding and abetting the rise in antisemitism and racism in general.  Those on the right of the political divide suggest that left-wing capitulation to anti-Semites and anti-Zionists coming from their ranks has promoted these acts. Many on either side seem unprepared to see a larger picture. Turning to this week’s Torah reading and thinking deeply about theology may give us a more balanced approach to relate to hatred.

Parashat Va’Yigash, which will be read this Shabbat in synagogues throughout the world, recounts the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers. Years after having caused Joseph to be sold into Egyptian slavery, the brothers now stand trembling before him. Joseph, who is now the second most powerful person in the most powerful kingdom in the world, can no longer continue the charade of hiding behind his Egyptian make-up. He pulls off his façade and exposes his true self to the dumfounded brothers. These same brothers who in the past seized him, stripped him naked, and tossed him into a pit are helpless in front of the ruler of Egypt. Whether or not they sold him as some argue or only left him to be “rescued” by slave traders as others suggest is inconsequential. The brothers are the ultimate cause of his enslavement, torture, and imprisonment. The tables have turned. Now they cower before him. Vengeance could be his at the snap of his fingers. Who would hold it against him? According to Jewish law, the punishment for kidnapping is death. Killing or at least enslaving them was within his power and would be his right.

Yet, this is the man whom the rabbis called “Joseph the tzadik (righteous).” Seemingly he received that honorific due to his refusal of the seductions of his master’s wife recounted earlier in the Torah. However, perhaps the title was deserved for a second reason. When the brothers gasp in fear at his revelation, Joseph responds, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:8) Yet we readers know that this is not so. Furthermore, only a few verses earlier, he proclaimed, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt” (45:4) So which is it? Are the brothers responsible or not?

A short lesson in the history of a relatively esoteric ruling in Jewish law and it’s theological underpinnings may shed light on this episode.

In the 1930s and ’40s, before the founding of the State of Israel, Jewish religious dairy farmers faced a dilemma. Cows must be milked daily; however, Jewish law is clear, milking is prohibited on the Sabbath. Abstaining from milking on the Sabbath presented several problems. Besides the financial loss to milk production, the cows suffered terribly. Furthermore, refraining one day a week potentially could cause the cows to stop producing milk altogether.  The only recourse seemed to be to hire gentile Arab farmers to milk the cows. At this time, many local Jewish farmers considered the Arab villagers to be hostile. Arab attacks were on the rise. In the minds of those building the Jewish homeland hiring Arab labor was tantamount to treason. Farmers turned to the works of the famed legal pioneer Rabbi Abraham Karelitz looking for another solution. Rabbi Karelitz, who had arrived in mandatory Palestine in 1933, ruled that the ideal method for milking to avoid violating the Sabbath would be to use Arab labor. He writes,

one should strive to milk [cows on Shabbat when necessary] using gentile labor. This is the correct method according to the Torah…and the way of the Torah is to strive for peace with every person…and just as it is unbecoming for a wise person to take revenge on someone who injures him out of mental illness so too it is unbecoming [for the wise person] to hate and take vengeance upon one who does him harm out of moral illness and lack of good character. Indeed, there is no difference between the evildoer and the insane.” (Chazon Ish, O.H. 56:4)

Many were shocked by Karelitz’s formulation “there is no difference between the evildoer and the insane.” Some suggested that the very notion that enemies should be seen as mentally incompetent and potentially not responsible for their actions as an anathema to the entire foundation of the Jewish legal view of reward and punishment. How can one ever seek justice if insanity is assumed for every crime? Free will, the cornerstone of the Jewish view of justice, is destroyed.

Years later, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, head of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin in New York, responded to a questioner regarding this surprising formulation. Rav Hutner explained Rabbi Karelitz’s words in Chazon Ish by suggesting a theological dichotomy. According to Rav Hutner, we should view the way of fulfilling the Divine Will as divided into autonomous realms. The rules and logic in each area are independent and contextual. How one should interpret events and how one relates to the needs for justice for criminals are not the same.

In one realm, the realm of personal religious introspection, Judaism does not recognize free will. We should view the actions of the anti-Semite as a Divine call for personal reflection and repentance. This outlook is unique to how the religious person sees events as they unfold upon him or her. What is the Divine message? How can I improve? How can the community change for the better? These are the appropriate questions to ask from the personal religious vantage point. Rabbi Karelitz, suggests Rabbi Hutner, offers a radical vision of spiritual responsibility. The religious individual must view every event and calamity as a learning opportunity to make the community and the world better. That is the Divine call.

There is an entirely different realm of religious interpretation when dealing with punishment for criminal acts. The context of justice demands that we view the perpetrators of the crime not as carriers of a Divine message but rather as independent moral agents. Every criminal must be held accountable for his crime. That is the Divine call for justice, which stands at the base of Jewish law.

There are two complementary ways to view the impact of terror: one to turn inwards to look for ways to improve the world and the other to seek justice and punishment for the evildoer. On the one hand, the perpetrator of the crime is inconsequential, while on the other, the criminal must be tried for his or her sins. Both approaches are necessary and serve different purposes.

This approach may explain Joseph’s reaction to his brothers. On the one hand, the criminal actions of the brothers need to be viewed as catalysts for the Divine plan. As he later proclaims, “Am I a substitute for God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (Gen 50: 19-20)

Joseph sees all the sorrows of his life within the framework of the Divine plan. Despite their lack of foreknowledge, the brothers played their role in ensuring the salvation of Jacob and his family.

Regarding justice, for Joseph, we find ourselves in a different theological area. Here, Joseph suggests that God will relate to the crime. Joseph himself says that he doesn’t replace God.

We are not privy to the Divine plan. We cannot understand, see, or perhaps even believe there is any benefit of the harm done to the victims. We must not justify the pain and suffering of the victims and survivors. Yet, despite the refusal to justify the damage done, we can use the events to turn inward. The fights between the right and the left in our community only serve the purposes of the anti-Semites and haters. We can use the horrible events as a call to unity and attempt to strengthen each other. Antisemitism coming from any direction must be fought from every direction.

The real causes and the punishments deserved by the criminals and haters can be left to law enforcement, the Justice system, and the courts. We can demand that governments everywhere take appropriate action to punish for past deeds and prevent future ones.

But in the realm of what we, as Jews and as human beings, must learn is how to build bridges within our community and help heal the world at large.

There are different realms.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.