Joseph, Chanukah and The Challenge of Modern Orthodoxy

If the anchor of our religious life is social -a crowded kiddush room- then the Corona era of social and communal distance presents an existential religious crisis.

Yosef is called Yosef HaTzadik, Joseph the Righteous. He is the ancestor who lives in a foreign, idolatrous land, becomes well integrated into its structure functioning there as a great leader, and yet retains his Israelite religious values. Yosef’s ability, in the face of Egyptian culture, to not only retain his values and religious outlook but to be clear with Pharaoh about them and attribute his success to God, is astounding. He works in the palace, is given an Egyptian name by Pharaoh himself, and is married off by Pharaoh to the daughter of an Idolatrous Priest, yet when Pharaoh calls him out of prison to interpret the royal dreams Joseph says, “God will answer as to the welfare of Pharaoh.” Joseph’s message, sanctifying God’s name, comes across to Pharaoh loud and clear: “And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Amazing we found one like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God.” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you.””

Yosef, in this sense, is the role model for us today. We find ourselves ensconced in the conflict between Judaism and outside culture. Many of us occupy positions, like Yosef, in the highest places of American culture and governance, and it may not be easy to stand out proud as a Jew. I imagine this has always been a conflict for Jews in the diaspora. Whether as economists in medieval Spain or in the parlement of 19th century Poland, or as the doctor to the Sultan of Egypt, – to be both of the country and the surrounding culture and yet fully oneself as a Jew, is not easy.

This is what Chanukah is really about. It is the one mitzvah which must be visible to our neighbors. Are we entirely comfortable with this? Chanukah forces us to explore who we are vis a vis the wider culture, to work on our ability to be in both places, to not hide who we are as a Jew, but to advertise it to all and sanctify God as Yosef did.

This era of the Corona virus is an especially difficult test for us as Jews in the modern world. Many of us were used to coming to Shul on Shabbat for our weekly dose of Jewish life, but that is not available now. If the anchor of our religious life is social -a crowded kiddush room- then the Corona era of social and communal distance presents an existential religious crisis. If our Judaism does not contain a personal internal experience involving obligation, regular Torah study, and spiritual engagement, then when Jewsh life is stripped of kiddush and communal shabbat meals, what is left? The challenge for us this Chanukah is to cultivate a more personal religious life that can help us to be strong like Yosef, living integrated in the wider world while remaining truly strong and passionate Jews, and thus sanctifying God in the eyes of those we work with and those who see us on the stage of the country and world.

About the Author
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, MSW, MA, LCSW, is the Rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. He is a founder of the blog Morethodoxy.org, the author of the Everything Jewish Wedding Book (2008), and a periodic contributor to Conversations: The Journal of Jewish Ideas and Ideals and The Washington Jewish Week. He holds a Certificate in Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.
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