Joseph – the Assimilated Jew

Don’t underestimate the ‘assimilated’ Jews in our community – a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (1/3/15):

The topic for this morning’s sermon is one that has been discussed countless times in countless sermons by countless rabbis over the years, namely the issue of assimilation.  We all know what the word means – the pull of the secular culture that is all around us, which so often conflicts with Jewish values and practices.  When a conflict arises between secular culture, secular life, and Jewish culture and Jewish life, all too often these days it is secular culture that wins the battle.

This happens in many different areas of life.  Think of values for example – the Jewish value is community and communal needs;  the secular value is the individual and individual needs.  The Jewish value is a Hebrew education for children, the secular value is that children should play in sports leagues.  Judaism emphasizes being chosen by God for specific responsibilities and obligations;  secular culture emphasizes a person’s right to choose to do whatever they want.  In each of these cases, and many more, the traditional Jewish values are being challenged, and often subsumed, by the secular values they come into conflict with.

In a way this is a blessing in disguise.  There was a time – not long ago, that many of you remember well – when Jews could only live in certain neighborhoods, go to certain schools, work at certain jobs, belong to certain country clubs.  But for the most part that has changed today – Jews live in Roland Park, go to Gilman, or Bryn Mawr, they don’t face quotas at Hopkins, and can work for any law firm, accounting practice, or hospital.  And that is a good thing.  I don’t think any of us would say we want to go back to the way things were 50 years ago, or probably even 30 years ago.

But as the secular door has opened wider and wider to Jews during these last decades, what we are finding is that it becomes more and more difficult for young Jews especially to maintain a strong Jewish identity and to prioritize connection to the Jewish community.  So we know today that synagogue affiliation rates are at historic lows, that intermarriage rates are at historic highs, that Jewish literacy – the ability to read Hebrew, follow a service, knowledge of Jewish history, a feeling for the land of Israel – all of these seem to be moving – statistically at least – in directions that make those of us in the professional Jewish community uncomfortable.

To imagine that we can find an easy solution to the challenge of assimilation, that we can wave a magic wand and make it suddenly disappear, is simply a pipe dream.  The challenge of assimilation is here to stay, absolutely part and parcel of the dynamic of a liberal Jewish community living in the Diaspora.  The real question is given that assimilation is with us, and will continue to be, how can we live with it, how can we work with it, in such a way that that other classic Jewish buzzword – continuity – will be maintained through the generations – our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

To answer that question today – or at least to gain some insight into it – I would like to think with your for a moment about the figure of Joseph, about whom we’ve been reading in the Torah for the last 4 weeks.  Joseph is without question one of the most important characters in the book of Genesis, really in the entire Bible – right up there with Abraham and Jacob – in fact Abraham’s entire story is told in 3 Torah portions, while Joseph gets 4.  The truth is we probably know the stories about Joseph even better than we know those of Abraham or Jacob – Joseph and the coat of many colors – Joseph and being sold into slavery by his brothers – Joseph and interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh (the fat cows and the skinny cows) – Joseph becoming ruler of the land of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.  Joseph is no minor character, one of the greatest figures in Jewish history.

Joseph is also entirely assimilated.  In many ways, if you read his story closely, he is more Egyptian than Israelite.  He speaks the Egyptian language, takes an Egyptian name, marries an Egyptian woman, wears Egyptian clothes, follows Egyptian burial practices.  The last verse of Genesis tells us that Joseph was embalmed – certainly not a Jewish ritual – and that he was put into a coffin – the only time in the entire Bible we are told someone is put into a coffin – because that is the way the Egyptians did it.  When we say to someone we hope they have a long life, what do we say to them?  They should live until  – 120!  Why?  Because that is how old Moses is when he dies.  But Joseph dies at 110.  Why?  Because 110 in ancient Egypt was the ideal life span.  Like many Jews today are more comfortable at the football stadium than they are in shul, or more knowledgeable about secular subjects than about Jewish ones, Joseph was more comfortable and familiar with Egyptian life than the Israelite way.

And yet as assimilated as Joseph was, there are three things in his life that enable him to maintain a sense of Jewish identity, that constantly remind him he is an Israelite.  The first is he remembers where he came from.  It is no mistake that just before he dies he tells his brothers to make sure that one day he wants his bones brought back to the land of Israel.  As the old saying goes, you can take the boy out of New York, but not the New York out of the boy.  Joseph knows at his core he is an Israelite, and he knows he comes from Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

He also knows, at the end of the day, that the God he worships is the God of Israel.  Faith is the second thing that keeps Joseph connected to his Jewish identity.  It is clear in virtually every conversation he has – with Pharaoh, when he tells Pharaoh it is God who enables him to interpret dreams; with his brothers, when he assures them that everything that has happened has happened because of the God of Israel.  Even Pharaoh senses Joseph’s commitment to the Israelite God calling Joseph איש אשר רוח אלוקים בו – a man in whom the spirit of Elohim – the God if Israel – resides.  He may not be outwardly observant, he certainly is not pious, but the only God he knows, the only God he believes in, is the God of his fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And the last thing that keeps Joseph connected to his Israelite identity is that he has children, and as soon as he has children he has to decide how to raise them.  Should he raise them as Egyptians?  It would make their lives easier.  They would be able to do what all the other Egyptian boys and girls are doing, live their lives like everyone else.  Or should he raise them as Jews?  A more difficult path, a more challenging task, yet ultimately one filled with more meaning, both for Joseph, and for his sons Efraim and Menashe.  Of course we know Joseph’s decision.  He brings his boys to Jacob, because he wants them to receive, from the patriarch of the family, the blessing of the God if Israel.

The land of Israel, the God of Israel, the people of Israel.  Those three threads weave through Joseph’s life, through all of his trials and tribulations, through all of his triumphs and successes.  On the surface he is an Egyptian – so much so that when his brothers come face to face with him they have no idea who he is.  But under the surface – in his heart and soul – he is a Jew, and despite the years that have gone by that is something he has not forgotten.  In the Shema we say ‘love the Lord your God with all of your heart, your soul, your might.’  These are the internal qualities that define who we truly are – may they be strong in us, in our children, in our grandchildren, for generations to come –


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