Joseph, Hanukkah, and the Dilemmas of Assimilation

Ruminations about assimilation come naturally to Jews in North America at the winter holiday season. How much should a parent insist that Hanukkah is part of public school celebrations that give students a heavy dose of Christmas? How often should one remind store clerks who innocently ask Jewish children what gifts they hope to receive from Santa this year that there are other faiths observed in our communities, and other holidays? Intermarried couples are familiar with conversation about having a Christmas tree at home. The Hanukkah story is the perfect stimulus for such reflections, especially when understood, as some historians do, not as a conflict between Jews and a tyrannical government, but as a dispute among Jews themselves over which Greek customs are acceptable and which cross the line to assimilation or apostasy.

Joseph--chief protagonist of the story Jews read in synagogue this week--struggles with a version of these same dilemmas. Pharaoh has taken the measure of Joseph and realized immediately that this "shrewd and perceptive" Israelite was perfectly suited to the nasty work of gathering up all the grain of Egypt during the seven years of plenty, and selling it back to them during the seven years of famine. He gives Joseph an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife, the daughter of a priest.

Joseph himself testifies to the pain of his situation as the highest outsider in the land. When "two sons were born to [him] by Asenat, the daughter of Poti Fear, the priest of On, Joseph called the first-born Menashe, because 'God has made me forget completely my hardship and the house of my father.' And Joseph called the second son Ephraim, because 'God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.'" We soon learn that he has not forgotten the pain suffered in his father's house. When the brothers arrive in Egypt to purchase grain, he at once recognizes them and--seeing them bow before him--remembers that dream in which they symbolically had done exactly that. Joseph has not forgotten his father either: when he finally breaks down in tears and reveals himself to his brothers (45:3), the very first question out of his mouth will be, "Is my father still alive?"

Consider the irony: the survival of the children of Israel is secured by this child of Israel who, married to the daughter of a Gentile priest, brings his family down to Egypt, where he and they loyally serve the Pharaoh. The survival of the children of Israel in a later generation will be secured by another Israelite, that one from the tribe of Levi, also married to the daughter of a Gentile priest, who will lead a rebellion that liberates his people from Pharaoh's service/slavery. (The Hebrew word for "slavery" and "service" is the same). Had Joseph and Moses not been at home at Pharaoh's court, wise in the ways of ministers and kings, skillful at magic arts beyond the capacity of Pharaoh's magicians (dream interpretation and the working of miracles), and gifted with the right word at the right time and inside knowledge of Egyptian society and culture; and had they not, despite all this, retained a strong sense of divine mission and purpose--they would not have been able to perform the redemptive tasks assigned them.

We might say in contemporary terms that a certain measure of assimilation was required for their success, as was a measure of resistance to assimilation. Contemporary Jews know from experience that the balance is difficult to calibrate correctly. Gerson Cohen, chancellor of JTS from 1972 to 1986 and a magisterial historian of Jewish societies, probed these dilemmas 50 years ago in a brilliant essay entitled "The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History." Cohen took issue with a well-known midrash that attributes Jewish survival to the fact that our ancestors did not change their names, their ancestral language, or their distinctive dress. Jacob's grandchildren in Egypt, according to the Torah, took Egyptian names such as Aaron and Moses, as Hellenized Jews adopted Greek names like Jason and Eupolemos. Nor did Jews refrain from writing, speaking, and giving sermons in other languages than Hebrew, or (when permitted to do so) from dressing like their Gentile neighbors.

Cohen forcefully disputed the claim that Jews survived only by remaining utterly distinct from the cultures that surrounded them. Rather, "a frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity, but that in a profound sense, this assimilation an acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source or renewed vitality." (Jewish History and Jewish Destiny, p. 151)

The lesson of Hanukkah, then, or of the Joseph story, or of countless episodes in the long history of the encounter between ethnic, cultural or religious minorities and the ways of the local majority, is that if the minority group assimilates completely to those ways, continuity is lost, but if the group does not wish to "ghettoize" itself, or allow its culture to become "fossilized," it will need "to assimilate--at least to some extent." (p. 152) Jews have repeatedly adopted customs and laws to new circumstances and found latent meanings in sacred texts that previous generations had not seen there. We continue to draw lines that are at times squiggly or blurred; at other times razor-sharp--and to argue with one another about which kind of boundary is required, and how to maintain it.

Joseph is here with Jews every year to wish us a Happy Hanukkah and to guide us through the Christmas season.