American Jewish Life, Divrei Torah, Holidays, Jewish History, Jewish Identity, Musings about God/Faith/Religious Life
This week Joseph finds himself imprisoned on the false charge of trying to seduce Potifar’s wife. Already known as a dream interpreter, Joseph is called from the dungeons to interpret Pharaoh’s seemingly inscrutable dreams, and convinces Pharaoh that God has blessed him with far-sighted wisdom and the grace of success. Consequently, Pharaoh elevates Joseph to the position of the kingdom’s chief overseer, second in power only to Pharaoh himself.
In his position Joseph deftly manages the realm, and when the years of famine arrive as predicted, word spreads that Egypt has stockpiled an overabundance of grain, and that surrounding peoples can seek sustenance from the throne.
Suffering the effects of the famine along with everyone else, Jacob instructs his surviving older sons to procure food for the family, lest they all die, and they appear before Joseph.
In the dramatic conclusion in next week’s parasha, Joseph will reveal his true identity to his brothers and explain that their sale of him served his life’s purpose, that God had sent him ahead into Egypt as a slave to save his family.
Joseph is a key transitional figure between the patriarchal era in Genesis and the birth of the spiritual nation of Israel in Exodus. As such, he was the first court Jew in history. He understood Egyptian culture and society. He spoke the language, dressed as a native, took an Egyptian name, married an Egyptian woman, and sired children, the very first Hebrew children to be born in Diaspora.
Despite his acculturation, Joseph did not become an Egyptian, nor did he forsake his ancestral faith. Indeed, he is the prototype of a politically powerful leader who assures Jewish survival.
Fast forward to the second century B.C.E. For 200 years Greek culture had been spreading throughout the lands of the Mediterranean. Jews were attracted to Greek population centers, to the abstract sciences, humanism, philosophy, and commerce.
By the time of the Maccabees (165 B.C.E.), Jews living in the land of Israel had divided into three distinct groups; traditionalists living in villages who followed the priests and observed Jewish law; radical Hellenists living in the cities who saw no advantage in remaining Jewish, who named their children using Greek names, spoke Greek, stopped circumcising their sons, ceased celebrating Shabbat and the Hagim, and rejected kashrut; and the moderately Hellenized Jews who lived as Greeks but maintained their Jewish cultural identity.
When finally the radical Hellenizers conspired with the Greek King Antiochus IV to introduce a pantheon of gods into the Jerusalem Temple, including the sacrifice of the detested pig, moderate Jews were shocked and rose up to fight alongside the traditionalists and save Judaism and the Jewish people from destruction.
For Joseph, Jewish survival meant remembering who he was as an Israelite living in exile. For the Maccabees and their moderate Jewish allies, it meant war in the ancestral homeland.
In these opening years of the 21st century, we liberal American Jews are confronted with a serious challenge. Of the 5.5 million American Jews, 2 million identify with the liberal non-orthodox religious streams, 600,000 with the orthodox and the rest as “just Jewish” and marginal at best.
The recently published Pew Study of the American Jewish community makes it clear that if current trends continue, 30 years from now liberal Jews will diminish by 30% to 1.4 million total, assuming that our current 1.7 children per family birthrate continues and we do not reverse the loss of 75% of the children born to intermarriages who do not identify as Jews. The current intermarriage rate is upwards of 60%. The orthodox community’s birthrate is a shy less than 5 children per family, meaning that in 30 years orthodox Jews will double their numbers.
The declining birthrate in liberal American Jewry is a real threat to our survival. We will need to increase our birthrate, create a more compelling liberal faith that attracts more converts, more intermarried families, more LGBT Jews, and retains all who struggle with faith and claim to be atheists but who feel culturally, ethically and ancestrally Jewish. And we will have to educate everyone better than we do in Jewish history, literature, tradition, and thought.
The core of the challenge is as old as Joseph, and is as Ari Shavit writes in “My Promised Land – The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”:
“…how to maintain Jewish identity in an open world not shielded by the walls of a ghetto,…[with] secularization and emancipation eroding the old formula of Jewish survival…”
and, I would add for those who have faith, that places God in the center of our people’s daily life and identity.
Hanukah and Miketz remind us that Jewish survival is not a given, that the State of Israel and American Jewry, especially now, need each other to thrive and depend upon each other to survive.
Shabbat shalom and Hag Hanukah sameach!