Language of Continuity
“Assimilation” and “Jewish Continuity” are two pressing issues in our Jewish consciousness which are neither modern nor unique to our history as a people. It is fitting to read the story of Joseph’s political ascendancy in Egypt during this Shabbat Hanukkah. In this week’s Torah portion, and during the Festival of Lights, we reflect upon the persistent challenges of assimilation and Jewish continuity. Paradoxically, we learn that Jewish survival often necessitates a degree of acculturation.
Were it not for Joseph and his absorption into Egyptian society, the Israelite nation would not have survived the great famine of his day. Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s vizier, changes his dress, assumes an Egyptian name, and intermarries with the daughter of a pagan priest (see Genesis 41:42—45). When Joseph’s brothers come before him to beg for bread, they do not recognize him in his new Egyptian persona. He speaks through a translator. Yet, Joseph has remained an Israelite to his core — discerning his brothers’ Hebrew conversation and weeping privately at their contrition (Genesis 42:23).
Language has long distinguished Jews in foreign settings. On the other hand, language has often served as the first sign of assimilation. The Joseph story is no exception. Joseph adopts the Egyptian language. In fact, one midrash suggests that Joseph learned all seventy languages of the world (Sotah 36b). However, this “assimilation” enables Joseph to bring Torah to the nations. The Sefat Emet argues that “Joseph the tzaddik, who came to rule over Egypt by the power of Torah, had to know all the languages and join them to the holy tongue.” Sometimes assimilation is a powerful tool for the survival of Jewish values and ideals.
The Maccabean revolt, and the victory over Greek persecution, is another example of the subtle role of assimilation in ensuring the Jewish future. The Hanukkah story is certainly a tale of commitment to Jewish particularism in the face of powerful political and cultural influences. However, as Rabbi Irving Greenberg argues, the impact of Hellenism ironically contributed to the success of the Hasmonean campaign. For example, the decision to fight in self—defense on Shabbat was a conscious departure from the simple traditionalism of the pious Chasidim (see First Maccabees). Greenberg suggests that this decision arose from the internalization of some Hellenist influences:
“Exposure to Hellenist modes of thinking and philosophy evoked greater depth and sensitivity to such thinking in the Maccabean and later leadership — just as contact with more developed literary and philosophic models enriched traditional rabbis’ capacity for halachic and narrative thinking in the past two centuries. Such thinking became a hallmark of the Maccabees and the later rabbis. They responded respectfully to Hellenism’s ideas and methods, but only where they could enrich and be assimilated compatibly with the tradition. In short, without fundamentalism there would have been no Maccabean revolt; without moderate Hellenization the revolt would not have succeeded” (The Jewish Way, p. 265).
In conclusion, this Shabbat weds two powerful stories in the history of Judaism — Joseph and Hanukkah. Both of these central narratives in our tradition grapple with the experience of Jews under foreign control. Both of these tales reflect the delicate balance between assimilation and Jewish continuity. Modern Jews in the Conservative movement today face many of the same challenges described in these stories. What language will we speak? What food will we eat? Which philosophical influences will direct our actions? May the lessons of our history teach us to celebrate and perpetuate the ideals of Conservative Judaism. We must always grow and change as we learn from those around us. However, we must always be guided by the sacred goal of furthering the Jewish people and embracing the Torah.
The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.