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Joseph and the Maccabees

12/22/2022 04:28:45 PM


Parashat Miketz is almost always read on Shabbat of Hannukah. Though these two readings are often aligned in the liturgy, they reflect very different understandings of what it means to be a Jew in the world. While Miketz reflects the desire to blend in, perhaps to an extreme degree, Hanukkah is about the fight for a distinctive identity in the face of pressures of assimilation. Many Jews today feel a tension between those two poles, even in how we approach some of the most important life decisions a person can make, including how we choose to form and celebrate our most important relationships.
In Miketz, Joseph is the ultimate assimilated Jew. He takes up an Egyptian name, “Zapenath Paneah,” and styles himself as an Egyptian in clothing and manner to such an extent that his own brothers do not even recognize him. He takes Osenat, an Egyptian woman, as his wife. She is described as the daughter of Poti-Phera, a pagan priest.
The Maccabees, we could imagine, would not have approved. Their fight was not only against the Syrian Greeks, who sought to impose Hellenistic culture, but also their fellow Jews who voluntarily adopted the ways of the larger world. The books of the Maccabees report their battles (sometimes quite violent!) against both foreigners and neighbors.
The sages of the Talmudic era threaded a line between the two extremes. They condemned the excesses of pagan immorality and the brutal entertainments of Rome, but they were familiar with Greco-Roman culture. They cautioned against “Greek wisdom”, but they often peppered Greek terms into their discussions of Jewish law and engaged in lively debate with their Hellenistic neighbors on matters of philosophy. They wore garb similar to that of their neighbors, with tzitzit and tefillin as additions.
The sages might have appreciated some aspects of Josephs' engagement with the larger world, but could not wrap their heads around one particular aspect, namely marrying a non-Jewish spouse. It so distressed them that they insisted that she had converted, or proposed an alternative genealogy for Osenat. Indeed, a number of rabbinic sources suggest that she was not really Egyptian, but rather was the daughter who Dinah bore after having been raped in Shechem.
At the same time, it is curious: when the sages of the Talmud debated the origin of the prohibition of intermarriage, some pointed to verses in the Bible, while others attributed it as an enactment of the Maccabean courts. And yet, while the books of the Maccabees describe those warriors taking offense to (and carrying out offense against) many practices of their less pious fellow Jews, marrying non-Jews was not among them.
There is, as Ecclesiastes says, “nothing new under the sun.” We live in a time where different groups of Jews look to Joseph, to the Maccabees, or to the sages for inspiration. Some seek total isolation from other cultural influences, others adopt assimilation without hesitation, and still others try to seek a middle path of embracing what makes us unique and distinctive while still engaging enthusiastically with the larger world.
Within the larger debate of how we engage with society around us, for some the greatest questions how we, quite literally, “engage”- who Jews choose to marry, and how communities (and Rabbis) choose to respond to that choice. In some streams of Judaism, the question has a simple answer, whether it be that of Joseph or the Maccabees. The tension is felt acutely, however, within the Conservative movement. For over 50 years, the Rabbinical Assembly, (of which all of our B’nai Torah rabbis are proud members), has had as a standard of practice, that Conservative rabbis may not officiate at a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew.
One of the recurring conversations within our movement is how to approach this question, and I have become involved in the most recent iteration. While no changes to the fundamental standard are imminent, and indeed there is so much more to be said about so many dimensions of these questions, a few things are clear to me as I speak to colleagues and reflect for myself:
1. This is not an abstract question- it is about the lives of real people and their deepest commitments, to Judaism and to the people they love.
2. My rabbinic colleagues around the world are divided in their views as to the best approaches, based on their understanding of the tradition and their perception of what is best for their own communities. They are united by a deep concern about the possible negative implications of choosing the wrong ones.
3. I live in a time and place where people express their Jewish identities and commitments in increasingly complex and nuanced ways, and have a range of choices to connect with the Jewish community. The way of the Maccabees, simply declaring a prohibition, with dire consequences for the offenders, may have been effective 2000, or even 50 years ago, but no longer drives the decisions of most Jews. I must be responsible for my own choices,but cannot control those of others.
4. I will always want my practice to be honest to my deepest commitments as a rabbi: to upholding the truths and values of the Jewish tradition, even when that leads to difficult conversations, and at the same time to meeting people where they are and inviting them, like those who light the Hanukkah lights, to add more light, and add more Jewish holiness, each day.
With best wishes for a joyous Hanukkah and a shabbat shalom!
Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784