Always a good discussion around Hanukkah time, since the Yosef story raises some of the same issues as the story of the Maccabees.
Vayikra Paraoh sheim-Yosef Tzafnat-paneiach….Pharaoh gave Yosef the name Zaphenath-paneah. (Gen 41:45)
Vayikra Yosef et-sheim hab’chor Menashe ki-nashani Elokim et-kol-amali v’et kol-beit avi. V’et sheim hasheini kara Ephraim ki-hifrani Elokim b’eretz mitzrayim… Yosef named the first-born Menashe, meaning "G"d has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home, and the second he named Ephraim, meaning "G"d has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." (Gen 41-51-2)
Yes indeedy. Yosef was having a grand time being vizier of Egypt, wearing Egyptian clothes, adopting Egyptian customs.
Assimilation. Almost seems like a four-letter word, an obscenity. At this time of year, as we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees in their guerilla war against the Syrian Greeks, fighting against the assimilation of Jewish culture, it is brought even more into focus as something that Jews should loathe.
The latest Jewish population study adds fuel to the fire of those who rant and rave against the scourge of assimilation. Our numbers are dwindling, they cry, and we must guard against the evil of assimilation which will reduce our numbers even further. (Of course, this entire argument is wrapped up in the "who is a Jew?" debate. It would seem that both traditional and liberal Jews are beginning to realize that rules of strict matrilineal descent may actually be a hindrance to Jewish survival. And there is now great discussion about whether one can define a Jew by birth or by praxis. Personally, I side with those who favor praxis, but with some misgivings. One may be a Jew by descent, but if they practice nothing of the faith, do we count them as a Jew? However-what level of praxis becomes the definition? We have secular Israeli Jews who claim no religious practice yet often keep kosher, light Shabbat candles, etc. Perhaps living in the promised land itself is enough to qualify them, especially with the sacrifices that requires these days?
And so now I must ask the question-is assimilation the evil it is portrayed as?
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com ) has these definitions for "assimilate":
1 a : to take in and appropriate as nourishment : absorb into the system b :to take into the mind and thoroughly comprehend
2 a : to make similar b :to alter by assimilation c : to absorb into the culture or mores of a
population or group
3 : COMPARE, LIKEN
And gives its etymology as being from the Latin assimulare to make similar.
Cells assimilate nourishment, and thus are able to survive. The same can be said of cultures and religions. Assimilation may not be the great evil, and could even be a savior or redeemer instead.
Judaism has surely grown and benefited from assimilation over the years. There is even the radical suggestion that the Jews actually borrowed the idea of monotheism (or at the very least monolatry) from the Egyptians during the brief reign of Amenhotep, which overnight transformed Egyptian religion to the worship of one deity (only to have the whole idea thrown out by his son and successor.) Moshe gets some of the underpinnings of the legal and Judicial system from his father-in-law, a high priest of Midian. The Jewish ideas of hasatan, an adversary, and of mechatei hameitim, the resurrection of the dead, and messianism may have assimilated their way into Jewish culture from Zoroastrianism and other belief systems of the ancient near east. Who knows what we assimilated into Judaism while in Babylonian captivity that we now think of as normative for Judaism. Gobs of important Jewish scholars and texts were influenced by the Islamic cultures of their times. We were certainly nourished by that bit of assimilation. In more modern context, we have the Chasidim who still insist on wearing the coats and hats of Polish nobility, the Chabadniks who sing a niggun based on Le Marseilles. We have Yiddish and Ladino. We have things like the Center for Science and Halacha. And, being partial to contemporary Jewish music, look how much great new music (and great old music) is the result of assimilation from contemporary cultures. Technology, the internet, the web, computers et al. Even the most orthodox of Jewish communities has assimilated those pieces of modern society.
Judaism has adopted pieces of modern psychology, and of self-help programs. (Needless to say, as I’ve often pointed out in these musings, modern psychology, self-help and twelve-step programs have certainly liberally assimilated ideas from Judaism as well.)\
Whether for good or bad, we’ve certainly assimilated a fair share of capitalism and American-style democracy into Judaism. Similarly with the idea of rabbonim being preachers from the pulpit. Somehow, the once-a-year sermon model we used to employ might be favored by many!
No doubt, there is lots in contemporary culture that we might not benefit from assimilating. The Jews in the time of the Maccabees would likely have not benefited from the forced assimilation of Syrian-Greek religion (but who’s to say that they wouldn’t have benefited, and indeed, did benefit, from other aspects of Syrian-Greek culture? Not every assimilationist
And I’ll raise one point which is likely to raise some hackles-but I’ll say it anyway. As liberal Judaism seems to have failed to retain it as the traditional communities do, and seems disinclined to borrow from our traditional co-religionists, perhaps we ought to assimilate more of the fellowship, camaraderie and haimishness found in the communities of the dominant Christian culture here in the U.S. In a funny way, we’d be assimilating back something we probably lost through assimilation into a society where the Kitty Genovese story can happen, where people don’t talk to each other in Subway cars and elevators, and where so many people are out for themselves first and foremost!
And what has all this to do with parashat Miketz? Well, a good part of the Yosef story is about Yosef living in and adapting to Egyptian culture. He survived assimilation with his Judaism intact. And we can do the same. What sustained Yosef was his faith, his belief in Gd. This he never abandoned, just as Gd never abandoned him although his brothers surely did.
If Yosef can do it, so can we. We can assimilate the best of modern culture into our lives and keep our Judaism alive-if we can keep our faith alive. (The question of secular Israeli Jews who still maintain some elements of praxis without subscribing to the particularistic trappings that Jewish religious practice demands raises an interesting conundrum and may challenge my idea. They may profess no religious faith. If they assimilate, can they maintain their Judaism, thus showing a flaw in my theorem? Perhaps. I don’t want to develop this argument more fully yet-though my earlier reference to the special nature of simply being a Jew living in eretz may have something to do with it all.)
I think fear of assimilation may be overblown. Stopping assimilation may be no panacea for Judaism’s dwindling numbers. There is much that I admire in traditional Judaism, and much that I believe liberal Judaism has foolishly cast aside. Yet I think traditional Judaism’s fear of assimilation may be their undoing. By the same token, there is the possibility that some liberal Jews have embraced assimilation altogether too much, and that may be their undoing.
There is a middle ground. It is the path blazed by Yosef and so many others. By assimilating that which from our surroundings can truly nourish and enrich us, while maintaining in our deepest core that essence of faith that keeps us Jewish. Yosef knew that it was G"d, and not Yosef, who could truly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.
Together we can face assimilation by embracing it, controlling it as a useful tool, rather than fighting it as inherently evil. Making it such an evil gives it more power than it really should have to defeat us. Let us be wise, as wise as Shlomo (Solomon), whose wisdom is portrayed in the traditional Haftarah for a 2nd Shabbat in Hanukkah, I Kings 3:15-4:1 (and which Reform sadly abandons for the articulate and detailed description of the dedication of Shlomo’s temple. That’s a change I’m still trying to figure out.)
So let us be wise. Let us assimilate assimilation into who and what we are, as we have done so often throughout our history. Like Yosef, may we be the richer and more successful for it. For it is through faith in G"d that we will be sustained. As Zechariah wrote, and as we read in last week’s Haftarah: "lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach k’im b’ruchi… Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…"
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Smaeiakh,
©2002, 2003, 2008 by Adrian A. Durlester