Adaptation or assimilation

Adaptation or assimilation

Vayeshev | Genesis 37:1-40:23

As American Jews sit down next week to celebrate Thanksgiving, we will also be kindling the lights for the second night of Hanukka. While this is the result of a highly rare calendrical coincidence, the Festival of Lights coincides as always with the Jewish liturgical calendar, where we are beginning the story of Joseph.

Although the biblical Joseph and his family would have had no idea as to some future holiday that would be called Hanukka, there are similar themes, particularly those dealing with the tension between adaptation and assimilation. Like the story of Esther, the story of Joseph is one biblical writer’s imaginative understanding of how a minority Jewish identity might survive and endure in a majority culture that is not Jewish.

During Hanukka — which celebrates resistance to forced assimilation and condemns the Jews of the Maccabean period for any gestures toward acculturation — we read the story of a nice Jewish boy who, without coercion, was a paradigm of acculturation into a larger host civilization. In the story of Joseph we find the questions that illuminate one meaning of Hanukka and lend a new perspective on our own attempts at living in two civilizations: the American and the Jewish.

Like many contemporary American Jews who have acclimated to America, Joseph has “made it.” He sits in a high professional position, has (inter-)married into a prominent Egyptian priestly family, has changed his “Jewish” name, and discarded any distinctive Jewish garb. (“Joseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him.” — Genesis 42:8)

By the time his brothers come to Egypt, Joseph seems to have long forgotten his past and his identity. However, when confronted with his brothers he enters into a crisis of re-integrating his two identities. He manages to have it both ways: he identifies publicly as a Hebrew yet retains his position, power, and prestige in Egypt. And ironically, Joseph’s “assimilation” proves fortuitous; his power and prestige save his family.

If the biblical Joseph had happened to be among the Jews randomly called for the recent Pew Foundation study on American-Jewish identity, he might well have landed in the statistical categories that have created such despair among so many Jewish leaders. After all, his wife is not Jewish, his children do not appear to be raised “as Jews,” and it is not clear whether Joseph himself still identifies as “a Jew” and, if so, whether by culture, family, or religion — the three categories stressed in the Pew study.

But before we yield to despair over the potential meaning of the Pew report data, we might remember that people who may appear to have “assimilated” (like Joseph) may yet retain Jewish identity. Perhaps that identity has become latent, confused, or marginal. But under the right set of circumstances, that identity might well re-emerge as meaningful and even central. A lot depends on whether we stand outside and ask “How Jewish are you?” or whether we dig a little deeper and ask instead “How are you Jewish?”

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