Miketz and Chanukah: Two tales of life with the “Other”

As usual, the Torah portion Miketz coincides with Chanukah.  In Miketz, we read more of the Joseph story.  After Joseph gets out of prison by correctly interpreting Pharoah’s dreams, he gets new Egyptian clothes, a new Egyptian job, a new Egyptian name and a new Egyptian wife.  He gets two Egyptian sons, and names them in honor of his new Egyptian home:  Menasseh (“God has made me forget my troubles from my father’s house”) and Ephraim (“God has made me fruitful in my land of affliction”.)  Joseph looks pretty Egyptian for a Jewish guy.

As you may remember, Chanukah is also a story about adapting to a new, non-Jewish, majority culture; or for some, resisting that adaptation. The Maccabees, a zealous group, are fighting not only the Greek occupiers of Jerusalem, but those Hellenized, wealthier, more assimilated class of Jews in the cities and government.  Both Joseph and the Jerusalem Jews had clearly figured out that the future, and the door through which they could gain entry to halls of power, lay in adapting to the non-Jewish society around them: (cue the ominous music) assimilation.

Now, at this point most Jewish community leaders sound the bells, (or blow the shofar)  warning of the dangers of assimilation, the dwindling size of the Jewish community, bemoaning intermarriage and pointing to empty synagogue seats.  There is truth there, no doubt.  It demands our attention, but not the same response. That is, not if we want things to change, because frankly, the angst is counter-productive.  We’re still here, we have survived.  I came across an article by Niles Elliot Goldstein (http://bit.ly/sj9yOy), author of Gonzo Judaism.  In writing about Chanukah, he notes, “But our goal shouldn’t simply be to survive — it should be to thrive. We should go further and celebrate a different, deeper kind of miracle.  For years, the mantra of the Jewish establishment has been ‘Continuity, Continuity, Continuity.’ But Jewish history proves that it has been discontinuity that has often led to the most profound, imaginative, successful and long-lasting outcomes for our faith and our community. It’s been the iconoclast impulse — the drive to rebel and take risks — that has served as the dynamic life force of Judaism.

Rabbi Goldstein continues: “If we had a better grasp of our history — and the insight to reject the warped and inaccurate caricature of the Jewish experience as little more than one calamity after another — then we could refocus our time, energy and resources on what really matters: developing a dynamic and robust community.”

Thanks for writing my post this week, Rabbi Goldstein.  If Chanukah and Joseph teach us anything, it’s that just as extreme assimilation isn’t good for us, neither is extreme isolation.  Maintaining a personal and communal identity requires intentionality, courage, nuance, self-knowledge, balance, and energy.  These aren’t easy, but they are rewarding. There’s a lot of beautiful, fascinating, valuable stuff out there in the world, and cutting ourselves off from it makes no sense.  Remember that the Maccabees, with all their fervor and passion, failed terribly as leaders.  They may have been right in calling out and fighting against how far the pendulum had swung one way, but they weren’t much better when they got into power. Perhaps worse.  They swung completely the other way, once again proving that extremism is a lousy model for individuals and for governments.

Extremism is an easy answer, because then you don’t have to question.  Judaism is anything but. We are incessant questioners; that’s part of our charm.  And also our secret to thriving.  Questioning leads to creativity and creative communities are thriving communities.  Lest we forget, the most creative Jewish thinkers, legalists, writers, commentators came from the Diaspora.  Why? Because living among others requires it, and let’s face it, living among others is our norm.

When you stop questioning, you get stale.  Stale doesn’t last, it crumbles with the slightest pressure, or else rots from inattention.  Questioning takes work, but it sure is fun.

Light those Chanukah candles this week, and revel in the joyous miracle of not only our past and our present, but certainly our future.

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