Joseph’s revelation holds new lessons for today’s challenges and hope
Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
How could they not know?
That’s the question I always have — the problem I always struggle with — when it comes to these chapters of the book of Genesis. How could Joseph’s brothers not recognize him? How could they not see underneath the dress and beyond the speech to identify the brother they so loathed that they sold him into slavery in Egypt? Why is it necessary for Joseph, unable to restrain himself any longer, to cry out, as he does in this week’s parshah, “I am Joseph!”
To be sure, Joseph’s manner has changed. He is no longer the favorite son who could do no wrong in his father’s eyes, the spoiled child who envisioned his brothers bowing down to him.
Still, they’re brothers — siblings.
My sisters and brothers are scattered all over the country. We don’t see each other too often, sometimes for years at a stretch. We get older. Our hair gets gray. Our clothes change with our waistlines. But I’d wager a guess I’d always be able to recognize them anywhere.
So this time around, I’ve chosen to look at this story as an allegory for the ways Jews today recognize, or fail to recognize, other Jews as Jews. Can we really be kin and be so different?
That’s the central question, I think, of the new Pew Research Center study on the state of American Jewry, which initially has been met within the Jewish community with responses from denial to despair. Jewish identity means different things to different Jews. According to the survey findings, two-thirds of Reform Jews think “Jewish” is about ancestry and culture, but only 15 percent of Orthodox Jews say that’s true. Nearly half of Orthodox Jews say it’s mainly a matter of religion (which I presume means regular practice and ritual), but more than a third of Orthodox Jews questioned also recognize the role that culture and ancestry play in Jewish identity. Interestingly, Conservative Jews and Reform Jews have pretty much the same take on “religion” as defining Jewishness — 15 percent for Conservatives and 13 percent for Reform — despite the Conservative Movement’s declared emphasis on halachah, including strict kashrut policies and institutional observance of many Shabbat restrictions, which does not exist in the Reform movement.
In general, though, by movement, by age, by gender, by educational level, the Pew report shows wide variation in identifying what “Jewishness” really means. And that reflects the divisions we see within our communities over how we recognize the “other’s” Jewishness — for the way some Jews sometimes refuse to recognize others of us as Jews because, like Joseph, we dress differently, or eat differently, or speak differently, or prioritize differently.
If even Conservative and Reform Jews, who personally agree on a lot, are still divided institutionally by kashrut and Shabbat and liturgy and inclusiveness and patrilineality, what chance has Klal Yisrael got?
In another of its questions, the Pew report actually provides us with the answer.
When asked “what is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” only a small percentage mentioned halachah and kashrut, even among those who identify religiously as Jews. But right after remembering the Holocaust — which tops on the list at 73 percent of the combined total of those who self-identify as Jewish by religion and those who do not — were “leading an ethical and moral life” (69 percent combined), “working for justice/equality” (56 percent) and “being intellectually curious” (49 percent).
In other words, it is the commitment to tzedakah, tikkun olam, social justice and community activism, enabled and inspired by our sacred texts and rabbinic traditions, that can bring us together.
For Orthodox Jews, this might be a recognition that people who are outside of the community eruv, both literally and figuratively, count in this world and in the eyes of God. For Conservative Jews, perhaps it is a reminder that halachah is a path and not a final destination. For we who are Reform Jews, it is a wake-up call: For all that we have re-embraced, re-imagined, and re-emphasized traditional rituals and practice over the last 25 years, it is actually our longstanding commitment to social justice, which dates back to the documents and prayer books of 19th century American Reform Jewry, that will draw people to us who are removed or disenfranchised from our community, those intermarried who may be questioning the viability of Judaism for them and their children, and those who experience an emotional vacuum that ritual alone cannot fill.
I do not expect a re-enactment any time soon of that intense, climactic moment in this week’s parshah when Joseph “kissed all his brothers and wept upon them, after which his brothers were able to talk with him.” But the fact is that siblings communicated with each other in a way that nobody else could, in a special language of shared ancestry and experience that can prevail over years, decades, or even centuries of separation and estrangement.
When the brothers in our parshah reunited, they were called, not the sons of Jacob but “the sons of Israel.” Israel is the ideal, the name given to those of us who struggle with our Jewish identities and nevertheless commit ourselves to klal Yisrael and to the work of tikkun in the broader world. In an era of splintered identity drawn from the earliest of our biblical narratives, may we find renewed strength in common purpose.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)