December 10, 2018

Jewish survival is not a given – Miketz meets Hanukah

This week Joseph finds himself imprisoned on the false charge of trying to seduce Potifar’s wife. Already known as a dream interpreter, Joseph is called from the dungeons to interpret Pharaoh’s inscrutable dreams and convinces Pharaoh that God has blessed him with far-sighted wisdom and success. Pharaoh elevates Joseph as the kingdom’s chief overseer, second in power only to Pharaoh.

In his position Joseph deftly manages the realm and when the years of famine arrive as predicted word spreads that Egypt has stockpiled an overabundance of grain and that surrounding peoples can seek sustenance from the throne.

Suffering the effects of the famine along with everyone else, Jacob instructs his sons to procure food for the family, lest they all die, and they appear before Joseph.

In the dramatic conclusion in next week’s parashah Joseph will reveal his identity to his brothers and explain that their sale of him served his life’s purpose, that God had sent him ahead into Egypt as a slave to save his family.

Joseph is a transitional figure between the patriarchal era in Genesis and the birth of the spiritual nation of Israel in Exodus. As such, he was the first court Jew in history. He understood Egyptian culture and society. He spoke the language, dressed as a native, took an Egyptian name, married an Egyptian woman, and sired children, the first Hebrew children to be born in the Diaspora.

Despite his acculturation, Joseph did not become an Egyptian nor did he forsake his ancestral faith. He is the prototype of a politically powerful leader who assures Jewish survival.

Fast forward to the second century B.C.E. For 200 years Greek culture had spread throughout the lands of the Mediterranean. Jews were attracted to Greek population centers, the abstract sciences, humanism, philosophy, and commerce.

By the time of the Maccabees (165 BCE), Jews living in the land of Israel had divided into three groups; traditionalists living in villages who followed the priests and observed Jewish law; radical Hellenists living in the cities who saw no advantage in remaining Jewish, who named their children using Greek names, spoke Greek, stopped circumcising their sons, ceased celebrating the Hagim and Shabbat, and rejected kashrut; and the moderately Hellenized Jews who lived as Greeks but maintained their Jewish cultural identity.

When finally the radical Hellenizers conspired with the Greek King Antiochus IV to introduce a pantheon of gods into the Jerusalem Temple, including the detested pig, moderately Hellenized Jews were shocked and rose up to fight alongside the traditionalists and save Judaism and the Jewish people from destruction.

For Joseph, Jewish survival meant remembering who he was as an Israelite in exile. For the Maccabees and their moderate Jewish allies, it meant war in the ancestral homeland.

In these opening decades of the 21st century, we liberal American Jews are confronted with a serious challenge. Of the 5.5 million American Jews, 2 million identify with the liberal non-orthodox religious streams, 800,000 with the orthodox and the rest as “just Jewish,” marginal at best.

The 2013 Pew Study of the American Jewish community makes it clear that if current trends continue in 30 years liberal Jews will diminish by 30% to 1.4 million total, assuming that our current 1.7 children per family birthrate continues and we don’t reverse the loss of 75% of the children born to intermarriages who do not identify as Jews. The current intermarriage rate is 70% in non-Orthodox communities. The orthodox birthrate is less than 5 children per family, meaning that in 30 years orthodox Jews will double their numbers.

The declining birthrate in the liberal American Jewish community is a threat to our survival. We’ll need to increase our birthrate, create a more compelling liberal faith that attracts converts, intermarried families, LGBTQ Jews, and retains all who struggle with faith and claim to be atheists but feel culturally, ethically and ancestrally Jewish. We will have to educate everyone better than we do in Jewish history, literature, tradition, hebrew, and thought.

Hanukah and Miketz remind us that Jewish survival isn’t a given, that the State of Israel and American liberal Jewry need each other to thrive and depend upon each other to survive.

Shabbat shalom and Hag Hanukah sameach!