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Joseph and the Politics of Diaspora Judaism, Part 1

By Professor Aaron Koller, PhD

April 16, 2011

Aaron KollerBiblical stories are political. The politics of the biblical stories about Jews in foreign courts are especially poignant, exploring issues of conflicted identities, multiple loyalties, and the navigation of complex social realities. Jews who lived in the Second Temple diaspora, under the firm rule of the Persians, could look back in their sacred texts and look in vain for models for their own life. King David was not a good model, nor were Isaiah or Josiah; Abraham, who emigrated from Mesopotamia to Canaan was certainly not appropriate. The single figure to whom they could point to as a precedent was Joseph. This patriarch lived his entire adult life in the foreign land of Egypt, rising to dazzling power there.  More importantly, he ultimately used using that power to assist his Israelite brethren, proving that he had not abandoned his heritage, but only overlaid it with another one.


It is difficult to blame Joseph for the path he chose to take. He was a man betrayed by his family, and the depths of pain this must have caused are such that I would dare not judge him. But as a political figure, he is challenging. Once in Egypt, he turned his back on his family with a shocking finality. Apparently convinced that all members of his household were at least complicit in the vicious treachery committed against him, he lives a life of remarkable solitude.  As a slave, then as a prisoner, then as an interpreter of dreams, and finally as a prince, he cuts a figure of austere alone-ness.  He is accompanied by no one, has no friends, cultivates no relationships. What he does to get himself into jail is to reject a relationship (admittedly, an illicit one). Alone he falls, alone he rises; failure and success are his alone. Not only does he not develop new ties within Egyptian society, but he actively dissolves his ties to his family and his ancestry. Or, perhaps, he perceives that these ties have already been dissolved, and he sets about to eradicate them from his identity altogether. He names his first son ‘Manasseh’, from a Semitic root meaning “to forget,” and he explains: “for the Lord has made me forget all my toils and my whole family” (Genesis 41:51). The second son, on the other hand, is named ‘Ephraim’, “for the Lord has made me prosper in the land of my affliction” (41:52).


It is true that he has not erased entirely his earlier identity. After all, he still thanks “the Lord” for his successes, and does call Egypt “the land of my affliction.” But he thanks the Lord for helping him to forget his past and for helping him prosper in his new land.  Here we have the ultimate irony of conscious forgetting: he has “forgotten” his past so well that what he is most grateful for is that he no longer remembers it.  But does he really not remember it? What Joseph exemplifies here is not forgetfulness in the usual sense, which is a passive process by which memories are actually erased.  Joseph models active forgetting, in which the memories, seared into the very essence of the individual, are consciously marginalized. Can this really work? Can a memory as powerful as one’s entire childhood be marginalized within one’s identity? These may well be the very questions the Joseph narrative asks.


As a model of Jewish life, Joseph is difficult to embrace.  In speaking to his brothers, he exclaims, “By the life of Pharaoh – you are spies!” Taking an oath by a foreign king is not the type of behavior, one might argue, that we want to encourage in diaspora Jews. He dressed as an Egyptian, is married to an Egyptian, and speaks Egyptian – well enough, at least, that his brothers, who communicate with him through a translator, never seem to suspect that he was not a native Egyptian.


The political scientist Aaron Wildavsky argued in his book, Assimilation versus Separation: Joseph the Administrator and the Politics of Administration in Biblical Israel (New Brunswick and London: Transaction, 1993), that Genesis means to hold up Joseph as an example not to be followed. According to Wildavsky, the character of Joseph is that of a Jew administrating from within the system, with calculated efficiency but no heart.  He ruthlessly saves the Egyptians by converting all the farmland into crown lands. He may be seen as a foil for the next great Jew who wields power in Egypt: Moses.  Moses, also a child of the system, does not stay within the system, but instead perceives the immorality of the system and breaks free (see especially pages 126-129).


Moses can match Joseph in the extent and depths of his solitude. Caught between cultures as a young man, he is destined to live his entire life never rooted in a home. When he has the opportunity to bestow a name on his son, he opts for “Gershom” – explained in the text as a reflection of his sense that he has been “a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22). Born a Jew, raised an Egyptian, living as a Midianite, Moses feels himself to be rootless.


In another sense, though, Moses is the opposite of Joseph. While Joseph opted to embrace his new Egyptian identity wholeheartedly, finding rootedness in the culture in which he finds himself, Moses retains his sense of foreignness, never assimilating, but remaining a perennial outsider. A Jew in the court of the king of Egypt, the Torah says, can go one of two ways. One can go the route of Joseph, and rise to great heights within the system, but this may come at a great cost: the individual’s very soul – conscience and identity – may be lost in the process. Or one can go the way of Moses. According to Genesis and Exodus, while a Joseph can save people’s lives, only a figure such as Moses can bring redemption to the world.


In the next part of this essay, we will explore how in light of all this, the character of Joseph was debated among Jews living in the Diaspora during the times of the Second Temple.


For further reading: Some suggestive comments about memory in the story of Joseph can be found in Clarke E. Cochran, “Joseph and the Politics of Memory,” Review of Politics 64 (Summer 2002), 421-444.  Leon Kass wrote a sensitive and thoughtful review of Wildavsky’s book in Commentary 96.3 (September 1993), 58-61.  For a critical discussion of Wildavsky’s approach to Joseph, and a broader discussion of the differing twentieth-century Jewish approaches to Joseph, focused on the question of how much assimilation/acculturation is acceptable, see the penetrating essay of Pierre Birnbaum, “Exile, Assimilation, and Identity: From Moses to Joseph,” in Jewish History and Jewish Memory: Essays in Honor of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (ed. Elisheva Carlebach, John M. Efron, and David M. Myers; Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press and the University Press of New England, 1998), 249-270, esp. 259-265.




Aaron Koller is an assistant professor at Yeshiva University. He researches and writes about life in ancient Israel and early Judaism, including intellectual and social history in the biblical and rabbinic periods, and in particular issues of language and linguistics. His doctorate (YU, 2009) was on the topic of archaeology of everyday life in ancient Israel. He also teaches adult education classes at the Drisha Institute and for the Jewish Theological Seminary.


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