Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Michael: What is Jewish identity?

Michael Fineberg December 12, 2010 at 2:36 pm

All shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians”. Rashi’s comment that this was because they worshiped sheep seems questionable: that would have been a reason, on the contrary, to glorify them, as custodians of holy animals. Moreover, Pharaoh allows them to be set apart in Goshen, “the best part of the land”, because of their special status as Joseph’s family. No, the fact is that Joseph wants them to believe that they will be abhorrent to the Egyptians. Why?

He is fearful that they will be assimilated as he himself has been. To save Israel he has turned away – or rather been led away – from Israel. So far indeed is he from Israel that he can scarcely believe that Israel still lives.

In Goshen, not only does Joseph’s family find a new home and sustenance in a time of famine, but Joseph himself returns to Israel. Just as he himself was blessed by Isaac, and similarly in the wrong order,Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, born of an Egyptian wife, who then become reabsorbed into the founding lineage of the twelve tribes.

The assimilated Jew rediscovers his Jewish identity, it remained there all along, even if it was not visible to himself. As in the Arthur Miller story – and in many other cases told and untold – it takes just one Jew to recognize another.

Now the question is what is the content of a Jewish identity that consists of no more than a recognition of Jewishness. Is it empty, just a badge, a mark of origins, like a childhood accent one has never lost, which says: this is where I come from, but not who I am, not who I have become..

Or does being Jewish mean not fitting in, belonging somewhere else – whether that somewhere else be a physical or a metaphysical place. An Irish American, for example, may be both fully American and still strongly linked to Ireland; a Jewish American may be fully American and likewise remains strongly linked to somewhere else but that somewhere else is not the present-day State of Israel, as much as the present-day State of Israel may be thought, by some, to derive from it (or by others, to be a distorted image or even a betrayal of it…)

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One response to “Michael: What is Jewish identity?

  1. IrvZuckerman December 16, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    What image does the title ‘Jew’ create in most minds? Is it a black-hatted, bearded, intense-looking man with a retinue of a bewigged wife and several little side-curled boys, or is it the first baseman of the Boston Red Sox? The Jew who tries his/her best to assimilate bears the burden of the former. Even the roots of his/her family are denied. No one says Irish Jew — or Lithuanian Jew for that matter. “My neighborhood was mainly Italian and Jewish” is a common description, as if there could be no Italian Jews. Too bad they named the new land ‘Israel.’ If they had called it Judea, all Jews could claim to have come from there.

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