Avraham Burg

Joseph, First Diaspora Success Story

By Avraham Burg

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Miketz — At the End of Two Years

Genesis 41:1–44:17

Because We Were Strangers

Joseph is the archetype of the Diaspora Jewish success story. He is the first ever to make it big in the royal court. He is the first to understand what it means to live outside Israel, initially under duress but later by choice. His story raises thoughts of the smallness of Jewish life in a Jewish land, and of the greatness of the Diaspora Jew as Other, forced to compete, to excel and to stand out. In a sense Joseph is the first Einstein – that is, he is essentially a Zionist, but from afar. Jewish, but mostly in relation to gentiles.

What’s more, Joseph is the first of us who was born outside Israel and made his mark outside Israel. That is, Abraham was born outside Israel and found success in Israel; Isaac was born in Israel and succeeded in Israel; and Jacob was born in Israel and found success abroad, while working for Laban in Haran. Joseph came from outside and succeeded outside. He brief stay in Israel was not of great importance to his future or his greatness. Accordingly, Joseph’s story presents us with a difficult choice of themes. Do we use Joseph to shed light on the complicated relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, or do we focus this week on the place of the outsider in society? As usual, we will allow the urgent to displace the substantive, and put off Israel-Diaspora relations for now.

One could read the entire Book of Genesis as a discussion, via personal stories and anecdotes, of the place of the outsider and the Other in human society.

Cain, the driven wanderer, is the embodiment of the perpetual outsider who carries his otherness with him from place to place. The story of Abraham’s otherness is far more surprising, almost shocking. He discovers his faith in the sublime and ineffable somewhere near the rivers of Babylon, and the first command he receives from his new God is to go and become a stranger elsewhere.

God doesn’t tell him to deepen his faith in him or to expand his community to include his family or clan. God tells him: go out on a mission. He sends him to be a stranger, a lonely missionary among people who have no common denominator with him. Go be an Other, he tells him, because that, it seems, is the nature of your new faith. The same goes for Isaac, alone in the land of Gerar, for Jacob in all his wanderings and with Joseph, who was the prince of them all. The new faith of the patriarchs is a perpetual protest against normality, a posing of foreignness as an alternative, challenging everyone, everywhere, throughout history.

What, then, is the Bible’s policy toward relations with the stranger? At first glance, the welter of principled and normative references to the issue might seem to suggest a particularly lofty moral universe. The Bible loves the outsider and the stranger. On the other hand, sometimes a multiplicity of rules and commandments points toward a debased reality that needs rules spelled out precisely because it hasn’t yet internalized them. For example, when we encounter large numbers of rules setting out limits on our sexual behavior, it’s a safe guess that conditions during the lawmaker’s own time were rather dissolute. Much like our own time: the thicker the controller-general’s report on state misconduct, the more official misconduct there must have been. In the same way, when the Torah takes the trouble to warn so many times about our treatment of the stranger, it probably means the reality of life for strangers was hard indeed. The meanness of society’s attitude toward them was probably in reverse proportion to the moralizing of the scripture. The loftiness of the biblical language was matched by the depth of human degradation that the Torah was trying to reform. As it was then, the human heart today is still torn between openness to the foreigner and an instinctive rejection.

The Hebrew and English Wikipedia entries on xenophobia are as different as the languages, cultures and nations they serve. The English Wikipedia defines it as fear of foreigners or strangers, and describes it as a psychological condition induced in individuals by particular circumstances, notably post-traumatic stress syndrome such as soldiers experience after a war against a different culture. It emphasizes that the xenophobe’s fear is inherently irrational and can be projected onto nearly any outside group, “not only people from other countries, but other cultures, subcultures and subsets of belief systems; in short, anyone who meets any list of criteria about their origin, religion, personal beliefs, habits, language, orientations, or any other criteria. While some will state that the ‘target’ group is a set of persons not accepted by the society, in reality only the phobic person need hold the belief that the target group is not (or should not be) accepted by society.”

Hebrew Wikipedia defines xenophobia not as fear but as a feeling of hatred or revulsion toward foreigners. Instead of a psychological explanation focusing on the individual, the Hebrew quotes sociology: “The sociological explanation for hatred of foreigners grows out of the assumption that it is rooted in group norms. The group’s norms define how to relate to the foreigner, a member of another group, and there are more than a few societies that narrow the definition of ‘human being’ to their own members.” Much of the article addresses the danger of xenophobia to democracy, “because the commitment of citizens to democratic values, including equality among individuals, is not compatible with the tendency to discriminate and denigrate minorities.”

The two views of xenophobia reflect the differing experiences of the two cultures with the phenomenon. Mainstream Americans – that is, white Americans – experience xenophobia as a flaw carried by certain of their compatriots that has an unfortunate effect on other, weaker groups such minorities and foreigners. To Israeli Jews, xenophobia is a force in the world by which other, stronger groups victimize the Jews.

That makes the challenge of combating xenophobia among Jews and Israelis all the more difficult. Before discussing how to fight it, Jews must first recognize that the tables have been turned, at least partly, and that the evil that others inflicted on us for so long, we now have the power to inflict on others.

Let’s look at a passage from a lesser known rabbinic text: “Foreigners and masturbators delay the Messiah.… Foreigners are as troublesome to the Jewish people as a skin disease, as it is written, ‘And they attached themselves to the house of Jacob’” (Minor Tractates, Kallah Rabbati 2:5). Prejudices and generalizations undoubtedly exist in the Bible and traditional texts, because they are human and we aren’t unique. The biblical laws and testimonies don’t show evidence of genuinely positive attitudes toward foreigners. On the contrary, their standard inclusion in lists of the helpless – “the poor, the orphan, the stranger and the widow” – is evidence of ongoing discrimination. Poverty can be temporary, widowhood is accidental and orphanhood is limited by age, but foreignness is forever.

It’s true that memory fades with the passing of years and generations, but there doesn’t seem to be a statute of limitations on reminding the descendants of immigrants where they came from. That’s why the tradition needs to bring an opposing norm, drawn from the Torah’s numerous references to strangers: “Rabbi Eliezer said: Why did the Torah warn in thirty-six places, and some say forty-six places, about the stranger? Because of the biblical verse, ‘You shall not afflict or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’? Rabbi Natan said: If you have a flaw, do not tell your fellow, as the rabbis said: One whose relative was hanged should not say to a servant or one of the household, go and string me up a fish, because the very idea of cord is now a sensitive topic” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b). That is, don’t bring up rope in the home of a hanged person. There are Jewish minorities in living in tense places. Therefore, don’t go running off to hang a foreigner, lest they hang our fellow Jews living as minorities. If it weren’t for the Egyptian Pharaoh’s respect for the foreigner, Joseph would not have become what he became and we would not have been saved the way we were, either individually or collectively.

Over the years the notion of the ger, the biblical word for foreigner, has evolved. Once it meant a stranger who came to live in foreign surroundings. Today it refers to a person who has changed his religion. The change is related in part to the deep change in the self-definition of the Jewish people, from a nation bound by territory to a people bound by faith and identity. But despite this most fundamental change, there has been no change, unfortunately, in our attitude toward others who join us. Not everyone understood back then – nor does everyone understand today, for that matter – the danger of interpreting the concept of “chosen people” as a genetic notion. Over the generations, some of our lesser Jewish minds have lost sight of the radically daring idea that ethnic racism could be averted by the easily available tools of conversion and affiliation. Some of our number still believe that we are commanded to fear gentiles, to resist the conversion of loving wives, to relate to the convert as a blemish and to conversion as though it were a treatment for some sort of leprous blister. The convert is essentially a leper in their eyes.

We offer them another traditional text that was written in the distant past but still holds quite true: “The rabbis ruled that when a stranger comes to be converted in our time, he should be addressed in this manner: What did you see that brought you to convert? Do you know that the Jewish people is afflicted, oppressed, torn apart and filled with suffering? If he says: I know, and I am not worthy, he is to be accepted at once” (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47a).

The foreigner and immigrant can be a source of enrichment, stimulation and motivation to the society that receives him, as long as he is fully prepared to share the destiny of his adopted home. Ruth the Moabite framed the obligations of the newcomer in just the right order when she made her pledge to her mother-in-law Naomi: first of all, “where thou lodgest, I will lodge”; after that, “thy people shall be my people,” and only after that, if at all, “thy God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). That’s how Egypt behaved when it took Joseph in, thousands of years ago this week, and in so doing saved itself from famine. That was the trade-off for the ancient tribe of Judah when it accepted Ruth the Moabite, and received David and his line in return. Could the same be said of us today?


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