How do you recognize a Jew? Parashat Vayigash 2020


Parashat Vayigash (5780 – 2020)
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27

[Note: In this essay on the Torah portion I share some thoughts concerning current events and problems, so this essay is considerably longer than usual.]

How do you recognize a Jew?

This question became, in later times,  a lens through which to read a crucial moment in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, as told in this week’s Torah reading. And the question haunts us today.

After an emotional appeal for mercy from Judah, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself, not as an Egyptian vizier, but as his brothers’ long lost brother, a Hebrew like them.  The brothers are astounded: “And his brothers could not respond to him, for they were very shocked before him. And Joseph said: ‘Come closer to me,’ and they drew near.” (Gen. 45:3-4) Continuing to speak to them, he says, “Look! Your eyes and Benjamin’s eyes can see that it is my mouth that speaks to you.” (v. 12) The unreality of this man speaking to them as their brother is almost impossible for Jacob’s sons to take in. Nor can they believe that Joseph is not intent on avenging himself against them. So Joseph seeks to draw them close. And he says a Biblical version of “Read my lips!” as he promises to care for them and not punish them.

For later generations his efforts to prove his identity became a screen on which to project their own anxieties about their identity, not as brothers, but as Jews. They imagined that Joseph sought to prove to his brothers, who did not recognize him, that he was a Jew. So Rabbinic readers, starting with the Targum and continuing into the commentary literature (Nahmanides is the notable exception), considered the possibility that Joseph showed his brothers distinctive traits to prove his identity.

How do you recognize a Jew? One answer was that Joseph drew them near to show them that he was circumcised, just like them. Although anachronistic with regard to the Biblical period, this was a compelling issue in Rabbinic times, when the Romans pressured Jews to give up this practice. A second interpretation was that Joseph started speaking to them in Hebrew, conclusively proving that he was not Egyptian.

Both of these options can stand for different answers to the question of Jewish identity. One answer is physical. Jews (- at least the males – who are the ones that counted in patriarchal societies) have a distinguishing mark on their bodies. According to this view, Jewish bodies are different and can be told apart from non-Jewish bodies. The other answer  is cultural. Jews are a group who have their own language, with all the national and civilizational implications that follow.

These approaches were imagined back into the Joseph story but they were really meant to be a challenge to contemporary Jews, themselves. Just as Joseph and his brothers struggled with their sense of loyalty to each other, so were Jews in Rabbinic times challenged with the question of whether to stay connected to the Jewish project of living, and how distinctively and at what cost? And this challenge continues to this moment.

Sadly, both of these ways to recognize a Jew have also been adopted by anti-semites since the beginning. Except that these distinctive Jewish identifiers are made by them into essentially evil and repugnant characteristics, independent of any Jew’s behavior or beliefs. For the one consumed with hate, Jewish bodies are different, whether they are male or female and whether they have practiced circumcision or not. They have horns, or ugly noses, or an odor. For the one who hates Jews, Jews are endowed with  a slippery facility with language that is culturally threatening. And the foreign language of Hebrew indicates that they are clannish and secretive, with their own nefarious cabals formulated against the world.

How do you recognize a Jew? Well, one might ask, why should it even be possible to recognize a Jew? Having just concluded the festival of Hanukah, we are reminded that many Jews decided that it was not worth it to be identifiably Jewish. They abandoned circumcision as a primitive embarrassment. They adopted Greek language and values. At the other extreme, the Pietists sought to separate from Greek civilization and maintain Jewish distinctiveness, even to death. But still others, the Maccabees, tried to find a more complex way to balance both cultures, to fit in and yet still be Jewish in meaningful ways.

We are the heirs of those Jews. But we are more directly the heirs of Jews who eventually rebelled against the Maccabean project, after the Maccabees became corrupt and complacent puppets of Rome. We are the heirs of those who, in the face of extraordinary pressures from within and from outside the Jewish community, founded the Rabbinic approach to Judaism. Ironically, they succeeded in creating a Judaism that became, in many ways, unrecognizable as Judaism when compared to the Temple Judaism of the Maccabees. Indeed, one of the most important stories of the Rabbinic Founding Myth is that Moses, when he heard the Torah taught in the distant future by Rabbi Aqiva, could not recognize it! He was only reassured when Rabbi Aqiva explained that his teaching developed directly and faithfully from Moses’ first words at Mount Sinai. (see BT Menahot 29b)

Thus we have inherited a tradition that puts the conundrum of Jewish recognizability at its very center. The Rabbis were rightly inspired to read this issue back into the Joseph story, just as they had Rabbi Aqiva declare that everything they taught was a faithful outgrowth from Moses. They sought to learn from the outside world and incorporate its blessings into their lives while vigilantly creating and maintaining a distinctive and recognizably Jewish identity, even if it meant suffering martyrdom for its sake. However, in a post-Holocaust world, after suffering martyrdom on a scale never before experienced or imagined, we have comforted ourselves in believing that there was no longer any real urgency in grappling – as individuals or as a group – with the question of Jewish recognizability. A favorite modern game became the “I didn’t know s/he was Jewish!” since there was no observable way to tell.

But the ground has now shifted under our feet. In this last year or so, and in these last days, we have been shaken by repeated anti-semitic attacks focussed on easily identifiable Jews. For let us understand that the reason Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox  Jews have been targeted is not because of their extra-stringent observance of Jewish law. They have been attacked because it is easy to recognize them as Jews, and the attackers wished to harm and kill Jews as Jews.

So Jews have rightfully joined together in ceremonies affirming our unity in the face of hatred. We recognize that an attack on an Orthodox Jew is merely the first, easy step toward attacking all Jews. Anti-semites don’t care what type of Jew you are.

But we Jews might care. We have very different answers to what type of Jew we wish to be or what type of Jew is best (- not always the same thing). To tell the truth, I do not recognize the Judaism of the ultra-Orthodox as the Judaism I aspire to living and promoting. The anti-semite murders an Orthodox Jew as a symbol of all Jews. But the Orthodox Jew does not symbolize Jews or Judaism for me. I embrace a Judaism that continues the Rabbinic devotion to faithfully growing the Torah, even in unrecognizable ways. I embrace a Judaism that is egalitarian and pluralistic – that empowers all Jews, regardless of gender or sexual orientation to live and contribute to creating full Jewish lives.  And, equally important, I embrace a Judaism that values and respects all non-Jews as created in God’s Image and as equal partners in making this world whole in all kinds of ways.

So, once the ceremonies of solidarity conclude, the question, made so much more murky in our poisoned atmosphere, resurfaces. Once again our Jewish identities are put to question, both regarding our physical survival and our cultural survival. How do we maximize our physical security? Shall we hide our Jewish distinctiveness? An authority on contemporary anti-semitism, Deborah Lipstadt, has recently written about Jews “going underground” after recent attacks. (Jews Are Going Underground, The Atlantic magazine) She bemoans the chilling phenomenon that recalls “Marrano” efforts to keep Judaism in hiding. Years ago, long before our present crisis, an idea to give all our school kids at Shomrei a Shomrei t-shirt was vetoed by those who were afraid of making their kids “a recognizable target.” Yet others have placed Shomrei decals on their cars. Today some have chosen to defiantly wear Star of David pins and necklaces.

And, on the cultural plane we have seen the confused conversations surrounding the President’s Executive Order (for a thoughtful treatment see David Schraub’s essay, Why Trump’s Executive Order on Anti-Semitism Touched Off a Firestorm, The Atlantic magazine) and the debate around Bret Stephens’ ill-conceived article in the NY Times about “Jewish Genius.” (For one attack, that also offers a link to the article, see Don’t Be Fooled By The NY Times Correction, Bret Stephens’ Column Is Still Racist, by Todd Essig, Forbes Magazine). And see my discussion in Sparks for Balaq 2014.)

It has become impossible to speak about recognizing Jews without wondering whether the intent – or the result – will be beneficial or harmful to us and to others. But hiding or silence are not possible, either. As our confidence in our physical safety and survival is shaken we take necessary steps for our protection. These must include both a tightening of internal security measures as well as an expansion of reaching out beyond ourselves. We hire security guards and work with law-enforcement officers and we also reach out to partners and allies. And out of this cruel necessity we sometimes discover unexpected revelations of human goodness and friendship.

Just this week I attended a community meeting to discuss issues affecting Montclair. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the meeting was hijacked by a presentation that, in the aftermath of the tragedy in Jersey City, complained about “Hassidics” (sic) and Jews. I felt compelled to speak up and protest.

You can read reports of the event here:

NJ Association of Black Educators Chair Criticizes Hasidic Jews at Montclair Community Forum, Drawing Sharp Rebuke, by Natalie Heard Hacket, Tap Into Montclair.

Montclair Rabbi Calls Out NJ Association of Black Educators President For Publicly Criticizing Hasidic Jews at 4th Ward Meeting, by Liz George, Baristanet

Both the attack on Jews and my own protest were applauded by the crowd. We live in confused times! But afterwards, at the event, and the next day, on the street and through email, I was approached with supportive messages and even apologies for not standing up and speaking out. And I was asked by others to continue this conversation so that we might hopefully get past easy venting and easy denials and actually grapple together with the challenge of living together in mutual respect. Engagement is not easy, but there is no other way.

For some, countering anti-semitism constitutes the entirety of their Jewish identity. But I believe that we also witness the manipulation of that worthy fight in the service of corrupting Jewish values and identities. Liberal Jews rightfully resent it when they are denigrated as inadequate Jews. But the central question about whether or not one chooses to be a recognizable Jew still remains. Here is a horrible thought: If we reduce Judaism to tokens, then tokens of Judaism will be the only way to recognize Jews. We may imagine that the less recognizable we become, the safer we will be. But this will be only because we will be using our Orthodox brothers  and sisters as our “human shield.”

We should not need anti-semitism to pose these questions to us. They are central to being a Jew: What steps shall we take for our own continued Jewish cultural and spiritual safety? What common language will we be able to share together as sisters and brothers? Will we continue to be able to recognize ourselves as Jews?

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein

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images courtesy Wikipedia, uncredited and in the public domain.

Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.


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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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4 thoughts on “How do you recognize a Jew? Parashat Vayigash 2020

  1. Completely on point, but it’s sad that we’ve come to this. Having recently moved from Montclair’s Fourth Ward after eleven years, I read the account of the meeting On Baristanet and found it hard to suppress my anger. This is all said so well here and should indeed be shared widely.

  2. Thank you for attending Renee Baskerville’s Ward Four meeting. We all must read your response to Harris’s comments.

  3. Everyone should read this Torah Sparks.
    After reading the account of the Ward Four meeting on Baristanet, I was
    very sad and disappointing that some people applauded Harris.
    Worse was that no one spoke up to criticize Harris, whose words were the opposite of the goals of that Ward Four meeting, until you spoke up. Thank goodness you were there, Rabbi Greenstein, to protest spontaneously to Harris’s remarks with such eloquence.

What do you think?