One striking coincidence of the Jewish calendar is the almost inevitable appearance of the Joseph story during the Hanukka season. The story outlines the paradigmatic problems of being in the Jewish minority while living in the midst of a majority culture. Hanukka often symbolizes the same problem: how to affirm and retain one’s identity in the face of overwhelming cultural challenges.
In Miketz, Joseph finds himself summoned from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph is elevated to vice-regent of Egypt and placed in charge of food collection and distribution. For a poor Hebrew boy whose family problems delivered him as a slave into Egypt, this is redemption of startling proportions.
Joseph’s transformation occurs rapidly. He is given an Egyptian name, is introduced and wed to the daughter of an Egyptian high priest, and eventually becomes so “Egyptian” in appearance that his brothers do not recognize him upon their arrival in Egypt in their search for food.
Hanukka absorbs many of the tensions inherent in the Joseph story. Perhaps the most significant is the tension between adaptation and assimilation. Throughout history, Jews in the Diaspora have often been called upon to adapt to the surrounding culture in order to survive. Part of the path of Jewish survival has been the ability to change, to expand, and even to contract in the face of challenges — both positive and negative — from the wider civilizations in which we have often lived.
But every period of adaptation also brought the threat of assimilation — the concern that changes meant to preserve Judaism would become a wholesale effort to become a part of the dominant culture at the expense of Judaism.
The Hanukka story too often gets left at the legend of the miraculous cruse of oil. What is missed are the rich details of the historical period of the Maccabees and the concurrent socio-religious battles within the Jewish community.
The Maccabees opposed the Syrian rulers’ attempt to ban Judaism and make the Jerusalem Temple a pagan shrine, but they were also the rallying point for those Jews opposed to assimilation and committed to the preservation of Jewish identity, facing opposition not only from the authorities, but from within their own community.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, once wrote of Hanukka that it embodies the distinction between positive assimilation — when Judaism adapts to the majority culture by absorbing elements that strengthen and expand Jewish life — and negative assimilation — when Judaism surrenders essential ideas and traditions in favor of those belonging to the wider culture. The issue is not if Jews and Judaism will be changed by encounters with other civilizations; the question is how we will manage the changes.
American Jews, like Joseph, struggle with the challenge of being both “American” and “Jews,” or, as Kaplan put it, with living in two civilizations. Hanukka best functions as a challenge to us to understand the balance we strive for between our identity as Americans and our identity as Jews — to consider again how we can best be true to an authentic understanding of each tradition to which we proudly and rightly claim title.