The Joseph Problem


Every year, around Chanukah, Jews in synagogues worldwide read the heart-wrenching story of Joseph and his brothers. While not immediately apparent, the festival and the Torah readings that accompany it have much in common. Chanukah, although we may neglect to mention it to our children, is a holiday that commemorates a Jewish civil war. The stories of this season challenge us: How do we deal with conflict among ourselves? Where do we draw the boundaries around our communities, and how do we defend them?

Throughout our tradition, the worldviews of Joseph and Judah are held in opposition. Joseph, the firstborn son of Rachel, stands for openness and engagement, while Judah, Leah's preeminent son, stands for purity and self-preservation. Rav Kook writes that the tension between the approaches of Joseph and Judah drives the Jewish people forward, and that we must continuously learn to reconcile and synthesize them into one healthy organism. This involves learning from, and incorporating, the positive aspects of both, and leaving behind any undesirable baggage.

As we read the story this year, it is difficult not to notice that the Orthodox world is awash with discord between those who identify with Joseph and those who identify with Judah. The current bout of conflict has been triggered by two recent decisions, seen by some as threats to Orthodoxy. These are the decisions of Britain's new Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, to attend this winter's Limmud Conference at the University of Warwick, and of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah's new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, to invite non-Orthodox rabbis and educators to speak at a panel on rabbinical training at his installation ceremony. What both decisions have in common is that they speak of an Orthodoxy that is open to constructive interaction with other communities. This approach recalls the way of Joseph. Those opposing Rabbis Mirvis and Lopatin evoke the path of Judah in their desire to draw impermeable boundaries around their own camp.

Joseph's modus operandi steered us through the Egyptian and subsequent exiles, and vastly enriched our tradition by building meaningful conversations with our surrounding cultures. As he demonstrates during his dramatic journey from slave to Vizier of Egypt, Joseph's primary drive is to cultivate and repair relationships, including those between the Jewish people and the nations of the world; hence, according to the Talmud, he is blessed with knowledge of the seventy primal languages. Through his openness and integrity, Joseph is able to build the relationships and economic systems that sustain our people, and the entire world, through a dangerous famine.

Joseph's brothers, led by Judah, failed to recognize that without Joseph's approach, there would be no Jewish people. As a result of the brothers' wrongdoing, a midrash says, our people is punished with slavery in Egypt, as well as myriad further suffering throughout history. The guilt for Joseph's sale endures, another commentary says, even hundreds of years later, when one of the first offerings brought in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was a ram, to atone for the brothers' sin. This process continues every Yom Kippur with the mysterious ritual of the scapegoat, which Maimonides describes as our national attempt at restitution for their misdeed.

However, Judah's fears regarding Joseph's influence are not entirely unfounded, as demonstrated when Joseph's descendant, Jeroboam, contributes significantly to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by erecting golden calves for mass worship. According to our tradition, Joseph's brothers sensed that his openness could lead to such tragedies. They are motivated not by mere jealousy, but by a sincere desire to preserve our people and its mission. In contrast to Joseph's path of engagement, Judah's approach is to strengthen and maintain the Jewish people in maximal isolation from external forces. This path has some advantages, but its limitations are revealed by the famine, which forces the brothers to engage with Egypt and all that awaits them there. Fortunately for them, Joseph has been sent ahead, to secure the family's survival in a manner that the brothers could not even have imagined.

It is profoundly ironic that Judah, who accuses Joseph of leading the Jewish People astray, himself succumbs to assimilation and sexual impropriety, while Joseph overcomes temptation and becomes a symbol of integrity. Having grown distant from his family and his core values, Judah recognizes and atones for his mistakes, thus re-establishing himself as the rightful leader of the brothers. In doing so, he creates an enduring paradigm of return, or teshuva, and paves the way for the rapprochement between the brothers and Joseph. Both Joseph's integrity, and Judah's teshuva are essential for our national journey, as we see when the family is reunited and flourishes as never before.

Ultimately, when the Jewish People leave Egypt, they carry Joseph's bones with them, symbolizing that his wisdom guides them both into and out of their first, and most formative, exile. When we settle our land, our monarchy is established first by Saul, associated with Joseph, and cemented by David and Solomon, from the line of Judah. As Rav Kook teaches, this dynamic tension between Joseph and Judah propels us onwards throughout our history, and is even present in our tradition's vision of the messianic future. Our sources do not speak of one, but of two messiahs, one who is descended from Joseph, and a one who is descended from Judah. The first messiah, who is called “Moshiach ben Yosef,” looks outwards and rectifies the relationship between Israel and the other nations. Like Joseph sustaining his family in Egypt, he paves the way for the ultimate redemption brought by the second messiah, “Moshiach ben David,” who is descended from Judah.

Rabbis Mirvis and Lopatin have clearly decided that their Orthodoxy is one that learns from the approaches of both Joseph and Judah. Neither of them would deny the value of Judah's emphasis on purity and self-preservation. However, judging by their actions, they each recognize that Judah's way alone does not suffice, and that it must be complemented by a healthy dose of Joseph's openness. Last Shabbat's regular Haftarah, from Ezekiel, describes the synthesis of the paths of Joseph and Judah into a unified people, living securely and at peace. May we be privileged to see that vision realized.

Daniel Raphael Silverstein is a third year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, currently studying at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa in Israel. He is a spoken word artist and creative educator who has performed and facilitated for Jewish and other communities around the world.