Miketz—Assimilated Joseph

They served [Joseph] by himself, and [his brothers] by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.  (Gen. 43:32)

My friend Mem Movshin introduced me to a fascinating angle on the Joseph story: Joseph is the prototype of the assimilated Jew.

He lives in Egypt.  He not only works for the Egyptian government, but has risen to a position of exceptional prominence there.   He speaks Egyptian (indeed, he pretends not to know Hebrew; 42:23).  His dress is Egyptian.  His wife is Egyptian.

The point here is not to disparage Joseph or lessen his stature in the patriarchal pantheon.  The point is that assimilation has been part of the Jewish story for a very long time.

So in 43:32, we find the Egyptians eating at the Egyptian table.  The sons of Jacob are seated at the separate Canaanite table, on account of an Egyptian food taboo*.  And Joseph is at a table by himself.  Does his isolation stem from his Hebrew origins?  Or from his newfound social status in Egypt?  Either way, the awkwardness of his position is one that will become familiar to many assimilated Jews.  At the same time, this position not only insures not only Joseph’s survival, but the survival of the family who had long since left him for dead.


*variously explained by commentators ancient and modern.  Targum Onkelos: “the Hebrews ate the cattle that the Egyptians worshipped.”  Sarna:  “Egyptian particularism asserted itself here because the Hebrews were shepherds—an abhorrent profession (46:34)—and because they ate sheep—an abomination to Egyptians (Ex. 8:22).”

2 Comments to “Miketz—Assimilated Joseph”

  1. Not only is Joseph thoroughly assimilated by the time he sees his brothers again, he remains assimilated. He does not rejoin his family when they settle in Goshen, he has his father embalmed, and he himself, in death, remains assimilated: “And Joseph was embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt.” Mem

  2. I am reminded of a Jewish cemetary I went to in Vilnius, where we saw many headstones in what I would call a “Soviet” style–with a picture of the deceased rendered on the headstone from a photograph. This turned off a number of my colleagues at the Yiddish Institute, but it’s consistent with this parsha.

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