Sermon: Vay’chi – Kosher Christmas
Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 24 December 2018
This week was a very proud moment for my family. A moment that topped my rabbinic ordination, or my sister’s promotion to head teacher, or any of our weddings. This week my 4 year old nephew stood centre stage as he played Joseph in his first ever nativity. As my mother and sister wept tears that could have convinced an onlooker that he was starring in a West End production, I realized that long gone are the years when the Jewish kid was relegated to playing the donkey or a star, unable to speak. He blared out his solo of ‘There’s no room at the inn’ with pride and I chuckled at his strange reality, where baby Jesus is just a doll and Christmas is a day when all his favourite people get together, much like Shabbat. My nephew, like most other Jews living in diaspora, straddles the line between his Judaism and his secular culture every day. But, I do not worry about his Jewish identity. For him, Shabbat is the best time of the week, telling his classmates about the lights of Chanukah made him feel special, and of course he has his auntie Rabbi Hannah.
My nephew is living the life of an assimilated Jew. He joins the generations of those who came before him, from biblical times through to now, who have adapted their Jewish lives to the surrounding culture. Throughout all ages we have been a people in flux, split between places or physically wandering, and therefore it has been with necessity that we have had to adapt our ways of living our Judaism.
Gershon Cohen, former chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary and a historian of Jewish societies, wrote in his essay on the Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish history: “a frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity, but that in a profound sense, this assimilation an acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source or renewed vitality.”
Despite the worries that assimilation could result in us as Jews not fully understanding our Jewish heritage, often space and interaction outside of Judaism helps us to dissect what in our Judaism has particular meaning to us. It is often when experiencing other cultures that I feel most spiritual, and then I am able to bring these practices back into my Judaism. Those who have felt moved by the grandeur of a church service are not at risk of becoming Christian, but may begin to think about how atmospheres and spaces can be created in Jewish worship that can give similar tingling in the pit of the stomach. Those who find joy in Christmas day may find necessity in creating spaces in the community for families to spend time together away from the distractions of everyday life.
In the words of Rabbi Cliff Cohen, a childhood friend of my mother and her rabbi when we were young, “Sometimes you are Jewish enough to celebrate Christmas.”
The book of Genesis, which we conclude this week, is full of stories of assimilation. As we hear the end of our Joseph narrative, arguably the first story of a Hebrew living in diaspora, we are given the chance to continue to think about the challenges of living in a secular society. Rabbi Josh spoke just a few weeks ago of the options we have when faced with a new cultural opportunity. Do we isolate, becoming fully insular from our surrounding world and risk halting our Judaism from growing? Do we assimilate, and risk becoming so like other nations that we lose our sense of peoplehood built on so many years of history? Or do we sit between the extremes, in both the Jewish and non-Jewish spheres creating a balance that may at times feel confrontational but has the potential of being something great?
The story of Joseph is a demonstration of the struggle to find an answer to these questions. Our text implies that Joseph chose the second option, to fully assimilate into Egyptian culture. We are told that he adopts an Egyptian name, wears Egyptian clothing and shaves his beard. He chooses to marry an Egyptian, Asenath the daughter of Potiphar, whom we encounter in many stories in the Apocrypha preserved in their Greek original. Genesis Rabbah states that he was so unrecognisable that he even needed to show his brothers that he was circumcised to prove that he was a Jew.
Despite his apparent embrace of Egyptian culture, I cannot help but feel that there is also a sadness in Joseph’s story of assimilation. His reunion with his brothers is arguably one of the most passionate and heart-warming bits of our text. I challenge one person in this room not to not feel the tears that run down the cheeks of Joseph as he weeps onto his brothers. And when he comes out with fluent Canaanite prose it is clear that Joseph has not forgotten his home country and origins, and still holds them close to his heart. The Talmudic sage Rav Yaakov states that Joseph was forever lonely during his time in Egypt, struggling to feel complete. It is only when reunited with his brothers that he feels his loneliness ebb and wholeness overcome him.
How does this not become true for us too in our stories of assimilation into British culture? How do we refrain from feeling torn between two cultures and two ways of life? Does being Jewish and being British create a sense of loneliness, belonging to neither place fully?
It is only through balance, through being comfortable enough both in our Judaism and in our society, that we are able to hold the tension and feel comfortable with our sense of belonging.
As Jacob dies this week he embraces Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Manasseh, adopting them so that they too could inherit a portion of land in Israel. The first two Hebrew children to be born in exile, Ephraim and Manasseh were raised exclusively in the diaspora. They grew up initially without Jewish education, in a time and place where their religious identity would have put them in grave danger. Yet according to Midrash, as their family joins them in Egypt, they observe them living their lives as Hebrews. Genesis Rabbah talks especially of Ephraim, who studies Torah regularly with his grandfather. It is from this regular study group that he sees his grandfather’s decline towards death, and consequently informs his father Joseph of his imminent departure.
Through the characters of Ephraim and Manasseh, we see a model of living that is much like our own, created with a balance between cultures and an appreciation of different ways of life. Many commentators believe this is why we now bless our children to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, citizens of the world, who were raised in meaningful relationship with other traditions and choose to be respectful of them. We bless our children to choose Judaism from an informed standpoint, to live with the tensions, to find the blessing in the Jewish and secular worlds, and to learn from all parts of their lives.
Being a British Jew is rather more complicated than gatherings around a turkey at Christmas. Joseph’s story quite accurately reflects many of the stories of our emancipation, especially those across Europe where assimilation was, and still is, a complex and constantly evolving entity. But raising our children to embrace this, to see the celebration that can come out of the confrontation, the joy that comes when our Judaism interacts with the world around it, will help to foster true Jewish communities, based on welcoming people in, rather than shutting them out. For when we open our doors, we open them to the potential of blessings, and people, and life from outside of the community as well as inside.
And just as the laws of physics state that every action has an equal and opposite reaction,so when we are open we learn from those surrounding us, and grow not just in numbers but in strength and wisdom, and then we will create a Judaism with truly lasting values, one that is filled with love and warmth and not with judgement.