Each year, when I get to the Joseph story, I know Chanukah is near. But I like neither the historical story of the war nor the legendary miracle of the oil. Judaism is so unwarlike that the rabbis excluded the war story from the Bible; and even though they focused on the oil, miracles did not become mainstream Judaism.
Rabbinic Judaism never gave up preaching the value of Torah study. We have very few warriors or miracle workers among our heroes, but lots of teachers and students. Our ideal at the Passover seder is the "wise child," who asks about all the "laws, that God gave us. More than anything, we have wished our children wisdom and learning.
Rabbinic commentary considers this aspiration central to the Joseph story, especially in this week's claim that Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons. The biblical explanation for Jacob's favoritism is that he was "a child of [Jacob's] old age." But the rabbis wanted none of that. In his official translation of the passage, the famous translator of the Torah, Onkelos, explains, bar chakim hu leih — "He was a wise child to [Jacob]." With fine anachronism, the midrash pictures Joseph studying in a yeshivah and transmitting its lessons to his household.
Not that the reason for Jacob's favoritism mattered in the end. The jealous brothers did Joseph in without inquiring after Jacob's rationale. No wonder the rabbis warn us against favoring one child over another. "Look at what happened to Joseph," they admonish.
God, however, seems not to have learned that lesson, for Jewish tradition insists that Jews are God's chosen people. True, in essence, we are no better than "the Ethiopians, the Philistines and the Arameans," God tells the prophet Amos, but still, "You only have I singled out of all the families of the earth." We are am s'gulah, "the treasured people."
Solomon Schechter once ran down the usual explanations given. Israel "declared God king at the Red Sea … It was because of Israel's humbleness and meekness … It is the holiness of Israel which made them worthy of election." Most rabbis, however, thought nothing could fully justify this favoritism, so they put it down "to the mere act of grace (or love) on the part of God."
Some Embarrassing Claims
In other words, the rabbis inherited a doctrine of chosen peoplehood they could not fully understand, but affirmed nonetheless. Except for rare exceptions (Yehudah Halevi's words embarrass us today), they did not claim inherent racism. It is not as if Jews are innately better than everyone else.
Even given the absence of racism, not all great Jewish thinkers accept the chosenness notion. Recognizing the rabbinic belief that God made covenants not just with Jews, Mordecai Kaplan dismissed the whole idea as outmoded. Instead, he phrased the blessing, "You have chosen us along with all the peoples."
Is Kaplan right? Or can we save the idea of being chosen by having recourse to something more likely than the reasons assembled by Schechter, and more palatable than the inherent "betterness," provided by Halevi.
I like the challenge of this week's parshah, according to which Joseph's chosenness was rooted in his pursuit of wisdom. Perhaps chosenness is not what we already are but what we must become: students of Torah. We are expected to be chakim leih, "wise before God."
The distinctive Jewish charge is the expectation to study — not just arts and sciences, but Torah, the values and ideals that epitomize humanity at its best. If, and only if, we study Torah can we call ourselves "chosen." Torah, moreover, is open to anyone, not just born Jews.
Whether that will save us from some wrathful "brothers," no one can say. But we will not, at least, have done ourselves in by abandoning the only thing for which it pays to risk being Jewish in the first place.
This year, again, I plan on retelling the Chanukah miracle, but only after I have already studied some Torah earlier in the day.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York.