Informing Our Identity

Informing Our Identity

by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.

The story of the Maccabees is the quintessential story of the fight against assimilation. But is assimilation really that bad? Can we assimilate while still holding tight to our fundamental traditional beliefs?

This week as we celebrate Hanukkah we learn of one of the greatest stories of assimilation in our history. There were two camps. There were the Mityavnim (Hellenists) and the Chasidim (pious ones). Much of the population was assimilated and fell in the camp of the Mityavnim; children were given Greek names, the practices of circumcision, Shabbat and Kashrut were forsaken, and the Holy Temple was turned into a Greek Temple. Ultimately, Judah and the Maccabees were able to “win back” and rededicate the Holy Temple, which is why we celebrate Chanukah in the first place; it literally translates as dedication. Still, even after the Temple was purified and rededicated, the assimilation of Jews existed in and around Jerusalem. Chanukah is not the end of the story.

Assimilation still exists today, in Jerusalem and in the Diaspora. It is evident in how we name our children, how we dress, even in the language we speak. There are two distinct ways to look at assimilation. It could be terrible: we might see assimilation as a lessening of one’s own culture and traditional values and identity. Or we could see it as good: we might feel that a balance can exist, or maybe even that we can abandon much of our culture and traditional values to “be like everyone else.”

In this week’s Parsha we can find that we may even need assimilation (at least a form of assimilation like acculturation) to save the Jewish people. Acculturation is when the minority group changes but is still able to maintain its culture (food, language and customs).

In Parshat Miketz, we read about Joseph who is living in Egypt after having saved the nation and region from terrible famine. Joseph dresses as an Egyptian. He marries an Egyptian woman, Osnat, the daughter of Potiphera. Joseph becomes so unrecognizable that his own brothers do not know who he is.

Had Joseph not become so much a part of Egyptian culture and life, he would not have been able to ultimately save his family from the famine. Joseph had the ability even while being away from his family and away from his heritage (in a diaspora) to maintain his beliefs. He did not lose his attachments to God and his family as is evident in giving Hebrew names to his children, Menashe, his firstborn and Efraim his second. In fact, numerous commentators suggest that Osnat was the adopted daughter of Potiphera and was the daughter of Dinah, Joseph’s sister and therefore a Jew.

Part of living in the Diaspora is to know how to balance one’s belief and faith against outside stimuli. When those outside stimuli become too strong, a full assimilation may occur. We must fight against that, to make sure that there is a transfer of values from one group to another rather than an absorption of a minority group.

The story of Chanukah is a reminder of the dangers that assimilation might bring. Matityahu was from the house of the Hasmoneans. Together with his sons, Matityahu rebelled against the Greeks and the assimilated masses. He created an army of those who were dedicated to following God. In our daily prayers, in between the words of the Shema, where we focus on the oneness of God and the words of the Amidah, where we praise and make requests of God, we have the words of the Mi Chamocha Ba’Eilim Adonai, who is like you among the gods, God. These words became the call to arms for Matityahu’s army. Taking the first letter of each word, we get the word MaCaBee. When we find that right balance of living in a modern world, but keep true to our traditional values, we no longer need to fear a full assimilation.

That is what is found in a Bornblum education. We know how to balance the traditional values and textual learning with secular education. We know how to give equal emphasis for all aspects of our curriculum. We don’t just offer Hebrew or Math. We offer Hebrew and Math. We don’t just offer Chumash (Bible study) or Science. We offer Chumash and Science. We don’t just offer Prayer or Art. We offer Prayer and Art. And Music. And Library Science. And Physical Education. And Language Arts. And Jewish Law. And Jewish Holidays. And American Holidays. And a love for kehilla, community; not just the Jewish community, but also the world community. We incorporate all of this into the education we provide because we know that each piece of our curriculum fits into another piece of our curriculum, teaching our students critical thinking skills; that traditional values have a place in secular world; and that Jewish education makes us global citizens. We aren’t losing our identity. We are informing our identity.

Wishing you a Happy Shabbat Chanukah.

Shabbat Shalom.


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