This week’s parasha, Vayechi, closes B’reishit, Genesis – more specifically it marks the end of the story of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. We have the death of Jacob in today’s reading, but just preceding this, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manashe – again the younger son gets the favored right hand – and then he blesses his own twelve sons. One thing that’s clear is that the blessings aren’t so much directed at the individual sons, but prophecies aimed at their descendants – namely the twelve tribes (plus Levi). The messages are very distinct, referring to particular characteristics, like wealth, seafaring and military prowess, and there are clear favorites, namely Joseph and his sons, and Judah, especially in relation to the older brothers Reuven, Shimon and Levi, whose blessings are tempered with admonishments for their misdeeds.
Marc led a very interesting discussion of this in the parashat shavuah session on Thursday evening – let me take the opportunity to plug the meetings. I won’t try to rehash it – if you didn’t go, then too bad, you missed it. I do want to focus on Jacob’s blessing though, but from a different angle.
When I was thinking about the sermon, I’d also been reading Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book “The lies that bind: rethinking identity” – you might have heard his 2016 Reith lectures on the topic “Mistaken identities,” and I want to draw on some of his insight in reflecting on Jacob’s blessing.
In his book, Appiah talks about why the notion of identity is important: the way it affects how we see ourselves and how we behave, and how others see us and behave towards us. And he discusses different aspects of identity: religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender. And he challenges various common assumptions about them.
Returning to Jacob’s blessing, let’s think of it in its context as part of the Torah, which is so important as a source for Jewish identity. And let’s also recognise it as part of the larger narrative of T’nach – in particular including the Prophets. There’s even a similar sort of blessing delivered by Moses at the very end of Deuteronomy, in V’zot Habracha, now directed more explicitly at the 12 tribes, but a big difference is that instead of giving prominence to Judah, there’s an emphasis on Levi and their priestly role. And then in the book of Joshua, the promised land is parcelled out to the 12 tribes, and later in the book of Kings, it’s divided by schism into the rival Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The latter kingdom – the so-called ten lost tribes – eventually fades away. It’s the Kingdom of Judah that survives longer and maintains its identity through a period of exile. Without being too concerned about historical accuracy, or when exactly in this timeline Jacob’s blessing was recorded, we can assume it reflects the dominance of Judah in the southern kingdom, and of Ephraim in the northern Kingdom of Israel. It forms part of a particular narrative of Jewish identity, or I could say Judaic identity – the narrative even gives us our name.
And I want to challenge the message of Jacob’s blessing and its implications – it’s a message of lineage, division and rivalry. The idea that the tribes are somehow destined to certain roles, determined by their forebears, and that Judah’s dominance as a tribe is a consequence of the moral superiority of Judah himself over his older brothers. That’s just not how things should work – I don’t think it’s how they work in reality. Coming back to Appiah’s book, a recurring theme is that neat labels and divisions between different types of identity can be illusory, whether it’s the complexity of gender – think of Tamar’s fascinating sermon last week about Joseph, or the way migration and changing political boundaries complicate notions of nationality, or the way individual religions have evolved over time – what it means to be Jewish now is different from what it meant 100 years ago.
Take me for example – how would I describe my identity? Well, I’m American – I grew up in Memphis, attending a Jewish school, but my neighbourhood pals were the Asian-Americans next door and the African-American kids across the street (non-Jewish incidentally – I remember being confused the very first time I met someone who was white and wasn’t Jewish – that challenged my assumptions about identity!). Anyway I’m a Southerner, but I spent most of my adult life in the northeastern US, and now I’m a Cambridge resident and a naturalized Brit, and therefore European. I’m also a child of Polish Jewish holocaust survivors – I had a non-observant orthodox upbringing, but now I’m a reform Jew by choice, and with an extended family that’s mostly Hindu with roots in Sri Lanka. More straightforwardly, I’m a man, a father, a husband, a mathematician – if I belong to anything like a tribe it’s academia. These and many other factors influence who I am and how others see me. I don’t think I’m so unusual in having a complex, evolving combination of identities. Some aspects are the result of genes or circumstance, and some are the result of choices I made.
Of course we’re not free to choose aspects of our identity arbitrarily – when I was little, I could like the Jackson 5, but I couldn’t be black like Hank and Ken across the street. Nor can I choose what the Jewish label means to other people. To quote Appiah, “If you do not care for the shapes your identities have taken, you cannot simply refuse them; they are not yours alone. You have to work with others inside and outside the labeled group in order to reframe them so they fit you better; and you can do that collective work only if you recognize that the results must serve others as well.” He goes on to warn against identities becoming forms of confinement. On the contrary, quoting again: “Social identities connect the small scale where we live our lives with larger movements, causes and concerns. They can make a wider world intelligible, alive and urgent. They can expand our horizons to communities larger than the ones we personally inhabit.”
I want to challenge the tribal narrative and instead stress the idea of expanding horizons, of not being bound by labels, as an essential aspect of Jewish identity, with roots in the stories of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, not fitting into a mold, but finding their way in a wider world, with help from God of course. But to close with a more recent illustration of Jewish identity as a basis for connecting with larger causes, recall what happened during an especially repugnant flare-up of Islamophobic rhetoric in the US in 2016, when an influential person advocated creating a registry of Muslims in the US. Many in the Jewish community reacted in solidarity, saying they too would register as Muslims. Now that’s “rethinking identity.