Diaspora Jewish leaders in the Bible
The character of Joseph has a surprisingly modern ring: by talent and hard work, an immigrant Jew rises to high office in a foreign country, helping both that country and his own people. But Joseph is not the only character in the Bible who rises to prominence in a foreign society. Two other books of the Bible tell similar stories of talent and promotion in the Diaspora – the book of Esther (the Purim story) and the Book of Daniel.
Taken together these three stories – of Joseph, of Esther and of Daniel – suggest some interesting Biblical insights into the role and nature of Diaspora Jewish leaders.
These three stories, and in particular the lives of their heroes, share some remarkable similarities. Here are ten of them:
- Joseph, Esther, and Daniel were all immigrants, first or second generation, in a foreign society.
- They were all orphans, or separated from their parents at an early age, or both.
- They were all physically attractive. It is rare that the Bible comments on the physical appearance of any of its characters. And yet in all three cases the Bible goes out of its way to emphasize that they were good looking. (Genesis 39:4,6; Esther 2:2,7; Daniel 1:4,19)
- They are all initiated into the foreign culture by someone of high office. As immigrants, each of them finds a sponsor or guardian who teaches them the ways of the society in which they find themselves.
- In each case the adopted guardian is described as a eunuch (“ seris ”), that is someone who, according to Jewish tradition, was unable to have children of his own. This close relationship between a childless ‘parent’ and an orphaned child helps integrate the young Jew into broader society.
- They all adopt non-Jewish names (Joseph becomes Tsofenatpaneach, Hadassah becomes Esther, and Daniel becomes Balthazar).
- They all wear the clothes and finery of the surrounding society (Joseph Genesis 41:42; Esther 2:14, and Daniel 5:29).
- They rise to power though a combination of talent and opportunity: in the case of Joseph and Daniel through interpreting a ruler’s dreams; in Esther’s case through winning a beauty pageant.
- They are confronted with enemies who try to bring about their downfall, focusing on their Jewish identity in order to try to rally people against them.
- Although they survive the plots against them, their position remains vulnerable, and they are at the mercy of a ruler whose authority is unstable.
The picture of the Diaspora Jewish leader that emerges from these similarities is a complex one. Jews in foreign lands who reach positions of influence, the Bible seems to suggest, can bring great benefit to these societies, as well as help the Jewish people. But this worldly success is not without a price. In order to reach the highest levels of society these biblical models have, to some extent, to compromise. They must change their names and their clothing, and find someone to foster and guide them in the ways of the foreign society. Even after they have done this, they are still perceived as Jews, and antisemitic opponents seek to use their difference as a political tool against them.
Perhaps most striking of all is the sense, in all three stories, that the position of the Diaspora Jew remains one of vulnerability. Joseph, Esther and Daniel are all brought to high office through rulers whose authority is shaky. When a new Pharaoh arises, Joseph is forgotten, Ahazuerus is powerless to reverse Haman’s edict to destroy the Jews, and Darius cannot prevent the plot to throw Daniel in the lions’ den.
What then can we conclude about the Bible’s attitude to these Diaspora Jewish leaders? On the one hand, these stories seem to confirm that it is legitimate and praiseworthy for Jews to reach high office in all societies. On the other, they suggest that such success is fragile, dependent on the good looks and talents of the individual, and the good will of insecure leaders. For an environment in which the Jewish people as a whole can take control of its destiny, we have to turn to Israel.
It seems that, for all his success in rising to positions of leadership in Egypt, this is a realization that Joseph himself appreciates. For all the glory wealth and power he has attained in Egypt, he recognizes that his destiny is ultimately with the people of Israel in their land. The Book of Genesis ends with his request to his brothers not to leave his bones in Egypt, but to carry him back with them, when they finally make the journey home to the land of Israel.
In others’ words
“Israel is the only place in the world where Jews have the right and the ability to defend themselves by themselves. Israel is the only place where Jews can live full Jewish lives.”
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Paris, 28 July 2005
On a lighter note
“The time is at hand when the wearing of a prayer shawl and a skullcap will not bar a man from the White House – unless, of course, the man is Jewish!”