The Path Not Taken
Assimilation Versus Separation:Joseph the Administrator and the Politics of Religion in Biblical Israel.
by Aaron Wildavsky.
Transaction. 236 pp. $32.95.
To assimilate or to stay apart? That is the question which for centuries has confronted Jews living in the Diaspora. How much may the children of Israel become like their host nations, in order to live securely and to prosper? Once upon a time, indeed until only yesterday, this was mainly a question of how much to accommodate powerful and hostile political rulers who threatened the literal survival of Jewish subjects. Today, especially in America and other “enlightened” societies, it is mainly a question of how much to resist powerful and seductive cultural temptations—for example, of lobster, luxury, and loose living—which threaten the spiritual and moral survival of no-longer-persecuted Jewish citizens. Yet despite the changing scene, the basic question persists: how to square the demands of survival, the attractions of worldly success, and the need to live in exile with the call to be a righteous and holy people?
In Assimilation versus Separation, Aaron Wildavsky seeks to show that this difficulty has plagued Jewish life from its earliest beginnings. Subtitled “Joseph the Administrator and the Politics of Religion in Biblical Israel,” his book offers a thoroughgoing and illuminating commentary on the Joseph narrative in Genesis. The main purpose of that narrative, according to Wildavsky, is to show the limits of worldly wisdom and the superiority of cleaving to God’s ways. Joseph, the brilliant administrator, takes the path of assimilation and prepares the way for the enslavement of his people; he is thus the Jewish anti-hero, the perfect foil for Moses the liberator who brought the Jews out of the house of bondage and made of them a separate, God-fearing people. “The rejection of Joseph, that is, of assimilation as the price of survival,” says Wildavsky,
is a turning point in the development of Judaism. . . . Because the path chosen makes more sense contrasted with the path not taken, we have the lifetime story of Joseph as our guide to what is not permissible for Jews to do in order to survive.
This is no crude hatchet job. On the contrary, Wildavsky, a professor of political science and public policy at Berkeley and a prolific author on the widest range of topics, has drawn a complex, subtle, and compelling portrait of Joseph by means of meticulous study of the Genesis text and “conversations” with other interpreters, traditional and modern. Though he deftly marshals the evidence for his own reading, he gives careful and respectful attention to the alternatives, which, not dismissed, continue to live in his pages. As with his earlier book on Moses (The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader), he succeeds in his aim “to make ‘the Midrash,’ the commentary on the Bible, live in our time as it has in earlier days.” In Wildavsky’s able hands, commentary is once again displayed as what the late Gershom Scholem called “the characteristic expression of Jewish thinking about truth.” Thanks to this commentary, it should now be permanently impossible for anyone interested in truth to see Joseph simply as a hero in Israel.
In the opening two chapters, leading up to the Joseph story proper, Wildavsky introduces two central principles crucial to his interpretation: “no foreigner can control Israel” (i.e., only God can) and “survival must not be gained through sin.” These principles Wildavsky extracts, respectively, from the wife-sister stories involving Abraham and Isaac and from the stories of Judah and Tamar, Ruth and Naomi, Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar. I found these chapters the weakest in the book, despite the fine insights they contain, because they do not persuade me that these stories are best read as teaching those principles.
To cite only one difficulty: Wildavsky argues that “the story of Judah and Tamar is a preview of the lesson of the Joseph stories, which is that leaders cannot save their people by violating the moral law.” But how can one violate the moral law when it has not yet been given? To speak about moral law and sin is here largely anachronistic; the children of Israel in the time of Joseph are bound only by the Noahide law, by God’s covenant with and promise to the patriarchs, and by the one specifically Jewish commandment, circumcision. The stories of Genesis are in my view better read as making clear the need for law, by showing the moral ambiguity of uninstructed human ways and the great idolatrous temptations of the human heart. In Genesis, the nascent Jewish way is more a matter of attitude and worldly orientation, attentive to God’s solicitous and awesome presence, than of any specified morality or prescribed way of life.
The book’s central chapters on Joseph himself are superb. Wildavsky analyzes Joseph’s dreams and dream-interpretations, his relations with his family, his Egyptianization (which is compared to the Hebraicization of Daniel and Esther), and his work as administrator, concluding with a discussion of Jacob’s blessings of his sons that shows them to be more like curses. The moral and spiritual ambiguity of Joseph is made crystal-clear, from his boyhood dreams of domination and his lording it over his brothers to the grief he willingly caused his father by the testing of the brothers in Egypt; from his easy adoption of foreign ways in his rise to power to the exploitation, dislocation, and enslavement of the Egyptian people in his sale of grain during the famine.
This last is, for Wildavsky, particularly telling against Joseph:
Joseph left the system into which he was elevated less humane than it was by making Pharaoh more powerful than he had been. . . . Acting so as to make Pharaoh’s rule more autocratic, even less dependent on the people than before, is way above what an administrator owes his chief.
Moreover, Wildavsky points out, Joseph sets the stage for the later Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” and who would thus enslave the Hebrews: “How appropriate, . . . according to exact Hebrew justice, that the oppression of the Egyptians, which came from food Joseph stored, should be visited upon his descendants.”
Though he considers carefully the case for Joseph, Wildavsky inclines more to the view that Joseph suffered from an excess of will-to-power: “Did Joseph do what he did . . . because he had come to think of himself as a god who could bring about the outcomes of his own dreams?” He notes the claims made several times by Joseph that God Himself is directing events, and that Joseph and the others are but instruments of a divine plan. But, Wildavsky observes, these claims are endorsed neither by the narrator nor by God Himself. Having noticed that Joseph never speaks or prays to God, is not spoken to by God, and swears an oath “by Pharaoh,” Wildavsky shows that we must wonder whether Joseph has not confused the divine will with his own.
The book concludes with two chapters that show “Why Joseph-the-Assimilator is Superseded by Moses-the-Lawgiver” and why the way represented by Joseph (assimilation and immorality in the service of survival) is “The Path Not Taken.” Most impressive is the collection of textual contrasts between Joseph and Moses, which are
so vivid and so consistent that it can be said with confidence that Moses is explicitly, no doubt deliberately, crafted to be the anti-Joseph or vice versa. Moses is not so much to succeed Joseph as to reject everything he stood for. . . . The apostle of pure administrative power, Joseph-the-assimilator gives way to Moses-the-lawgiver.
Wildavsky’S masterful interpretation of Joseph as representing the path not taken is, in my view, entirely correct. Indeed, I should confess that I was of this opinion even before reading his book, though now, thanks to it, I paradoxically see both richer ambiguity in Joseph’s character and also more reasons to sustain a negative judgment. Yet—now to enter into conversation with the author—I am surprised that Wildavsky does not go farther.
For one thing, Wildavsky does not make enough of his own contrast between Joseph-the-administrator and Moses-the-political-leader. One would have thought that a political scientist would leap at the chance to expound the differences between administration and statesmanship, and to explore the soul types and world views to which they are related. In the person of Joseph, grand vizier of Egypt, the biblical author not only anticipated but as it were refuted the dream of Karl Marx that rule over men would eventually be replaced by the administration of things, once human intelligence (through the technological mastery of nature and the rationalized restructuring of society) overcomes scarcity and class conflict. This apolitical dream generally becomes a political nightmare, yielding not liberation but despotism.
Joseph, long on forethought and planning but short on understanding the souls of men, clairvoyantly intelligent but lacking in both eros and spiritedness (and hence without deep longings or a strong sense of justice), is the paradigmatic administrator, a man who does not lead human beings but can manage their affairs, a man who “ministers to” and serves someone above him but who often secretly believes that he himself is in charge. (Says Joseph to his brothers, “He [God] hath made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over the land of Egypt.”)
But ruling the land and managing its produce is very far from governing the hearts and minds of men who, from the Bible’s point of view, are made miserable more because of their own evil imaginings than because of the stinginess of nature. As Wildavsky shows, Joseph’s administrative genius, devoted to the preservation of mere life, leads not to freedom but to slavery, first for the Egyptians and later for his own people through the despotic power which his administrative genius has brought into being. It takes a Moses, a spirited and erotic man who is also capable of awe, to lead the people into freedom, not only from Egyptian rule but from their own destructive tendencies, primarily by the supreme act of statesmanship, the giving of law, informed by reverence for God.
Administrators, being neither statesmen nor priests, necessarily tend to assimilate. One cannot manage in Egypt without Egyptianizing and, given the administrator’s world view, nothing of importance is lost in doing so. Indeed, as the biblical land of good and plenty, Egypt is the natural home for the administrative outlook and hence stands as the antithesis of—and the permanent alternative to—the Jewish way. Wildavsky sees that Egypt is bad because “it teaches obedience to an earthly, not a heavenly, ruler, to a Pharaoh who thinks he is a god.” But he does not see fully what this means.
Biblical Egypt is civilization at its peak. Thanks both to the Nile and to highly developed technical and administrative skill, Egypt is an agricultural paradise, capable of sustaining the entire region. Civilization is based on what looks at first like the worship of nature (Joseph’s father-in-law is the high priest of the sun god) but what turns out in fact to be closer to the mastery of nature—to manipulation rather than submission—through divination, magic, and rationalized technique. At bottom, Egyptian rationalization of the world seeks the denial or mastery of death, evidenced in the elaborate practice of embalming. In Egypt, man (Pharaoh is but the exemplar) naturally goes in place of God.
In Egypt, Joseph the administrator fits right in; I would say he was destined to fit in from the start. For young Joseph has an Egyptian soul that dreams “Egyptian dreams.” Do wandering shepherds dream of sheaves of wheat? Do God-fearing and -revering men dream of ruling the sun, the moon, and the stars?
Genesis begins with an account of creation that denies the dignity and divinity of the heavenly bodies; the teaching of creation is the opening round in the Bible’s attempt to turn men away from nature and toward righteousness and holiness. Genesis ends with Egypt, a society obsessed with nature, the highest civilization attained by those who do not know the truth about creation or the Creator’s moral and holy goals for human beings. And, in its very last words, Genesis tells of the mummification of Joseph the gifted, who saved life through his cleverness but who was permanently lost to God and to his people, and who—necessarily even if unintentionally—prepared their 400 years of servitude.
The story of Joseph and Egypt is thus not only a lesson about how to live in the Diaspora, but about how to live altogether. It is finally not only about assimilation under foreign rule, but about yielding to the most powerful and permanent human temptation: the prideful belief in human self-sufficiency. Today, thanks especially to liberalism, the Enlightenment, and the power of modern technology, Jews everywhere—and not only Jews—remain in grave danger of Egyptianizing.