In our Torah portion this week, the story of Joseph and his brothers comes to a climax. As Joseph stands before his brothers, he has become a man of great power. He has established himself in the highest courts of Egypt. Because of the way he looks and talks, Joseph has become unrecognizable to his own brothers.
The Talmud teaches us that in order to reveal his true identity, Joseph draws his brother near. He then speaks to them in Hebrew and shows them that he is circumcised. Only then do his brothers believe him.
From the Torah’s account of this dramatic interaction and the Talmudic midrash that follows, we are reminded of two tensions which continue to be at the core of our identities as Jews: assimilation and particularism.
Throughout history, Jews have sought to be a part of the greater society, but given our unique customs and religious prohibitions, “fitting in” has always been a challenge. In the 1800’s with the beginning of the Reform Movement, early reformers argued that these ancient customs, rituals and practices were superfluous to what should be central to our Jewish identities. They argued that a Jewish identity should not be mistaken by ritual wardrobe or empty ancient rituals, but rather a Jewish identity should be defined exclusively on what we do to make the world a better place.
Tossing aside the ritual garb, the dietary restrictions and many of the customs and practices which made us different and separated us from mainstream society, early Reform Judaism, especially here in the United States, was inspired by the teachings of the prophets who placed ethical living above ritual practice.
Our congregation has long prided itself on these early Reform principles, which later became known as Classical Reform Judaism. As it states in the mission statement of the congregation:
In Judaism, ceremonies and customs have changed from age to age. In keeping with this tradition, we shall observe the customs and ceremonies, which shall be meaningful to us because they symbolize in effective and beautiful form the principles of our faith, compatible with our lives as Americans.
Yet, over the course of 200 years of Reform Jewish practice we have learned a very similar lesson to that which is described in the story Joseph this week. We have learned that that without some outward expressions of our heritage we become almost unrecognizable to our brothers.
It is for this reason that we continue to see an ever increasing rise in a desire for ritual practices and ritual garb within Reform Judaism. For a great number of Reform Jews today, what was once understood to be superfluous and perhaps even anathema is now seen as meaningful.