The Limits of the In-House Jew

The series of Torah Readings we are in the middle of seem to focus on the story of Yosef – the first in-house Jew. As I’ve covered elsewhere, Yosef starts off as a self-centered punk but learns the power of purpose as the ultimate motivator. He learns to focus on others and their unspoken needs and thus finds himself a place in the world.

This is a lesson we can certainly apply to modern times. Jews too often act like the teenaged Yosef – talking about our dreams and successes and bad-mouthing those who say bad things about us to the powers that be, whether that be Facebook, Twitter, Adidas or governments with hate speech laws. This approach does nothing other than foment hatred, just as it does in the story of Yosef. It is as if the Jewish community has decided to twist an old expression: “Suppression will continue until you stop accusing us of it.”

Yosef learns. Pharaoh elevates him because Yosef promises Pharaoh that Pharaoh can save the land. Yosef even tells him how this can be accomplished. This would be a far more promising approach for Jews today try to understand the unspoken needs of other communities and ethnicities. Then, without focusing on yourself, figure out what you can do to serve those needs.

For thousands of years, Yosef’s eventual successes have been held up as a sort of ideal.

He is the first “court Jew.” Many people, not just Jews, have served this role. The role is simple: apply your skill in support of the government, but as outsider who is not actually serving the interests of parties who might challenge the government. Kings need trustworthy advisors who aren’t playing for their own powerful teams. Eunuchs served this role. So did weak minorities. You knew each was no threat to the King himself because they would not and could not be recognized as rulers in the own right. In return for their services, such people were rewarded handsomely. They received wealth and power. In the case of the minorities, they often funneled benefits to their own people. The image of the “in-house Jew”, whether a financier, government advisor or tax collector, always comes with those people protecting their own. It is a part of their payoff.

This dynamic has two critical impacts.

First, the people who are ruled invariably come to resent the in-house Jew/eunuch/bureaucrat. They are seen as evil outsiders sucking resources from the people – for their own benefit and/or the benefit of the rapacious government. We see this in Egypt and we’ve seen this in every situation since.

Second, the in-house Jew’s own people becomes dependent on the ruler and the state. Their benefits become critical to survival. Yosef gives his brothers bread based on the needs of their children: “And Joseph sustained his father, and his brethren, and all his father’s household, with bread, according to the want of their little ones.” (Gen 47:12) This handout was why the people couldn’t simply leave – they were dependent. It took only one small step more to enslave them.

The handout pattern is also sustained. In our ancient history, Daniel, Nechemia and Mordechai all follow in Yosef’s footsteps. Later figures are famous for their tzedakah or intercession with powerful rulers. One of the most recent, Baron Rothschild, bought an enormous amount of land in Israel and funded a great number of Jewish settlements.

This has been the diaspora model for the Jews.

The problem is: this model comes with terrible costs. As mentioned above: others come to hate us while we become dependent on the state or the ruler.

The dynamic changes when you enter the period of democracy. Not that many elected officials in the U.S. are Jewish (27/535 members of Congress, 3/50 Governors). But many of their advisors are; as are many bureaucrats.

In the U.S. today “court Jews” support the government. Despite the U.S. being a democracy (with the leadership representing the people), they face the same old resentment. Government-by-bureaucrat has always been a real thing and the U.S. has a very strong bureaucracy. And so ‘the people’ can point at ‘the Jews’ running the state and apply the same old biases. From a Jewish perspective, the Jewish community wouldn’t seem to get any special benefits from this. Except, in some ways, we have. The U.S. government supports Israel and decries antisemitism. We aren’t supporting a ruler, but we are supporting a system. We aren’t handing out cash benefits, but we are protecting our own people.

We have, in some ways, fallen into the same ‘court Jew’ pattern.

There are Jewish lobbies which do not support Israel, of course. It might appear that their goal is to break the court-Jew pattern. Many are in government and think they are there to support ‘the people.’ But many of ‘the people’ recognize that these ‘anti-Zionist’ Jews are invariably left-wing and thus support a more powerful bureaucracy even though they deny the ancient Jewish dream of return to our land. These are court-Jews who fail to pass any benefits to their own people. In a way, their ‘people’ have shifted from ‘the Jews’ to the bureaucracy itself and they’ve attacked Jewish causes to show their shifted allegiance. Despite their efforts, the conflation of the bureaucracy and Jews as a whole results in their actions doing little to stunt resentment of the Jewish people (and, yes, the vast majority of Jews have nothing to do with the bureaucracy). They don’t earn any love – from anybody except those with a grudge against Israel – for  their efforts. Even those who hold a grudge recognize their work with these Jews is just a matter of convenience. They are, to use an old phrase, useful idiots.

The weaknesses of the “court Jew” in a democratic state are becoming apparent. No matter what position they take on Israel and antisemitism, they can do little to stunt the resentment of others and they don’t effectively protect or provide their own. If the bureaucracy weren’t so powerful, this wouldn’t be a problem. There’d be little cause for resentment and few rewards. But that is not the reality in the U.S. today.

A more interesting challenge is Israel. Here, Jews are the majority. Nonetheless, the court Jew dynamic dominates. Politicians are there to deliver for their constituents. But their constituents aren’t a geography – they are a sub-section of the population: Russians, Haredim, ‘settlers’, Arabs, Sepharadim, seculars etc… They all want a piece of the pie, or to stop others from getting a piece of their pie. Everybody in government is a court Jew. They do generate resentment for their own people while trying to shovel favors to them. The only difference is that some of them can actually dream of running the government. (Not all can harbor this dream: Haredim and Arabs lack the coalitions or votes to actually be in charge.)

This model, the Yosef model, has always been flawed. But in democracies and in Israel itself the costs of this model are far too high – and the benefits vanishingly small.

Thankfully, there is another model. G-d himself seems to choose this model. When the people eventually choose a King, the tribe of Yosef is not the tribe chosen to rule the Jewish people. Instead, the tribe of Yehuda is selected.

Yehuda, like Yosef, goes through a process of personal growth. His isn’t brought on by slavery and imprisonment. His is brought on by Tamar. Early in the story, Yehuda saves Yosef’s life. But the reasoning is suspect. He says he does it so that the brothers can clear a profit. He might have higher goals in mind, but his next actions seem to undermine that argument. He “goes down from his brothers with a Adullamite” – suggesting he’s not at the top of the barrel. Then he sees an apparent prostitute, impregnates her, and doesn’t have the cash on hand to pay her. He leaves her with a sort of deposit and then goes on his way. The prostitute – whose face he never saw – turns out to be his daughter-in-law twice over who has been wronged by him. When she turns up pregnant, he orders her burned because she’s acted as a prostitute. This from a guy who she knew has been visiting prostitutes. She shows the evidence that he is responsible (without anybody but him recognizing said evidence) and he steps up and exonerates her and thus implicates himself for a closely related crime. Put on the spot, Yehuda is transformed by Tamar. Later, with Yosef, he shows he is willing to sacrifice himself for Binyamin. This is leadership. Stepping up for what is right and being willing to take a hit for it.

You might imagine this describes the anti-Israel Jewish lobby, but it doesn’t. Yehuda doesn’t make the story about himself. He doesn’t say “look how good I am, I exonerated Tamar.” He just says “She is more righteous than I because I didn’t give her my son.” When it comes time to face Yosef, he says (with light paraphrasing) “Let me be a slave instead of my brother… for how can I go up to my father without him and see the evil that will come upon my father.”

Again, he isn’t saying “I’m sacrificing myself, look how great I am.” The focus is on his father and his brother. It is like he has integrated some of Yosef’s marketing. The focus isn’t on him – it is on some greater principle.

In addition, Yehuda is willing to risk himself for what is right. He isn’t just sacrificing himself to be seen as righteous and notably he isn’t giving gifts to people whose primary motivation is his destruction (see exhibit A: Hamas and B: Fatah). There’s no appeasement or blindness here.

When you compare Yosef and Yehuda, one difference comes to the fore: Yehuda’s serves justice while Yosef serves Pharaoh.

So what would the Yehuda model look like in today’s world? Politicians are rewarded for ingratiating themselves to the people. Principled politicians tend to be dangerous politicians – and I don’t mean that snidely. They have few checks on what they imagine is right and they can literally be dangerous as a result. This is why I believe we shouldn’t be looking for a Yehuda in our politicians. We live in democracies; it is our job to be the Yehudas and it is their job to compromise with others. It is our job to recognize justice – not just vote for those who will line our pockets or protect them.  The politicians – our servants – can then serve G-d by responding to our higher ideals.

 What principles should we serve? Well, that is where the challenge lays and that question is what consumes so much of my other writing. Hint, A Multi Colored Coat has a few answers…

Shavua Tov.

Photo by Norbert Braun on Unsplash

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