On Jewish politicians
Joseph is a heroic figure sans pareil throughout the Hebrew Bible. Ex humili potens, as a patriarch he combines both the statesmanship of Pericles with the wisdom of Plato. A handsome youth, he is courageous and principled, refusing an improper dalliance with a married woman where another might have gone astray. His talent for the interpretation of dreams develops from boyhood precocity into a glittering career as an economist. And in this week’s Torah, he demonstrates his kindness and magnanimity towards his brothers, achieving a reconciliation with them thanks to his piety and belief that God has been orchestrating their lives.
He was of particular interest to his namesake, Flavius Josephus, the first century CE Roman Jewish historian. Beyond sharing a name, both were cast out by their brothers or fellow Jews and both were catapulted into the political landscape of a foreign land. For Josephus this was Rome, not Egypt, and he too was profoundly involved there in political life. When the author rewrites Jewish history, he makes sure to expand Joseph’s narratives and character, emphasizing his importance as a Jew rising to power in a foreign land.
Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher living in Alexandria a generation or two before Josephus was in Rome, was far more ambivalent towards Joseph, portraying him more as a ruthless politician preying on the weakness and naivety of those around him, including his own brothers. He even saw Joseph’s famous multi-coloured dreamcoat as a symbol of his inconstant sophistry. And yet elsewhere, in his treatise De Josepho, Philo praises Joseph for his contribution to the economic success that Egypt enjoyed, while decrying his assimilation into the alleged materialism of Egyptian society.
It is a timely reminder of the responsibilities and pitfalls that Jewish politicians face around the world. Whether it is Joseph in Genesis, or Mordechai within the Book of Esther, we know their importance to the survival of our community. David Marshall is well-renowned within Singapore as being the first Chief Minister here, playing a large role in the push for the independence of the country. Around the world in 2019 there have been Jewish Prime Ministers in Belgium and the Ukraine, where the current President is Jewish as well. And, of course, if it’s third time lucky when the Israelis go again to vote in March, we should have a Jewish Prime Minister in Israel as well!
We should be proud of our fellow Jews who are taking on such important and public roles, even as we worry that their critics will see them negatively as a reflection of our whole community. And may we blessed with wise and trusted Jewish politicians who combine the best of Joseph’s vision and nobler characteristics, who work for reconciliation of all peoples, safe in the acknowledgement that the many bounties we enjoy in our lives thanks to one Source, and one Source alone.