Joseph and Aseneth: A question of conversion

Do the stories of the Torah hold true today?

A torah scroll (photo credit: REUTERS)
A torah scroll
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Torah tells us that Pharaoh, after Joseph’s elevation to viceroy of Egypt, gave the Hebrew an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife. The matter of the name – Zaphenath-paneah – has not bothered Jews throughout the ages. The issue of Joseph’s wife, however, remains controversial.
She was Aseneth, the daughter of Potipherah.
Potipherah happened to be the priest of an idolatrous cult that worshiped the Egyptian sun god Ra in the city of Heliopolis. There is not a word in the Torah about Aseneth abandoning idolatry and converting to the Jewish faith. Before the years of famine that Joseph had predicted in interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Aseneth gave birth to Menashe and Ephraim. Centuries later, Ephraim was the main tribe that ruled over Israel, the Northern Kingdom.
Despite being born of an Egyptian daughter of a pagan priest, Ephraim and Menashe were full-fledged Israelites.
Aseneth did not go through a conversion course and did not immerse herself in a mikveh before marrying Joseph. This should not bother us. The Torah world is a world of tribes – the identity of the father determined the tribal identity of his sons and daughters.
Once a woman married into the tribe, she adopted the religion of the husband.
Aseneth did not have to smash her idols. Iconoclasm was not required to enter the faith of her husband.
Her children bear the identity of Israelites because their father is an Israelite. It is as simple as that.
Centuries later, however, the question of Joseph marrying the daughter of a priest of Ra without her renunciation of idolatry troubled many Jews. There was little left of the tribal system – the Levites and kohanim, priests, still served in the Second Temple – and the term “Judaism” developed in the Hellenistic world as more and more pagans wanted to join the Jewish people. The reality of conversion had to go beyond the simple declaration of the biblical Ruth that she would follow Naomi and her people. Conversion to Judaism, as we know it today, develops more than 2,000 years ago.
The beginning of the reevaluation of Aseneth’s marriage to Joseph began in Alexandria, a city with a Jewish population of 250,000. Hellenized Jews were not turncoats. They took Greek genres – philosophy, history, the epic poem – and applied these genres to biblical themes and narratives.
Alexandria’s Jewish intellectuals adopted as well the genre of the Greek novella. One Jewish author, so bothered by the Torah’s description of the daughter of a pagan priest marrying Joseph without a mention of her embracing Israelite monotheism, composed a novella in Greek, titled Joseph and Aseneth.
In the updated story, Aseneth refuses to marry any man but the son of Pharaoh. She refuses to have anything to do with a Hebrew slave despite the fact that he was now viceroy of Egypt. But things change when Aseneth sees Joseph from the window of her palace in Heliopolis. It is love at first sight – Aseneth loves the handsome Joseph and wants to marry him. At first, the righteous Joseph refuses to have anything to do with the privileged worshiper of idols. But as described by historian Erich S. Gruen: “Aseneth grasped at the hope and turned her religious life around at a stroke. Much weeping and wailing ensued as she repented of former heresies, removed all false idols from her home, and fell to fasting and mourning, self-flagellation and humiliation, uttering desperate prayers to her newly found god, seeking forgiveness for past sins and rescue from the fury of spurned divinities.”
Later, an angel makes a dramatic appearance, assuring Aseneth that she has chosen the right path and should prepare to marry Joseph.
The anonymous author of the novella is embarrassed and troubled by the Torah’s omissions. He can’t believe that Joseph the Righteous would not demand of his wife to destroy her idols, her past, and turn her back on the worship of the sun god.
While the Torah is not troubled by Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth – even hailing the Pharaoh as the matchmaker – the author of Joseph and Aseneth is living in a radically different post-tribal Jewish world, and cleans up the account to conform to the reality of Judaism that would appeal to Jews and pagans alike.
Much of rabbinic Midrash is devoted to the same goal of looking back at Abraham, Joseph and Moses and to see them as forerunners of the rabbis and their formulation of Halacha, Jewish law.
I don’t condemn this creativity – it enriches the Torah’s accounts – but it is often unnecessary. Interpretation is the lifeblood of Judaism and in each generation there will be a different take on a text that is relevant to the interpreter and our people.
Conversion to Judaism as we know it today is rabbinic in origin. Before the first century, around the time Joseph and Aseneth was composed, the rabbis began to standardize the conversion process. According to historian Shaye J.D. Cohen, “[T] here were many ways to cross the boundary to become a Jew. There are no texts from the second-temple period that spell out a single set of practices that a gentile must perform or a single set of beliefs that a gentile must accept if he is to be regarded as a Jew by other Jews. Circumcision aside, the boundary between Jew and gentile was fluid and not clearly marked.”
The concern that Aseneth did not go through a process of conversion is irrelevant in tribal societies, whose men determined the religion of both wife and child.
As for the mother determining the religious identity of the child, Cohen concludes “that the matrilineal principle was not yet known in second-temple times.”
There are many reasons the rabbis adopted matrilineal descent, ranging from the uncertainty of paternity to the influence of Roman law. The question of Ephraim and Menashe’s Israelite identity cannot be measured with a rabbinic yardstick.
We can legitimately discuss the existence of rabbinic Judaism without erasing the continuity from Sinai to the rabbis. At the same time, because of changing circumstances such as exile, there is an element of revolution in both Midrash and Halacha.
The anachronistic reading of the past is, in fact, quite creative and necessary. The Hebrew Bible is not a relic of the past because Jews have understood the text must be a living one. The heroism of the composer of Joseph and Aseneth, and the heroism of the rabbis afterwards, was to breathe life into an ancient text and make it relevant for the world in which they lived.

The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.