30 December 2008

It is Hardly Her Fault

This is going to wander. If you are reading . . . you are coming along on a thought journey, you are not reading a polished article . . . I write that with a smile knowing how the words are meandering through my mind and wondering why on earth anyone would want to fall in step with me for awhile. On the other hand, weigh in if you want, maybe between us we'll figure something out.

I want to know: Was Asnath an Egyptian or the daughter of Dina?

I mean, I like grey areas. I love nuance, and I'm a fan of answering questions with questions.

At least, I used to be. Right now, though, today, I want some answers. This week's parsha echoes last weeks where this woman is concerned, on the surface it seems quite clear: Asnath is the daughter of Potiphar and his wife, and is therefore an Egyptian woman. It follows then that her sons have a non-Jewish (or a non-Israelite) mother.

Here it is:

In the parsha from last week - Miketz - Genesis 41:45 Pharoah gave Joseph Asnath, Potiphera's daughter, as a wife. This week in Vayigash, in Genesis 46:20 the Torah reads, "To Joseph were born in the land of Egypt Manasseh and Ephraim, whom Asnath daughter of Protiphera prist of On bore to him."

Trouble is, I study Torah every week with a wonderful woman in Lakewood, NJ - my "Partner in Torah" - as I have since the summer of 2000 and she found texts in our tradition that suggest that Asnath (or Osnat) was the daughter of Dina and Shechem, but when she was about 9 years old Jacob noticed that since everyone knew who her father was and how she had come to be her life was not all that a child's life should be. I have heard, although I cannot find the source and would appreciate it if anyone knows of it and can share it, it was for that reason Asnath was sent to Egypt to be raised outside her family. For some reason, it was Potiphar and his wife who adopted her, and therefore she was being raised by them in Egypt when Joseph was sold into slavery. What would follow is Asnath and Joseph growing up together. I have also heard that there is a midrash that Asnath did not konw she and Joseph were related, but when he was ridden about in a chariot as Pharaoh's second-in-command knew that he was the kind young man who she had known since childhood. She threw an amulet containing a piece of parchment from Jacob saying that the woman who wore this amulet was a daughter of the house of Jacob, and when it fell into the chariot, Joseph saw it and recognized the writing of his father and desired her for his wife. Pharaoh, not caring who Joseph married, arranged for their marriage.

Of all of that, I can find hints here and there online, but I don't have the sefer from which my study partner was reading.

In the hours since I closed my chumash I am finding myself increasingly annoyed with the whole story. It's hardly Asnath's fault. Whatever she was, she lived her life, and since she is the first in this troubled and wonderful family to manage to raise siblings with no hint of jealousy between them, who are always listed together, who do not quarrel or fight, and by whom we have been blessing our sons since . . . well, I probably would have liked her.

Furthermore, if I met her today, if I met her whole family today, it would be socially irrelevant to me whether she were an Israelite or an Egyptian.

Of course, that isn't the challenge I'm struggling with.

If Asnath was not an Israelite, but an Egyptian, then Joseph's sons - how are they Jewish? And if they are Jewish, then what is the problem with patrilineal descent?

On the other hand, if Asnath was actually an Israelite, where is the text basis for patrilineal descent?

What do I care? I'm a Jewish woman. My children will be Jewish, it isn't really a question. Well, unless I do not have children. That is why I care. When I was in college (a small, liberal arts college) it did not occur to me that it was a problem that the pool of people around me was primarily . . . well . . . Egyptian. We had a small Jewish community, and from what I can remember only one of the Jewish men on campus ever dated any of the Jewish women on campus. Most of the Jewish women were not concerned and just dated non-Jewish men. A few of us just didn't date. I was one of those.

If Asnath was Egyptian, I can imagine Joseph looking around and finding the one woman in Egypt with whom he had anything in common. Maybe they had shared stories about his brothers. Maybe he saw in her an inate ability to prevent the jealousy and quarreling he had experienced in his father's house. Maybe with no Jewish women to date, having a common worldview seemed like enough to him. Maybe it was enough, after all - he had those two boys.

If Asnath was Jewish, why on earth would Jacob have sent her to be adopted by an Egyptian family? What could he have possibly been thinking? Who was she supposed to marry - the lone Jewish woman in an Egyptian world. Jacob did not know eventually Joseph would be in Egypt or that Pharaoh would give him a wife and that wife would happen to be the one Jewish woman in town.

Is contriving to make Asnath Jewish just a way around what on its face is a fairly clear text?

Studying the Torah today with my study partner, even when we moved on to Judah's monologue, I couldn't stop thinking about these two: Joseph and Asnath. How else could they have found each other if there wasn't some kind of divine intervention? And if they could have some divine intervention . . . what about the rest of us?

Why are there so many Jewish women hanging out alone in Egypt while the Jewish men are all seeking Egyptian wifes? And then, calling the question, does it even matter? If a Jewish guy looks at his future and is comfortable with a Christmas tree in his living room, arguing (or not)with grandparents about Baptism, and thinks hunting for Easter eggs is fun . . . then how is a Jewish woman hungry for a table full of friends and family surrounding piles of latkes with a chanukiah in every window going to have a Jewish relationship, family, and children with him anyway?


  1. what a powerful and thoughtful connection of the text to your own life. i look forward to reading more...

  2. Wow! I was unfamilar with the midrash linking Asnath and Dina. Like Phyllis, I love how you see the text through the prism of your own story. Can't wait for future installments!!

  3. Learned of your blog via havel havalim. This is thoughtful, well written, and strong.

    Midrashim are often making points rather thsn stating facts, I think. If you want to go with midrash as filling in facts, you could link this approach you cite to approaches that say that Yaakov really did know that Yosef was alive, in Egypt - don't have the sources in front of me, but I think they exist. Anyway, great post.

  4. Ariel, hi, I like all these questions! An easy answer might be that the Torah was not yet given. Also, who is to say that she did not convert?

    I'm not really buying into the "she was really Jewish" version.

  5. the torah sheh-bichtav (written torah/bible does not show any instance of conversion as we now know it. my impression is that a woman simply adopted the god(s) of her husband, or added them to her own. the 1st recorded instance of a woman actively & independently choosing judaism was ruth, &, even in her case, there were no rabbinical witnesses. conversion as we currently know it simply didn't exist in the time of the patriarchs & matriarchs. so i'm not any more concerned about the jewish status of asenat that i am about the jewish status of rachel, who stole her father's idols 4 reasons that the text itself does not make clear. y attempt 2 prove that asenat was jewish when we don't worry about sarah?

    pls pardon poor typing--2 broken wrists

  6. "If a Jewish guy looks at his future and is comfortable with a Christmas tree in his living room, arguing (or not)with grandparents about Baptism, and thinks hunting for Easter eggs is fun . . . then how is a Jewish woman hungry for a table full of friends and family surrounding piles of latkes with a chanukiah in every window going to have a Jewish relationship, family, and children with him anyway?"

    good point. it's hard 2 create a jewish home with a spouse who's indifferent 2 judaism. i know, 'cause 1 of my friends married a jew who was totally anti-religion, & had a pretty tough time raising their kid jewish

    good post. haveil havalim says ur a newbie. welcome 2 the j-blogosphere