Goshen and the Costs of Jewish Segregation

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Michael Pershan

This week’s parsha sees Pharoah and Egypt destroyed for their persecution of the Jews and their addiction to slavery. But the subjugation of the Jews in Egypt didn’t begin with slavery. Instead it began, in the best of intentions, with segregation in the land of Goshen.

This segregation was largely a self-segregation. Yosef and his brothers carefully rehearsed a plan to win for themselves a home apart from that of their neighbors.

“So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’ – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen.” (Bereishis 46:33-34)

It was important for these early Jews to live apart from their neighbors in Egypt. The potential spiritual danger of assimilation must have been palpable. In fact, the Netziv attributes Jewish persecution in every generation to our unwillingness to heed the call of self-segregation:

The reason why “in every generation they stand against us to destroy us” is because we don’t wish to be like strangers, segregated from the nations.” (Shemot 1:7)

This is a familiar line of reasoning. We frum Jews have built incredibly self-sufficient communities. We send our children to Jewish schools, clubs and camps. We live in heavily Jewish communities. Even as we work for, study under, hire and associate with non-Jews, our communities remain remarkably closed off.

All this is well known. What should we make of it? The Torah, I believe, offers us two narratives of segregation.  Self-segregation might have saved the Jews from assimilation, but it destroyed Egypt. The crucial question for present-day Jewry is, do we more closely resemble the ancient Jews or Egyptians?

The answer, I think, is “it depends.”

An inevitable side-effect of the way that we have structured Jewish communal life is that most Modern Orthodox Jews have no meaningful relationships with Black or Brown people. Our communal segregation is also de facto segregation by race, and this separation has moral consequences.

The word that I’m dancing around is “racism,” and the concern is that our communities harbor a special amount of it due to our relatively high degree of racial segregation.

It is important to see ourselves in the ancient Jews of the Exodus story, but it’s crucial that we also see ourselves in the Egyptians. Like them, we have inherited a society not of our making. The Egyptians lived apart from their vulnerable minorities, and so do we. The Egyptians lost their empathy for the Jews, demonizing and subjugating them. Eventually this spelled the end for the Egyptians, and we wish to avoid this fate.

At the end of the Exodus story, we are left with a challenge: Is it possible to maintain our own Goshen without creating one for others?

Michael Pershan is a math teacher living in Washington Heights.

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