Torah | For role models on intermarriage, look to Genesis

Genesis 47:28–50:26
I Kings 2:1-12


“May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” We bestow these words on male

children each Shabbat while blessing the children. It comes straight from this week’s portion. A similar blessing for girls is also patterned on this verse (Gen. 48:20).

The patriarch, Jacob, is on his deathbed as he places his hands on the heads of his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. He not only blesses them, he declares that future generations will bless themselves through them. Who are these two exemplars that we should pray every week that our children grow up to be like them?

We don’t know much about them. But one thing is clear: They are the products of what we now call an intermarriage, the union of Joseph and Aseneth. Aseneth is the daughter of Potiphar, an officer for the Egyptian Pharaoh.

There are clues in Genesis and much speculation in our ongoing commentaries on just how assimilated Joseph becomes while in Egypt. The shapers of our tradition have long employed his struggles as a Jew among non-Jews to help us navigate similar realities in other historical contexts.

Joseph traded his garb for Egyptian clothing and changed his name. He worked for Pharoah. But rabbinic midrash establishes that Joseph never forgot Hebrew. The midrash also asserts that none of that generation changed their names, revealing how disturbed they were by the patriarch blending so fully into Egyptian culture.

Further, our ancestors grappled with how one of our patriarchs married someone outside the tribe. And how could it be that two of the 12 tribes of Israel descended from this union? Rabbinic midrash conjecture that Aseneth must have converted. Another commentary suggests she descended from the tribe of Dina, daughter of Jacob and Leah.

There is heated discussion in the Jewish world now about the recent Pew Research Center’s study that found a growing population of American Jews who do not identify as religiously Jewish, many being the products of intermarriage. Some worry that intermarried couples are statistically less likely than couples with two Jewish partners to emphasize a Jewish connection with their kids. Others  see a trend in which adult offspring with one Jewish parent actually identify more with Jewish culture than the intermarried Jews of earlier generations, a likely result of active inclusion of interfaith families in Jewish life.

One thing is clear: It’s not easy to retain our Jewishness as a religious and cultural minority as we integrate into the larger society. Clearly, the question of how to celebrate our particularity in a non-Jewish backdrop has plagued Jews through the ages. Joseph and Aseneth can be models for our generation of intermarried parents seeking continued meaning in Judaism for themselves and their offspring. Many are choosing to hand Jewish traditions to the next generation and need supportive models from our texts and leaders, both contemporary and ancient.

In my work with interfaith couples in college, I meet young adults consciously choosing to infuse their lives and their relationships with Jewish values, celebrations and rituals. I also work with countless active Jewish students who come from families with one Jewish parent who struggle with their fellow Jews not accepting them. Our patriarchs can be models of how these children continue to connect Jewishly and how the rest of the Jewish community should embrace them. 

Each Friday, may we bless our children by invoking the names of Ephraim and Menashe in the hopes that coming generations, regardless of parentage, will find their own meaning in Judaism in the context of a larger society. May these two models encourage us all to find ways our tradition still speaks to us and through us.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."