By Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – It’s one of the tensest and most climactic moments of the biblical Joseph saga. Judah has been placed in a hopeless predicament. The viceroy of Egypt Zaphnath Paaneah (who has not yet revealed himself as Joseph) has been accusing Jacob’s sons of espionage and incriminated Benjamin by planting a royal cup among his bags. Furthermore, Judah guaranteed their father Jacob that Benjamin would be returned safely to his home; and pledged that he would substitute himself for his brother if matters should reach that desperate point. In a régime that is absolute and tyrannical, there is not the faintest hope that Benjamin will be found innocent or pardoned.
It is at this point that Judah launches into a lengthy speech before the viceroy.
What was the purpose of that speech?
In their “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Tim Rice and Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber accompany the speech with a chorus repeating the word “Grovel!” and that, it would appear, is an accurate understanding of Judah’s intention. Powerless before the viceroy’s authority and with no expectation of persuading him of their innocence, all he can do is throw himself at the mercy of the court and repeat his version of how the innocent brothers were cast into this tragic situation, emphasizing the cruel suffering it would cause to their aged father (“ye will bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.”)
Some interpreters discerned in Judah’s words a more subtle strategy, in which he was attempting to argue as compelling a case as he could without openly contradicting his powerful accuser. This was evident in the way he enhanced the pathos of Jacob’s suffering in order to elicit compassion.
Thus, according to one midrashic comment, Judah hinted that there was something suspicious about the way the ruler singled out for interrogation this particular Hebrew family from among the visitors from many lands who had come to purchase food in Egypt. Furthermore, Judah “reminded” Zaphnath Paaneah that he had expressed a wish to “set mine eyes upon” Benjamin—which seemed to imply a commitment to his personal safety.
Perhaps no scholar was so appreciative of Judah’s argumentative skills as the fifteenth-century Italian author Rabbi Judah Messer Leon. He was immersed in the ethos of Renaissance humanism which drew inspiration from the masterpieces of ancient Greek and Latin civilizations. In addition to his commitments to philosophy and science, Messer Leon was especially fascinated by the discipline of rhetoric, as professed by Cicero and Aristotle (according to the attributions and interpretations current in his day). Messer Leon’s best-known book, entitled “Nofet Sufim” [Honeycomb] was devoted principally to expositions of those works, but from a distinctly Jewish perspective. Whereas the standard non-Jewish treatises culled their examples from Greek and Latin texts, Messer Leon strove to prove that the most perfect examples of rhetorical elegance are to be found in the Hebrew scriptures.
It was in this connection that the Nofet Sufim cited Judah’s oration to Joseph as an object lesson in how to apply the techniques of rhetoric to the crafting of a persuasive oration. The speech begins by ingratiating the speaker to his audience, eliciting the listener’s affection and compassion by means of self-deprecation and flattery (for instance, by praising the viceroy as equal to Pharaoh). Judah selected the details of his narrative very carefully so as to anticipate potential questions or arguments (but without disagreeing explicitly). Like all well-crafted lectures, this one concludes with a succinct recapitulation of its main argument.
By demonstrating the perfect conformity of the Hebrew Bible to classical literary aesthetics, Messer Leon wished to enhance the enjoyment that Jews may derive from reading their holy scriptures.
When you read Judah’s speech through Rashi’s traditional commentary, you get a very different picture of its meaning and of the relationship between the protagonists. Judah is neither grovelling nor restraining himself with tactical caution. Quite the contrary, Rashi understands every word that leaves Judah’s lips as an expression of confident—even threatening—assertiveness.
Thus, when Judah began by saying “Let not thine anger burn against thy servant,” it was not because he was afraid of offending his superior. Just the opposite—he was ordering him to calm down. And when he compared the viceroy to Pharaoh, he was evoking the precedent of that earlier Pharaoh who suffered divine punishment for abducting Sarah. Judah was actually challenging his opponents to a showdown: “If you challenge me, then I’ll kill both you and your boss!”
Rashi acknowledged that these interpretations were not supported by the literal sense of the biblical text, but were found in the Midrash. For the sages of the Midrash, the characters in scriptural narratives are not one-time historical or literary personages but embody recurring concepts and religious values. The figure of Judah, ancestor of the Davidic royal dynasty, symbolized the nation’s pride in its dealings with the other nations of the world. During the era of the Midrash, this would have reflected Jewish pride vis à vis their Roman occupiers.
These differing attitudes might underlie a second-century rabbinic dispute about our text: “Rabbi Judah says: He approached ready for combat… Rabbi Nehemiah says: He approached him for conciliation… The Rabbis say: He approached in prayer…” Several sages enlarged on Rabbi Judah’s premise, insisting (based on ingenious interpretations of the biblical wording) that Judah and his brothers were physically powerful enough to overpower the Egyptians if Benjamin were not released.
Rabbi Eleazar concluded that each one of the options might be a valid one, depending on the circumstances. As Rabbi Bahya ben Asher observed: “Judah had in mind all three possibilities… He took the attitude of one who approaches fully armed, prepared for battle, and then declares: “Take your choice: Do you prefer to have recourse to legal adjudication, to conciliation, or to battle?”
The Jewish nation continues to find itself in situations where we must choose between these same options.
Hopefully, we will find the wisdom to make the correct choices.
Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Intiative Reporter.