The Path Not Taken: Assimilation versus Separation, by Aaron Wildavsky

Commentary, September 1993.


To assimilate or to stay apart? That is the question which for centuries has confronted Jews living in the Diaspora. How much may the children of Israel become like their host nations, in order to live securely and to prosper? Once upon a time, indeed until only yesterday, this was mainly a question of how much to accommodate powerful and hostile political rulers who threatened the literal survival of Jewish subjects. Today, especially in America and other “enlightened” societies, it is mainly a question of how much to resist powerful and seductive cultural temptations—for example, of lobster, luxury, and loose living—which threaten the spiritual and moral survival of no-longer-persecuted Jewish citizens. Yet despite the changing scene, the basic question persists: how to square the demands of survival, the attractions of worldly success, and the need to live in exile with the call to be a righteous and holy people?

In Assimilation versus Separation, Aaron Wildavsky seeks to show that this difficulty has plagued Jewish life from its earliest beginnings. Subtitled “Joseph the Administrator and the Politics of Religion in Biblical Israel,” his book offers a thoroughgoing and illuminating commentary on the Joseph narrative in Genesis. The main purpose of that narrative, according to Wildavsky, is to show the limits of worldly wisdom and the superiority of cleaving to God’s ways. Joseph, the brilliant administrator, takes the path of assimilation and prepares the way for the enslavement of his people; he is thus the Jewish anti-hero, the perfect foil for Moses the liberator who brought the Jews out of the house of bondage and made of them a separate, God-fearing people. “The rejection of Joseph, that is, of assimilation as the price of survival,” says Wildavsky.