1/12/2007

Name, Language, and Dress

I recently got a question from a student, asking where the well-known Rashi that the Israelites didn’t change their names, language, or style of dress in Egypt is located. I wasn’t sure if it was a Rashi or another source, so I started digging.

Amazingly enough, that list first appears in – the ethical will of the Chasam Sofer!

He, and especially his students (Mahara”m Schick and others) were very insistent on preserving various elements of Jewish culture during the upheavals of the 19th Century.

Of course, there are Midrashim that discuss different ways in which the Israelites preserved themselves, and interestingly enough, one of the ways mentioned it that they maintained a distinct diet. They ate different foods than the Egyptians. I think I’ll mention this to anyone who knocks ‘gastronomic Judaism’ or ‘Lox n’ Bagels’ Judaism; according to that particular Midrash (it’s in the Psikta on Devarim, by the vidui bikkurim), dietary habits make the list, but names don’t. Sorry, Shloymie. Give up the Chinese food and we’ll talk.

Regardless, the notion that the Israelites preserved an identity in Egypt is mentioned in the exegetical (tzei u-l’mad) section of the Hagaddah – ‘this teaches that the Israelites remained distinct there’ (especially according to the version that has ‘mesuyamim’ instead of ‘metzuyanim’, but it works either way). The notion that their ultimate salvation was a result of this distinction is also pretty early.

If so, then a) why do we downplay the elements listed (i.e., if a Jew is named Howard, wears business suits, speaks English, and frequents Dougie’s, we don’t really look askance at any of that)? b) how do we reconcile that with the numerous statements that the Israelites were just as bad as the Egyptians, or that they were of the lowest level of ‘tum’ah’ etc.?

I had the following thought, and just saw that it’s echoed by a Romanian poseik, R’ Sperber (not ybl”ch R’ Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan). The Israelites preserved an ethnic identity. Without anything else to bind them together, they stuck with those basic cultural elements – language, dress, cuisine, etc. – that preserved them as a subgroup. Some form of distinction was necessary if the Israelites were ever to be redeemed. You can’t redeem what doesn’t exist. These elements did not, however, keep them ‘above’ everyone else.

I’ll illustrate by a personal example. I studies at YU. YU is in a neighborhood with ethnic groups who have not changed their names, language, style of dress, or cuisine. Yet, to my knowledge they are not on a very high level of kedusha, at least no more than any other American subgroup.

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