Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.
It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling. We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once! Continue reading
Technology is a marvelous thing. And the many creative ways Jewish professionals have incorporated it into Jewish communal life is amazing.
Over the past few months, I have had two online experiences that I had occasionally criticized in the past. But for reasons of necessity, found myself doing: watching a worship service and watching a life-cycle ceremony.
Last Yom Kippur, having had left the morning service with my five-year-old son in tow, I broke my own rule of unplugging on Shabbat and the holidays and sought out an online service. Just because my little guy was done for the day didn’t mean that I was. It took me a few tries as the first few attempts landed me in services that I’d never attend in person. It seemed to me that if I wouldn’t attend a place IRL that I’m certainly not going to like the virtual experience. But then I found the live-stream from Central Synagogue (NYC). Enabling me to hear familiar melodies, liturgy read with passion and conviction, and words of challenge and inspiration.
At the end of November, my sister-in-law went into labour ten days ahead of her scheduled C-section. Due to my own complicated family situation (with a child on the autism spectrum), I was unable to fly to Dallas for my nephew’s bris. Thanks to the rabbinic team at my brother and sister-in-law’s shul, a live-stream of the ceremony was provided for those of us who were unable to make the trip.
Sitting alone with my computer isn’t the way I want Yom Kippur. It isn’t the way I need Yom Kippur. And watching my nephew be entered into the Covenant of Abraham on a screen isn’t the same as being there.
But in both cases, second best was, indeed, better than nothing. Without synagogues that make worship services available online, my Yom Kippur would have been utterly devoid of the sanctity and liturgy my soul needed. Without those same synagogues that are open to the request of a far-flung relative, I would not have been able to witness this first lifecycle event in my nephew’s life.
I once feared that such innovation would encourage people to choose virtual attendance over physical attendance. That concern, I now recognize, was grounded in ignorance. A true lack of understanding based on the unknown.
In the end, it was one word that convinced me. Amein. It was being able to say “amein” in response to the mohel at my nephew’s bris that showed me the weakness of my long-held bias. No, it wasn’t the same as being in the very same room. But my “amein” was said. And God heard it, even if they couldn’t.
I have always loved telling the Chanukah story because it is so much about the strength of the Jewish people. My own Jewish identity is nourished by powerful pride in our improbable survival for all these many centuries of challenges. Chanukah is an opportunity to celebrate the courage, smarts and drive of the Jewish people. Not only did our ancestors find a way to prevail during the Syrian Green conflict of the second century BCE, but we have also been inspired by their story at many subsequent crucially challenging moments.
How does that story relate to us today? In our increasingly individualized society, how many of us have the kind of commitment to any cause that we would risk our lives for it? How much are we willing to fight for what we value? Do we value our people enough to be courageous and selfless for the preservation of Jewish civilization? What would that courage and devotion look like?
Last week was a significant anniversary on the Jewish calendar. December 6 was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the huge march on Washington to Free Soviet Jewry. 250,000 participants came from all over the country, even from other countries. Their presence, coinciding with the White House meeting of President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev caught the attention of the American president. He told his guest that he could not ignore these constituents. American aid to the Soviet Union would depend on freeing Soviet Jews. Slowly but surely the doors opened and our brothers and sisters were permitted to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain. We did it – courage, drive, devotion, sacrifice and intelligence won again.
It can be easier to find the resolve to respond in a crisis. But what about the in-between times? In many ways our people has thrived and contributed to the world out of day-to-day devotion to our shared destiny. We are in it for the long haul. Our covenant with God has inspired us, our belonging to the Jewish people has grounded us; we have lived for the “us.”
American culture presents a renewed challenge to Jewish peoplehood. This calls for transformed commitment to the “us,” to the ideals of the Jewish people. It’s worth fighting for our people – it is really not so selfless – after all, we are the beneficiaries of this great Jewish civilization.
Chanukah celebrates the victory for religious freedom that the Maccabees won for us. In every age we have new opportunities to renew that victory, as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the National Council on Soviet Jewry did in 1987. Every year Chanukah gives us an opportunity to celebrate pride in being Jews. We are the newest Maccabees, fighting for “us.”
Victory will be seen by the gifting of our talents, time and resources to make our Jewish organizations as engaging and soulful as the next generation needs them to be. Chanukah means “dedication.” Renewed dedication to the Jewish people’s well-being would be a triumph worthy of the celebration of light that we enjoy.
Best wishes for a joyous Chanukah, filled with light, inspired by courage and devotion.
We all know people who at some point in their lives may be suffering or depressed and give up hope for any change or improvement. They experience a total sense of powerlessness in their lives and we experience it as well in our efforts to help them. Within our tradition, there is even one startling passage in the Talmud that suggests that during the Hadrianic persecutions in 135 CE, the Jewish people should have refused to have any more children and cease existing within a generation. One can only imagine the despair that must have been felt by the author of that passage.
This week’s Torah reading begins the story of Joseph and his brothers. After the brothers sell Joseph and deceive their father Jacob with a bloodied coat, Jacob falls into inconsolable mourning and refuses to be comforted for the loss of Joseph. The next chapter begins with Judah going down, leaving his brothers and family.
“… and Judah went down from his brothers .…” (Genesis, 38:1)
The Ishbitzer comments on this verse: Why did Judah go and wed a wife at this particular time? As he saw how Jacob refused to be consoled, and as he was the one who had to bring Joseph’s coat to his father, he became greatly depressed, and felt as if, God forbid, there was no more hope. So he went to marry a wife, saying, “perhaps I will have good children from whom will grow an everlasting structure.”
Then afterward, the Holy One, blessed be He, caused him to understand the following. If, God forbid, it is as you think, and there is no hope for you, and you have no life at your root, if so, then even if you give birth to a hundred, they will not have any more life than you. For with the blessed God, the channel through which He sends life must itself be of life. Then, if it is as you think, that you will only have temporary life, then it will be so also with your descendants. Therefore, when he arrived at the clarification of the matter, he fathered Shela, his name Shela meaning misled, the mistake he made in this matter. This is why his first two sons died, and Shela remained alive.
This is a profound teaching. Only those with some hope, even if only a spark, can truly nourish a hopeful future. To create a family there must be a sense of life at one’s core.
In my own work, I have had the pleasure and honor of being the rabbi at many weddings. Some have ended in divorce. This happens. But what is truly sad is couples I knew who decided to have children after they had already determined the marriage was over, deluding themselves that a child would restore the love of the couple. It does not work this way and the divorces happened anyway and for the better of the couples and their children.
Hanukah begins Saturday night. Some commentaries emphasize that the true miracle of Hanukah was not that the menorah stayed lit for eight days, but rather that the people took the initiative to light it even though they had only enough oil for one day. Hope created the miracle, or perhaps was the miracle itself.
In the ongoing dustup that started several years ago between Rabbi Daniel Gordis and a series of young rabbis, most recently Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Rabbi Gordis either implied or directly stated that in offering the opinion that Jews should have compassion for those who aren’t Jews – in Gordis’ case, for Palestinians- is a betrayal of Judaism.
The columnist Jeff Goldberg, in a somewhat confused defense of Rabbi Gordis, couches Gordis’ plea as saying that a Jew should “love Jews a little more than [one] loves Palestinians.” Rabbi Gordis defending his own statements, begs us to notice that our tradition speaks in a particularistic language, that Judaism has always been internal looking, and strongly asks Jews to recognize one another as part of a special family, a family that we are obligated to care for first and foremost.
He is right, of course. It is absolutely true that Judaism is a particularistic religion. It is also equally, simultaneously, true that Judaism is a universalistic religion as well.
For example, the text that Rabbi Gordis suggests as his proof of Judaism’s particularistic bent, the one which we should take to heart when thinking of who to care for first is part of a longer section in the talmud.
The section of the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a, is one whose context is of lending money to the poor, whether one may lend money for interest and to whom one may charge interest. The text there is attempting to clarify the argument by quoting Exodus 22:24: “If you lend money to any of my people that is poor by you, ” continuing, “[this teaches, if the choice lies between] my people and a heathen, ‘my people’ has preference; the poor or the rich — the ‘poor’ takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town — your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town — the poor of your own town have prior rights. The Master said: ‘[If the choice lies between] my people and a non-Jew — “my people” has preference.’ But is it not obvious? — R. Nahman answered: Huna told me it means that even if [money is lent] to the non-Jew on interest, and to the Israelite without [the latter should take precedence].”
Clearly, this is indeed a section that shows that the tradition expects a certain sort of preference for “one’s own.” And yet, it’s not so completely clear as that. Note that the section does not say that one should help one’s own alone; note that it doesn’t say, help your family and ignore the poor of your town; nor does it say that one should help one’s town and ignore the poor of another town. It does recognize that in a situation of limited resources, one may have to parcel them out preferentially, and in that case, one helps those who are close, first. Elsewhere, the order of importance is laid out even more clearly, starting with oneself, the one’s family, then one’s community, and so forth. Continue reading
“Start working on this great work of art, called your own existence”- AJ Heschel
A Life well lived is an art: with guides on perspective, scale, composition, ect.
The great artists know when to break the very rules they follow, it’s the breaking of pattern and expectation that creates interest, wonder, and awe.
Such is life.
So what is religion? Specifically, what is Judaism? What is Halacha, Jewish law, ”THE way,” “THE path?” To be sure, there is more than one set of rules to follow in order to make great art, just as there is truth to be found in more than one religion. Great art borrows from other great art. Similarly, ‘no religion is an island’ (again Heschel); we borrow and share, and are deeply influenced by the religion and culture that surrounds us. Halacha then, is “a set of rules” that gives life structure and meaning.
But we have to remember that rules, patterns, are appreciated more when disrupted, challenged. It is the disruption of pattern that makes us take note of both the new and the expected. Fundamentally, our psyche is trained to take for granted the expected and to pay attention to the unique, the surprising, the break in a pattern. Such is the excitement of new love (as described in a New York Times piece on marriage, “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The summary: exciting for 2 years, boring and expected for about 20, with a renewed excitement at empty nest. –I’ll simply disagree for now – there is so much more to blissful married life).
In any artform, including Life, including specifically Jewish life, the better you know the rules, the more masterful the impact in breaking them. An analogy: Consider the power of a well placed single word paragraph.
English teachers can’t teach you that.
Consider Spielberg’s girl in the red dress at the end of Shindler’s List. The color adds meaning both to the innocence preserved and to the ominous nature of the otherwise black-and-white film.
In the Bible, the law of primogeniture, the rule that says that the oldest inherits, is constantly overturned: Abraham is not the oldest, Isaac is not the oldest, Jacob is younger than his twin Esau and has to trick and steal to inherit. Even King David, the rightful king of Israel, is the youngest. Why does the Bible so often highlight the breaking of this rule? Because rules gain meaning when the possibility of breaking them also exists.
It is said that there was once a very pious Jew who when he would read the verse, “…and do not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes,” he would start crying (Numbers 15:39, the third paragraph of the Shema prayer said twice daily).
“Why do you cry,” he was asked?
“Because,” the pious man replied, “my entire life I have done exactly what the letter of the law has required of me, and in so doing, I’ve never had the opportunity to fully understand this verse.”
Years ago I chose not to wear my kippa (head covering). I wear it everyday, just about wherever I go. I wear it as a reminder of God, as a symbol of humility, that God is above me, and as an identification with the Jewish people. Driving a U-Haul across the country almost twenty years ago, I pulled into a truck stop in Oklahoma. I decided to put my kippa in my pocket. I wondered to myself why I was doing that? Am I not proud of being Jewish? So, I was wondering about this as I approach the register inside the station. The man in front of me was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt – just like me! I’ve always wanted to be a long-haul trucker. I had this great sense of authenticity. I fit in – until he turned around. His shirt was open and revealed a giant swastika that covered the entirety of his barrel chest. I became very conscious of the kippa in my pocket. All of its symbolism was somehow all the more powerful in my pocket than it is day-to-day in my life in Los Angeles, or New York, where I was headed.
“Profane one Shabbat so that one can keep many Shabbatot” -Yoma 85B
It seems that our religion, so often associated with the strictures of laws, might be better described as teaching the artful breaking of laws.
I content that there is an essential paradox at the heart of a meaningful life: Breaking with tradition and law, has the very real possibility of strengthening tradition and the power of the very rules being broken.
Memories can play such tricks on our minds. Last night, I returned to a synagogue where my husband had served as an assistant rabbi for 5 years. We were there to celebrate the installation of the new senior rabbi who is a good friend. People from different parts of our lives swirled together, past congregants from the synagogue, current friends, and colleagues who we looked forward to meeting. All of this taking place in this synagogue building which holds such an important place in my life. I was married on the bimah, celebrated my wedding reception in the ballroom, watched my husband bloom from a rabbinic intern in to a full fledge rabbi, and taught my own first adult education courses. The five years I walked in and out of that synagogue mark the years I grew up and became an adult.
All of this came flooding back as I sat in the pews and walked the halls. But one emotion hit me in the gut, regret. Walking down the hall a picture of the cantor my husband worked with, Cantor Renee Colson stared down at me from the wall. The minute I saw her tears came to my eyes. The last time we were in the synagogue was seven years ago for her funeral. She was diagnosed with cancer and died within two years of our leaving the synagogue.
Her eyes seemed to follow me as I walked down the hallway. And I remembered… I remembered having to cancel a dinner date I had made with her because a work commitment got in the way. She was already very sick at the time, though I did not realize how sick. I was surprised, when I called to tell her I couldn’t make it, when she said, “Well it doesn’t matter, since I can’t eat anyway.” She wouldn’t, or couldn’t reschedule. Her words stuck with me like an arrow in the gut. I meant to reach out again, but then I heard she had died. To this day, I regret that I cancelled our dinner date.
I know that having dinner with her would not have changed the course of her cancer. But I feel like I let down a friend in need. Today I do not remember the work commitment I had that night, but I remember where I should have been.
It is easy to spout aphorisms about living each day to the fullest and spending less time at work and more with family and friends. But it is hard for us to follow them. I wish my priorities had been in the right place that night.
I will always remember Renee being full of life and voice. Every Rosh Hashannah certain songs bring her to mind. Her high notes still ring in my ears and her memory lives on in me.
Sitting in the sanctuary last night, as I celebrated my friend’s new beginning as the rabbi there, I remembered. For a moment, the past, present, and future all combined. I sat in the moment with both joy and pain in my heart.
I hope I will not make a similar mistake in the future. May Renee’s memory teach me to celebrate with friends in the good times and be with them in the bad, for life inescapably brings both.