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
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
“I hate them,” he said, with quiet conviction.
“Who do you hate?” I probed.
“Them. The Palestinians. I hate them.”
It was at that moment I realized that I held in my hands a pivotal moment. My response had the potential to shape my children’s lifelong attitudes regarding Israel and her neighbors.
I used to be more of a peacenik. I believed that both sides had legitimate points and (relatively) equal rights to the land of their ancestors. But as time has passed, it has gotten more and more difficult for me to have compassion for those on the opposing side.
We Jews have a historical right to the land. It was promised to us by God; hence the moniker, The Promised Land. But it would be inaccurate to deny that there were other peoples living there even at the time of the Bible. If “Joshua Fit De’ Battle Ob Jericho,” as the Negro spiritual goes, there must have been someone with whom to battle. To pretend that there was not a sizable and deeply-rooted Arab population in the land is both foolish and simply wrong.
The time period leading up to the establishment of the sovereign State of Israel in 1948 is fraught with geopolitical missteps and gaffes that charted this current course for disaster. From the very beginning of Israel’s existence, she has been under near-constant threat from enemies, both external and internal, always having to defend her right to exist to the international community. Along the way, decisions made by Israel’s government have contributed to, though not caused, the untenable situation.
And then there is the fact that none of the surrounding Arab countries have done anything to help the Palestinian people.
And then there is the reality that the Palestinian people have continually chosen leaders who have their very own selfish and self-serving interests at heart.
And then there is the inevitability that years of oppression, whether real or perceived, whether by Israel or their own leaders, has instilled a hatred and resentment in the Palestinian people that locks them in this vicious cycle of violence.
And none of that matters in this moment because I have this one opportunity to give the “right” answer.
“No, you mustn’t think that. You must never think that.”
And I say that because I don’t want to become like “them.” Like the terrorists. The ones who have so little regard for human life that they knowingly and willingly place their weapons among their most innocent and vulnerable. The ones who choose to use the money given from the international community to increase their firepower rather than build up a healthy infrastructure for their own people.
They are Hamas.
“If you want to hate someone, my dear children, hate them. Hate the haters. Hate the murderers. Hate the terrorists. They are the ones who have been shooting rockets into Israel for your entire lifetimes. They are the ones whose actions allow just 15 seconds for kids like you to run to bomb shelters. But feel only compassion for the innocents who are being used for political gain. Feel empathy for the children whose government builds weapons that will kill them rather than shelters that will protect them.”
Is this an oversimplified response? Is it a white-washed one? Yes, to both.
There will be time enough to revisit this situation and its nuances now – please God – the fighting has ceased.
But my children are still young. And they are still impressionable. And above all else, I want them to cling to the Jewish ideal that all life is sacred. Even the lives of our enemies. So I show them footage of the humanitarian aid that the IDF safely transfers over the border with Gaza. We read stories about the injured brought into Israel and cared for by Israeli medical professionals. We see pictures of military actions that are halted when intelligence indicates that the loss of human life is too great to justify them.
Because the moment that we regard all Palestinians with hate, we will have lost our own humanity. And that would make us no different than the terrorists.
I hope that I’m not the only one who immediately thought of the sacrifices that appear scattered throughout the Torah. -There are several in which pairs of animals are sacrificed, but of course, the most famous is the sacrifice of the goats on Yom Kippur. It is a bit different in this case of course: rather than one animal being sacrificed, and the other set free, the turkeys are delivered to the White House in a motorcade where one is pardoned, and then both are retired – to live long lives elsewhere.
I decided not to bother to go and look up the origins of this mysterious ceremony, so that I can imagine it in any way that I wish.
The human predilection for symbolic action is so enormously pervasive.
On the day before much of the country engages in a ritual of gathering families together, many offering examples of what they are grateful for, many, many of them eating the same ritual foods – turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, watching the same football game… on this day before, the main dish is pardoned and offered an escape to a long life. I hope all of you will consider offering your own thoughts on what this could possibly mean in the comments.
Compare this ritual to that of the ancient Israelites and their sacrifices of atonement. It makes me wonder if, even in ancient times, the Israelites didn’t really consider sacrifice to be efficacious for atonement any more than we think that it is. After all, the rabbis, after the Temple was destroyed did not elect to maintain a sacrifical cult, even though they could have offered sacrifices somewhere that was not the Temple, as they had prior to it. many of the rabbis hated tashlich – that ceremony still beloved today, in which we cast our sins out with bread to be eaten by the fish – symbolizing several things at once – generosity, atonement… and yet, few people believe that throwing crumbs at fish is really the same as doing the hard work of repentance. Continue reading
It was after sustaining over 1,000 rockets fired into Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip since the beginning of 2012, more than 130 rockets fired just in the past 3 days alone that Israel finally responded militarily. The barrage of rockets landing in indiscriminate locations — preschools, shopping malls, bus stations and homes — was just becoming too unbearable for the one million Israelis in the range of the rocket fire. It is astounding that even one day of such an assault could be bearable let alone months and months of the same continuous fear of imminent death.
What country would tolerate approximately 1/6th of its population being assaulted by rockets on a daily basis? What country would sit back and do nothing while a sizable portion of its citizens left home everyday and kissed their children goodbye like it was the last time they would ever see them because it very well might? Would the United States find that an acceptable way of life? Did our President not order the intrusion into a sovereign state — Pakistan — and the elimination of Osama bin Laden? Did not most of the free world celebrate that action?
Yet, I could not help but notice the disparities in my Facebook feed these past few days. As a former campus rabbi I am connected to many people in their late teens and early twenties on Facebook. It was shocking to me to see words like “genocide” thrown around by people in this demographic in reference to Israel’s act of self defense. Why would Israel’s right to self-defense provoke exclamations by young American Jews about how horrible it is to be connected to the Jewish people during this moment; how embarrassed they were for the actions of fellow Jews and how they cry for the loss of Palestinian life?
Let me be clear. All people of good conscience cry for the loss of innocent Palestinian life. All life is infinitely sacred and of immeasurable worth regardless of religion, ethnicity, race or political affiliation. All people are created in the image of God. But where is the condemnation of Hamas? Where are the tears for the Israelis killed? Where is the heartbreak for children not knowing if they will live another day because they took the brave act of going to school?
I strongly believe that one can love Israel and be critical of Israel at the same time. I strongly believe that indeed to be a lover of Israel means to want to help Israel achieve a more just and more perfect country living in peace with its neighbors. Yet, this is not being critical of Israel. This is being ashamed of being associated with Israel.
Why the shame? Why the shame that a sovereign and free state chooses to exercise its absolute right to self-defense? The United States State Department, a government body that has often taken very critical positions of Israel, was unequivocal in its support for Israel to defend itself:
We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination.
The phenomenon we are facing on college campuses is not objective and rational criticism of Israel. The phenomenon we are facing goes way beyond that. We are facing the results of a sub-culture on the college campus that glorifies the demonization of Israel. I do not mean to exaggerate the bias against Israel on college campuses. Each college is different and in most university environments the mainstream campus culture does not vilify Israel. Yet, there is a clear and undeniable sub-culture that seeks to depict Israel as a genocidal, maniacal regime bent on the utter and total destruction of all Palestinian life. It sees every action Israel takes that expresses its self-determination as a state as evil.
This sub-culture has deeply affected many young American Jewish students. If one wants to be progressive, peace loving and liberal there is a tremendous pressure to disaffiliate with Israel and to condemn its very existence, because when one denies the right of a free state to protect itself one is doing nothing less than denying it a right to exist.
There is no easy answer on how to counter this dangerous and subversive sub-culture. How does one work against something so popular and so cool to many of our young people? At the very least it is imperative that we are aware of this sub-culture because perhaps the most effective way to combat this blind hatred is by cultivating one-to-one personal relationships with the next generation of American Jews who are being impacted by this phenomenon.
We must work towards developing a sustainable culture of Israel engagement where one can be a lover and defender of Israel and through that love offer critique and constructive criticism. The answer to this sub-culture is surely not to deny the right of people to express dissent with the policies of Israel but it is to direct those criticisms in a productive way and one that seeks to embrace the narrative of the Jewish people in its ancient-modern homeland. It is to be proud of Israel, with eyes wide open of its flaws and not to live in shame of being Jewish and being in the generation privileged to live in a world with a free, democratic State of Israel.
The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.