In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?
When we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.
I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.
Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”
On one hand, we encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.
The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.
The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.
Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.
When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.
The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.
These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.
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
As the eight days of Chanukah wind down, I am thinking of a question I posed as the festival began – who is the real hero of the story? When I asked this question of a class at the synagogue, I was not surprised at the first response: the oil. We then had a spirited discussion about the other possible heroes and realized we didn’t have a clear-cut conclusion.
Now, a week later, I realize why.
First, let’s talk about the oil. How could the oil be a hero? I admit to frustration for the way this story is told and passed from one generation to the next. With such a powerful story of Jewish survival, resting on guts and smarts and passionate commitment to the Jewish people, the watered-down version of the story that leaves out the essential message is more than a disappointment. It is a huge missed opportunity to reinvigorate pride and commitment to covenantal Judaism and the Jewish people.
Then there is the obvious second choice for the hero: Judah Maccabee and his band of warriors who fought valiantly to defeat an oppressive tyrant who threatened Jewish sovereignty in the land of our ancestors, and crushed Jewish learning and devotion during a time of confusion and change. “The Maccabees”, as they came to be known, saved Torah and the Jewish people. While this heroism inspires our generation, it still does not define us. Jews outside of Israel do not take up arms to defend the right to be Jews. And we pray for a time when Jews in Israel no longer need to do so as well.
There are the mythic heroes, not as often recalled. Hannah and her seven sons, a story of a mother who witnesses the martyrdom of her sons one after the other until her own death, has been an inspiring story for generations of Jews who were disempowered and persecuted, sometimes facing martyrdom themselves. Given the choice between eating pork/worshipping idols or death, Hannah’s family gives their lives rather than giving in. Visiting a typical “Jewish deli/kosher style” restaurant (as is common in Northern New Jersey) that boasts matzah ball soup alongside bacon and eggs, it seems clear that few Jews are motivated by Hannah’s sons’ passion for keeping the commandments as such. Nor are American Jews afraid that we must be prepared to give our lives to save Judaism itself.
Then there is the mythic Judith of the extra-biblical Apocrypha, who single-handedly saves the Jewish community by seducing and then beheading the general Holefernes, whose army is threatening the Jewish community. Judith’s story is great fodder for feminists at this time of year, the counterpoint to Judah Maccabee, and indeed an inspiring heroine. But with the memory of physical threat to Jewish survival fading for younger Jews, Judith’s courageous story (though a bit barbaric) is relegated to an interesting past with little connection to the present.
For American Jews, a new model is needed. Who is our hero?
In North American today, the hero of Chanukah is the person who raises Jewish children in a secular world and teaches them to love and cherish the blessing of being a member of the Jewish people. This hero uses the American blessing of individual empowerment to better the Jewish experience for their family and for all Jews. Embracing both the American and the Jewish civilizations in which they live, this hero teaches their children to recognize and honor the integrity of Jewish distinctiveness. This hero appreciates and honors the value of other religious traditions and people of faith, but cherishes the primacy of their Jewish identity. This hero demonstrates love for Jewish wisdom and ideals, culture and customs, by creatively, lovingly, energetically, and thoughtfully infusing contemporary Judaism into their home.
This is our new Chanukah hero, fighting against the forces of assimilation by embracing and shaping Judaism for themselves and the next generation. As I look around at my community, I see many Chanukah heroes. And that is the miracle of Chanukah.