Hanukah Lessons for Today

This is a guest post by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.
In her book Animal Dreams, author Barbara Kingslover says, “memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” I am thinking about that line as we celebrate Hanukkah this week and remember all of the different aspects of the past that we recall in relationship to this post-Biblical, traditionally insignificant holiday that has become a hallmark today of Jewish celebration. What we celebrate most during the Hanukkah, the miracle of the oil last eight nights when it was supposed to only last one, is actually the least historical–”not just the miracle story but even the special connection between the lights and the holiday. That connection came later, nobody knows exactly wherefrom.” (Jewish Days, Francine Klagsburn, p. 64) Interestingly, the part of the story that has the most significant historical backing, namely the Maccabees fight against their Syrian Hellenistic enemies, is not included in the canon of the Torah and presents us with some issues to reconcile. Yet, it is precisely the situation with Judah and his family that I think offers us some real lessons for how we, as American Jews, are handling life in this safe, assimilated and prosperous land we find ourselves today.
The time of the Maccabees was one of great empires, Greek leading into Roman. Oppression, but also great progress and advancement, filled the land. Many of the people that Mattithias, Judah’s father, needed to fight were other Jews who had become enthralled and immersed in Syrian-Hellenistic culture. For, as we know, many of the Jews of that time had abandoned Judaism in favor of the secular ways of their society. The gymnasium for exercise, the philosophy, the bathhouses, the culture, the dress, the mannerism — Hellenism was the hottest thing going! Judah’s family, who were actually Hasmoneans, came to be known as Maccabees, which means ‘hammer,’ as they fought not only the cruel, oppressive Antiocus IV, but also there very brothers and sisters who they felt had gone astray of God’s commandments and abandoned Torah. While it is important and spiritually fulfilling to focus on the miracle of the oil on Hanukkah, and even more historical to focus on the struggle against religious oppression that the Maccabees waged, I think it is equally, if not a bit more interesting, to approach the story from the perspective of what was happening within the organized Jewish community at the time. For, as the history tells us, this was as much a civil war as it was a war against the empire. And while the zealotry of the Maccabees did win in the immediate, their victory was short-lived, for it ushered in a century of major infighting and priestly assassinations that led to the Roman destruction of the 2nd Temple. What can we learn from this aspect of the story for today?
While I am one of the people who is uncomfortable with the violent streak in the Maccabee story, I do appreciate their commitment and dedication to our people, its traditions and their recognition that something serious was transpiring in the community that called for drastic measures. As we sit in the comforts of our 21st century American Jewish lives, we also face a challenge not dissimilar from what Judah and his family witnessed. Even as we have an active and engaged synagogue community, the majority of us lead our lives with the rhythms and norms of our secular society, choosing to plug into our Jewish sides much less frequently. Like ancient Israel under the Syrians, America offers us so much possibility, so much intrigue, learning and excitement, not to mention financial success, that we find it virtually impossible to live a more fully integrated Jewish life. In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times, writing about Hanukkah, summed up what was going on during the time of Maccabees, when he wrote, “The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. The reformers wanted to merge these two ideas.” For me, the lesson of the Maccabees for today is that we have to take our Jewish traditions more seriously and engage more wholeheartedly if we are going to survive. I don’t think we need to imitate their anger, violence and extremism, which we see in some sectors of the fundamentalist Jewish world, many of whom think that they are the inheritors of the Maccabeean legacy. Rather, we must take their deep concern, their willingness to live “counterculture,” and their understanding that Jewish life only carries forward to the next generation if it is lived and passed on. The challenge for us today, in my view, is that we want to pass on Jewish rituals, values and culture to the next generation, but we want to do so without really living, embracing, wrestling and embodying them ourselves. We need to work a bit harder at what Mr. Brooks identified: the successful merging of two great ideas. The beauty and wisdom of Judaism is not in the learning about traditions, but in the living of them; the wonder of Judaism is not in hearing about the Torah, but in actually studying it and living it in our lives; the power of ritual is not in thinking about them, but in practicing them. I think that we need to embrace the Maccabee spirit of recognizing the power of secular society but instead of completely rejecting it, we have to more fully balance our lives. It is much easier to be fundamental in a view than moderate; it is much easier to abandon a path than to try and mold two paths together. This is why the most religious of people, in any tradition, tend to isolate themselves from the societies in which they live, for fear of what happened with Hellenism. Yet, I believe that our rituals and traditions are strong enough, if lived fully, to sustain encounters with modern, Western culture. Plenty of us living religious, ritual-based lives, go to the mall, eat out with friends, watch, play and attend sporting events, work in successful careers, drink beer, go to concerts and have a great time in life. It is all about making choices, setting priorities and finding the right balance. Judah Maccabee can be imitated for his inner fire as much as for his outer fight.
Related to this, I just finished reading the book, Year of Living Biblically, which several people suggested to me within a one week period. I found it to be both interesting and funny, but also quite insightful in regard to approaching religion. The author tried to live for a year following the Bible literally, which meant, among other things, growing a huge beard, wearing all white, carrying a wooden staff, walking around with a sheep tied to his wrist, pasting the words of Shema onto his arm and forehead, and writing those same words literally onto his doorpost in paint. He tithed, visited many different religious settings, Christian and Jewish, read over one hundred books and put his wife and young child through some ridiculous ordeals during the year. And while it is a clever idea for a book, indeed it was a best-seller, what happened to the author, a secular and very unreligious Jewish man named A.J. Jacobs, through the year, moved me. The book was his journal entries throughout the year and each section started with a quote from the Bible. When he started, he stated that he didn’t believe in God and found prayer to be very foreign and uncomfortable. He didn’t have any connection to the rituals he was doing, no understanding of their meaning; yet as the year went along, and he deepened his practice and repeated the rituals, he found himself finding meaning and even really enjoying them. He was moved in a way that he didn’t anticipate. Years ago, I argued to my friend that the only way to really understand Judaism and ritual was to live it uninterrupted for at least six months. I argued that I would start a synagogue and require members to follow my plan for those six months and then decide if Jewish living was not for them. I was laughed at and told that this was ridiculous and impossible. The Year of Living Biblically proves, in a different sort of way, that my point was actually a valid one. We can carry on the Maccabeean legacy, not by violently enforcing ritual on others, but by caring deeply, living deeply and choosing to create the holy balance between religious and secular opportunities. As we celebrate our last day of Hanukkah, I pray that we use this new memory of Hanukkah’s meaning, just as much a truth as the oil miracle, to inspire us, and perhaps we will find ourselves with a different religious/secular paradigm of living this time next year.

3 thoughts on “Hanukah Lessons for Today

  1. DK, you’re preaching to the choir here, aside from a couple of exceptions.
    And before guestpost holds his nose over “the violent streak” of the Maccabees maybe he should ask himself, what has he done for Judaism recently?

  2. formermuslim-
    what have you done for Judaism ever? The author of this post is a respected rabbi with a large community who brings people closer to Torah every day. You seem to just be a troll.

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