In Those Days, In This Time

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The following essay was written for Haaretz and appeared on its website recently under a different title.  I share it here with that paper’s permission.

There’s a striking irony in the fact that Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays among American Jews.

Cynics have contended that it’s Chanukah’s proximity to the Christian winter holiday, with all the latter’s ubiquitous glitz, baubles and musical offerings, that has elevated Chanukah – seen by some as a “minor” celebration, since it’s a  post-Biblical commemoration – to the pantheon (if a Greek word is appropriate here) of popular Jewish observances.

In fact, though, Chanukah is not minor at all; a wealth of Jewish mystical literature enwraps it, and laws (albeit rabbinical in origin) govern the nightly lighting of the holiday’s candles and the recital of Al Hanisim (“For the miracles”) in our prayers over Chanukah’s eight days.

As to whether many American Jews are enamoured of Frosty the Snowman, well, it’s an open question.  Me, I prefer my winter nights silent.

But onward to the irony, which is not only striking but significant.

I recall hearing a Reform rabbi on a public radio program a couple of years ago extolling Chanukah as a celebration of “pluralism” and “tolerance.”  After all, the Greek-Syrian Seleucid enemy of the Jews at the time of the Chanukah miracle, he explained, were intolerant of Jewish religious practices.  Well, yes, but the Jewish rebellion wasn’t aimed at establishing some sort of Middle-Eastern First Amendment but rather to fiercely defend the study and practice of the Torah.  And to rid the Temple of idols.  Judaism has no tolerance at all for some things, idolatry prime among them.

What is more, the Jewish uprising also – and here we close in on the irony – was to counter the influence on Jews of a foreign culture.

To the Jewish religious leaders who established the observance of Chanukah, a greater threat than the flesh-and-blood forces that had defiled the Holy Temple was the adoption by Jews of Hellenistic ideals

For the Seleucids not only forbade observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, Jewish modesty laws and Torah-study, they held out to Jews the sweet but poison fruit of Greek culture, and some Jews devoured it whole.

The enemy, in other words, didn’t just install a statue of Zeus in the Temple, but an assimilationist attitude in some Jewish hearts.  And Chanukah stands for the fight against that attitude.

It’s easy to dismiss the ancient Greek soap-opera that passed for divine doings, the gods who were described as acting like the lowest of men.  It isn’t likely that many Jews (or Greeks, for that matter) really believed the tales of celestial hijinks that passed for spirituality at the time.

But the ancient Greeks had something much more enticing to offer. Hellas celebrated the physical world; it developed geometry, calculated the earth’s circumference, proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system and focused attention on the human being, at least as a physical specimen. It philosophized about life and love.

But much of Hellenist thought revolved around the idea that the enjoyment of life was the most worthwhile goal of man, yielding us the words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all Greek in origin.

Western society today revolves around pleasure too.  It adopts the language of “freedom” and “rights” to disguise the fact, but it’s a pretty transparent fig leaf.

To be sure, most Jews in the U.S. remain stubbornly, laudably, proud of their Jewishness.  But, all the same, they have been culturally colonized by a sort of contemporary Hellenism, American style.

Which bring us – if you haven’t already guessed – to the irony.

Because Chanukah addresses neither pluralism nor tolerance (admirable though those concepts may be in their proper places), but rather Jewish identity and continuity, the challenges most urgently faced by contemporary American Jews.

And its message stands right in front of them, in the flickering flames.

The “miracle of the lights,” Jewish tradition teaches, was not arbitrary.  Abundant meaning for the Jewish ages shone from the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning of a one-day supply of oil.  For light, our tradition further teaches, means Torah, its study and its observance – not “contemporized,” and not edited to conform to the Zeitgeist, but as it has been handed down over the centuries.

When American Jews light their Chanukah candles they may not consider that the holiday they are acknowledging speaks most poignantly to them.

But they should.

© 2013 Haaretz

For older Chanukah-themed essays just click on “Chanukah” in “Categories.”