Hanukkah: A heartwarming story about Jew vs. Jew.
Us against us? I thought it was Jew against Greek: Maccabee vs. Antiochus.
Most of us grew up with the same idealized story: that Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the underdog-Maccabees in preserving our religion despite the callous Syrian-Greek attempt to quash all Jewish rituals.
But the not-so-hidden truth, revealed by rabbi after rabbi, is that the Maccabees (aka the Hasmoneans) were angry not just at the Greek king, Antiochus IV, who in 167 BCE issued decrees forbidding Jewish practice. They were miffed at their fellow Jews for selling out — embracing Greek culture, Hellenization — because they were either seduced by it, or afraid to flout secular authority.
“The simple version of Hanukkah is that of Jews struggling against Greeks,” writes Rabbi Irving Greenberg in his book, “The Jewish Way.” “But, in fact, Hanukkah grows out of a split in the Jewish soul. In most of the battles in that extended war, Jews fought among themselves as soldiers in the armies on both sides.”
That “split in the Jewish soul” captures a tension I’ve observed as I report this series: the Opt-In vs. the Opt-Out Jew. We appraise each other, drawing conclusions about what brand of Judaism is alien or familiar, exclusive or welcoming, cursory or rigorous. I’ve heard from observant readers who critique the Orthodox voices in my articles as not being Orthodox enough. I’ve heard from Reform Jews who think I’ve given Orthodox Jews disproportionate airtime.
I know it’s too simplistic to say the Maccabees stand in for the observant, and the rest of us for the Hellenized. But implicit in so many rabbinic Hanukkah teachings is that we’re in danger of losing our compass, losing our difference — abandoning the text and traditions that make us Jews.
And that sense of alarm makes me look harder at where I fall on the spectrum before Hanukkah begins this year.
Arthur Kurzweil, a popular speaker and writer who counts as his mentor the legendary Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, says that the Hanukkah story “is about Jewish intolerance in the best sense of the word,” where steadfast Jews were intolerant of the vacillating ones. “I mean ‘intolerance’ in the sense of, ‘I don’t want to just blend in with the majority unconsciously,’” Kurzweil tells me over breakfast.
Kurzweil believes too many of us have “blended in,” or assimilated, by default, opting for an “anything-goes” Judaism that isn’t Judaism. “I don’t know who said it originally, but I think it’s a great analogy: Baseball has four bases. You can invent a game with five bases; maybe it’s even a better game. But it’s not baseball. So I think Hanukkah is trying to say, ‘Judaism is not whatever you want it to be.’”
When I later meet Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz thanks to Kurzweil’s introduction, he underlines Kurzweil’s distinction between unalloyed Judaism and a watered-down version. It isn’t being disparaging, he argues; it’s being discerning.
“There is good art and bad art,” he says. “You make judgments about good and evil, beautiful and not beautiful, right and wrong. When you read a piece of trash, you see that it’s trash. Of course you are judgmental. Why shouldn’t you be judgmental?”
Steinsaltz, 77, a frail but peppery recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize, spent 45 years translating the Talmud to Modern Hebrew, an enterprise he completed five years ago, to much acclaim.
Kurzweil, owns his censoriousness — recounting how incredulous he felt when he overheard a rabbi telling a congregant that he wasn’t sure he believed in God. “You’re entitled to be unsure,” Kurzweil scoffs, as if addressing that rabbi, “but why the heck did you choose this profession?’”
Kurzweil also disparages Torah groups that spend more time inviting personal takes than teaching the sages: “I’d rather go to a doctor for a medical opinion than the guy on the street.” And he’s discouraged by those who don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Modeh Ani,” the prayer thanking God for restoring our soul. “At least say, ‘Thank you God for another day.’ Almost nobody mentions God,” says Kurzweil. “Rabbi after rabbi, and holiday after holiday, and nobody mentions God. Where the heck is God? We’re a religion.”
Although Kurzweil doesn’t point a finger at me, I’m clearly implicated as a member of his Hellenized camp. I don’t recite “Modeh Ani” every morning and I partake in Torah discussions that invite personal opinions.
I could dismiss Kurzweil’s derision, except that I’ve long been a fan: he’s smart and makes me think. But he echoes countless voices in the observant world who would likely dismiss my level of Judaism as perilously assimilated.
Rabbi Mychal Springer, director of the Center for Pastoral Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, contests Kurzweil’s Hanukkah warning. “I think Judaism has survived
because of Hellenistic impulses,” she tells me. “Over the generations, we’ve incorporated good things from the world around us. Judaism isn’t ossified. And sometimes we get frightened and say we’ve gone outside the bounds, but that’s part of the process of recognizing what’s sustainable. I can’t only be afraid of external impulses, of absorbing. I don’t think they’re only bad.”
Springer, who (full disclosure) was my college classmate and officiated at my wedding, offers a concrete example of where modern Hellenization has been pivotal. “The Conservative movement has had a major revolution around sexuality and gender over the last thirty years.… The idea that nothing changes is ahistorical. Judaism has always evolved. In fact, Hanukkah is the great symbol of our evolution. Where do you find Hanukkah in the Bible? You don’t! The closest you get is Sukkot.”
(Hanukkah was originally celebrated for eight days because the Jews were making up for the eight days of Sukkot, which they’d been forced to skip because the Temple had been seized.)
“Historically Hanukkah is simply a late Sukkot,” Springer says. “Sukkot is commanded in the bible, but Hanukkah isn’t commanded anywhere. And suddenly we invent Hanukkah and we say we’re ‘commanded’ to say these prayers for this holiday we invented. So even Hanukkah itself is a radical act. You always have to be incorporating the story of your people in its own day.”
“I wear tefillin every morning,” says Conservative rabbi, Rachel Ain, of Sutton Place Synagogue. “They’re black and what all the men wear. I find it so powerful. I also wear a kippah, but it’s a beaded kippah and I have a tallit that was made for me – it’s green and purple and blue – and it’s very feminine and very halachic. Would Rabbi Kurzweil call it Hellenizing? I say it’s innovating.”
Seth Schwartz, Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization at Columbia University, balks at the idea of reading contemporary meaning into the Hanukkah paradigm at all.
“I’m against meaning,” he tells me. “There’s no meaning; there’s just history. The Maccabean revolt is taking place in a world that is so different from ours that it’s unimaginable. Assimilation is not a term which I feel works when you’re talking about a group of people living under imperial denomination.”
Schwartz means that the Jewish Maccabees rebelled chiefly because of Antiochus’ royal edict, and he says it’s misleading to claim “the Maccabee revolt was a civil war between progressive Jews and reactionary Jews;” that’s an exaggerated storyline Schwartz says “many liberal rabbis learned in rabbinical school.”
I understand the professor’s just-the-facts-ma’am perspective, but symbolism endures, precisely because rabbis are always breathing meaning into history; that’s clearly the project of keeping ancient stories alive.
And it was hard for me not to see the echoes of Maccabee-Hellenist tension this very month, while organizing a panel discussion about Hanukkah at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the main training academy for Conservative rabbis and scholars. I invited representatives from Agudath Israel (an ultra-Orthodox communal organization) and Chabad to take part. Agudath said they wouldn’t — or couldn’t — sit on the JTS stage with non-Orthodox rabbis:
“Agudath Israel’s policy with regard to involvement with non-Orthodox institutions prevents me from accepting,” wrote Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath’s Director of Public Affairs, who has invited me to spend a Sabbath with his family.
His email went on: “That policy is a sort of ‘civil-disobedience statement,’ intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, we opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary. Sorry. Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”
When I told Shafran that I’d like to quote his email, he asked me to “please make sure the readers know that I consider all Jews to be my brothers and sisters, regardless of affiliations or levels of observance.”
Chabad-Lubavitch’s director of media relations, Rabbi Motti Seligson, never explained why no Chabad rabbi was available for the panel.
I couldn’t help but feel disillusionment, however naïve. I’d been aware of these deep philosophical divisions, but I hadn’t anticipated the impossibility of sharing a stage, especially when the topic is a Jewish
holiday — not something like the incendiary politics of the Middle East.
Sociologist Steven M. Cohen helped explain it to me. “To sit with you and me individually in a café is fine,” he said. “Possibly to sit with you and me and speak at a JCC may be okay. But the second that you bring in a rabbi, then you bring in a religious functionary who represents a system of thought and culture that actively denies some of their deeply-held principles. So from their point of view, they can’t do that — they can’t extend any honor to a rabbi of a non-Orthodox tradition.”
Of course, divisions among Jews have been a fact of Jewish life since before the Maccabees. But I have a Pollyannaish view that there is wisdom to be gained from every perspective, and it seems not only counterproductive, but fundamentally un-Jewish, to draw bright lines around our camps and declare them irreconcilable.
Yet I keep being reminded that the lines matter to people.
So if Hanukkah celebrates those who refused to blend in, where does that leave those of us who, to one degree or another, already have?
“It’s a very hard religion,” Steinsaltz says, as he sits at the Aleph Society in Midtown Manhattan. “I don’t think there’s a religion in the world that makes more demands on people. So the idea of the Maccabean fight was, Can you keep your identity?… The Talmud says if all the holidays disappear, Hanukkah will stay. Because first of all, the point of the holiday is not the miracle and it’s not the war; it’s our ability to continue as what we are. It was about 2,300 years ago and still we continue…. That’s what we commemorate about Hanukkah: we still exist.”
That is an undisputed Maccabee message I can embrace: we go on. In our own specific way.
I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with a fixed or tiered Judaism. But I certainly subscribe to the miracle of our endurance. And I’m beginning to understand that endurance may require difference. Though many are uncomfortable with highlighting what sets us apart, this is a holiday that telegraphs it: We are not the same; We hold on to our rituals and we put menorahs in our windows to remind the world that we are distinct and we are still here.
Abigail Pogrebin has become a rare voice among American Jews, as a journalist and an explorer who shares with refreshing wit and candor her path to finding a meaningful Jewish life.
'A Split in the Jewish Soul': Hanukkah Reconsidered