Shedding Light on the Situation

Some of the differences of opinions expressed by the authors of this blog and extending to some the comments posted to this blog were the focus of a drasha by Rabbi Marcus Solomon last Shabbat.  With deference to the Rabbi, and even though our hit counter hasn’t shown a sudden surge of traffic as a result of such poignant remarks and public exposure, it is perhaps worth further exploring the ideas and themes that were raised from the pulpit.

Rabbi Solomon spoke about the focus of Jewish identity and its many manifestations.  He concluded that Jewish action through observance of mitzvot is exclusively Jewish and enduring.  Other forms of Jewish social action, the mission of Tikkun Olam, and the betterment of humankind are not necessarily exclusively Jewish causes.  Too often, Jewish individuals and groups get sidetracked, focussing every aspect of their Jewish identity on a cause such as climate change, Dafur, or minority rights.  Such causes may be well worth championing, but too many Jews apply this type of identity to be the sum total of their wholesome Jewish affiliation, and sometimes define their cause as a surrogate or alternative expression of Jewish identity itself.

The age old dichtomy of Chanukah is represented by a discussion as to whether the festival is a physical or spiritual inclusion within the Jewish calendar.  Many of the symbols, the story, history and actions associated with Chanukah focus on the military victory of the Maccabees.  The tefillot we recite, the kindling of the Menorah, and the intellectual focus of the Rabbis is clearly focused on the spiritual side of Chanukah, inclusive of the miracles that we symbolise through our observance.

Different Jews relate to Chanukah in different ways.  That in itself is ironic.  The last bastion of observance of Judaism displayed by the most assimilated of Jews is that of lighting Chanukah candles.  For some, it is the only remaining connection they have, the remotest semblance of Jewish identity.  Their one last remaining connection to Judaism hangs by grasp of a fine candle wick.  What they may hardly realise is that they are actually commemorating a victory of the religious zealots, the minority presence of the pure traditionalist Jews, who resisted the forces of assimilation and asserted their right to observe and protect their heritage from those who had been corrupted and assimilated.

Chanukah speaks to the Jew, but on the surface we don’t always hear what it is saying.  At first glance we see the military conquest (which itself was not to endure beyond the era of the Saducees).  The modern day attraction to Chanukah, with its Maccabee hero’s, Jewish pride and oily food (as we explain it to our children) is based on this military narrative.  Chanukah also happens to be a post biblical festival, with secular attraction beyond the walls of the Synagogue.

To truly understand Chanukah we need to step back prior to the battle of the Maccabees, to the era of Alexander the Great’s first interaction with the Jews.  This is recorded in the Talmud (Yoma 69a) and by the historian Josephus.  It tells a story of cautious introduction.  The Jews had not encountered a society like the Greeks and vice versa.  A gradual policy of assimilation was escalated in the second century BCE until such time that Judaism itself was outlawed.  By this time the Temple had been defiled with idols by an “upper class” who aspired to what they saw as a higher culture of the Greek empire.

What we need to better understand is what this culture of Hellenism that the Maccabees revolted against was all about.  The populist Greek culture of the day back in the times of the Maccabees was about physical glory.  In the words of Rabbi Shlomo Yaffee the questions of the Hellenists to the Jews were:  “Why do you insist on proclaiming the supreme purpose of doing mitzvot with certain objects and certain places in certain times? Symbolism is fine, but do you really think that there is intrinsic value in these practices? Can you not have great spiritual experiences without all these physical details? Philosophise, meditate, but why the tefillin? Why the Shabbat? Why the brit? Be spiritual or be physical, but who are you kidding by straddling the fence and pretending that physical activity has intrinsic spiritual value? “

For the Greeks, and their contemporary Western nation equivalents, a choice had to be made.  Either you were grounded in physical pursuits and material desire, or you were spritually distanced.  However the two concepts juxtaposed each other.

The era may be different, but the same message is sadly sent to our generation.  Either be an Australian (party hard, visit your personal trainer, have boob jobs and botox injections, and know that appearance is everything), or be Jewish (don’t mix in, look different, exclude yourself from the pleasures of life). 

However this perception of Jewish living is entirely wrong.  Jewish people do not shun modernity, materialistic comfort, or all the goodness of living.  It’s just the placement of boundaries, an appreciative consciousness, and the ethics and values associated with our surrounding environment that is different.   

Put another way, Judaism offers an alternative way of being.  We take the physical and imbue it with the spiritual.  We take the pure oil and the physical wick and create spiritual light.  Jewish thought delivers harmony between the desires of the body and soul, binding them together as opposed to forcing them apart. As Chanukah teaches, a little light can spread a long way if given the chance.

The observance of Chanukah is widespread, but the message of Chanukah remains elusive.  On Succot we bind the four species, bringing different types of Jews together.  On Pesach we read of the four children, different types of Jews relating to their Jewish identity.  However on Chanukah we stand side by side, witness the same light, and yet still see completely different messages.  On a communal level, the Perth Jewish community is united in many ways, but not when it comes to valuing religious observance.  Perhaps it is this that we need to work on, starting with the development of a better appreciation of what it was that the Maccabees were fighting to preserve.

The concluding words that summarise the message of this post are penned by Rabbi Moss, as follows:

Throughout Jewish history there have been individuals and groups who tried to keep a Jewish identity without Jewish practice. It has never worked. A vague Jewish ethnic feeling, devoid of any spiritual purpose and with no compelling message that is relevant to life, cannot last long. Only proud and authentic Judaism, that offers relevance and meaning, direction and inspiration, will stand the test of time.

In the times of the Chanukah story, a small band of faithful Jews stood up against the vast majority of Jews who subscribed to Hellenism, the Greek way of life. We celebrate Chanukah today because we descend from the faithful few.

The solution to Jewish continuity is no secret, it’s obvious. Living breathing Judaism produces living breathing Jews. Do for your grandchildren what your grandfather did for you – be a living example of what it means to live a vibrant Jewish life. They don’t need their grandfather to be a rabbi, but they need him to be a proud and practicing Jew.