Why do we celebrate Chanukah? To compete with Christmas? I hope not. To receive presents? Okay, some of us do. To give presents? Maybe not as many. To dedicate ourselves to being Jewish? I pray it is so…
Let’s review the story:
King Antiochus got angry at us (we seem to help others get in touch with their anger, don’t we?) and decided to change the usual overlord practice of letting each conquered people maintain their local customs, and ordered a “purification” of Jewish rituals and customs, forbidding us to study and follow torah, desecrating the Temple with pig sacrifice, Greek idol statues, forcing us to eat pig, and so on.
Some Judeans, from the cities, enamored of Greek culture – with good reasons – went along with this, because it made them seem more Greek. These were the Hellenists.
Some Judeans were appalled and refused, and, as a result, many of them were killed, especially since they also refused to defend themselves. These were the Pietists or Chasidim.
Finally, Matisyahu, Mattathias, the local priest of Modi’in, started to fight back, not unlike Moses, when he killed the taskmaster… And the Maccabees, the small guerilla army, formed.
The Maccabees bridged the two Jewish worlds: they incorporated the more militant of the Chasidim, who were persuaded by the Maccabees’ analysis of Jewish law, which allowed them to fight on Shabbat to save life, and which allowed them to fight against the anointed king who undermined God’s law. The Maccabees also incorporated some of the Hellenists, who might like Greek culture, but thought Antiochus had gone too far.
The Maccabees won the war against the Syrians, in some dramatic battles, involving large elephants, and in some savvy negotiations. They cleaned, purified and rededicated the temple three years to the day after the initial defilement. That’s the story of the oil.
Meanwhile in this week’s torah portion – Miketz – nearing the end of the book of Genesis or Breisheit, Joseph has his major assimilation experience. After he successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dream, and offers a plausible solution to the upcoming famine, Pharaoh promotes him to the job of Viceroy. (Remember Joseph has considerable management experience, from Potiphar’s house and the jail house, where everything he was in charge of prospered.) He is given Pharaoh’s signet ring, robes of linen, and a gold chain, all in the latest Egyptian fashion, as well as an Egyptian wife (about whom many midrash fantasize: she’s Dinah’s daughter, or the daughter of an Egyptian priest, or a priestess herself, or all three), and fine Egyptian children. He is thoroughly assimilated, and yet, as we learn, he saves his family from starvation, moves them to the land of Goshen and protects us in our Diaspora home as long as he lives.
From these two stories, I think we learn that neither extreme assimilation nor extreme isolation is good for us, but some of each works well. Being Jewish, maintaining a personal and communal identity as a Jew in this country and this time requires intentionality, courage, nuance, self-knowledge, balance, and energy.
So my questions for you are —
How do you balance being Jewish and American? Is one more important than the other? Does it change (as it does for me, depending…)
And what if you HAD to make a choice? If being American suddenly or gradually changed, and rather than honoring diversity, it stopped?
Anita Silvert, a Jewish performance artist, wrote a beautiful description of the gifts of Judaism: “spiritual strength, heritage, a strong moral code, and an incredible gift for survival. Judaism gives you inspiration, scholarship, protection, compassion, a way to live, and a people to belong to, wherever life takes you.”
As we continue through this holiday of rededication, I pray that we can use intentionality – what the rabbis called Kavannah – to use this gift…