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23 centuries ago, the army of Alexander the Great marched into Jerusalem. The ensuing occupation of the Jewish capital proceeded, at the outset, with unexpected smoothness and goodwill.
The Greeks had brought to the world the first secular culture aspiring to more than wealth, lust, and power. Guided by pure aestheticism, Greek art, architecture, and drama demonstrated an affinity for abstract pursuits and singular respect for cerebral engagement. The result was an asynchrony of mutual admiration and appreciation between the Jews and their new masters.
But the veneer of intellectual integrity projected by Greek culture was a sham. Socrates, the teacher of Plato and father of rational inquiry, was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. His unpardonable sin: posing questions that made his students think by challenging the status quo of conventional wisdom.
Judaism thoroughly endorses Socrates’ famous dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living, a philosophy that infuriated the Greek establishment. The foundational principle of Jewish tradition that human beings are not perfect creations, but perpetual works-in-progress, grated against the Greek notion that man is a divine creature in no need of improvement.
Recognizing that the theology of the Jews would never bend to accommodate the worldview of their masters, the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes issued edicts forbidding three religious practices: Sabbath observance, ritual circumcision, and the sanctification of the New Month. His assault on these specific institutions illustrates how our ideological enemies often understand us better than we understand ourselves.
A modern Chanukah story from the season of miracles and redemption
It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.
My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”
“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation convinced me not to ask. Maybe she didn’t know, either.
A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.
Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.
SEEKING SPIRITUALITY FROM A TO ZEN
When I left home for college I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.
Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.
Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because ultimately that brought good karma and spiritual contentment. Surely, this was the road to Truth.
But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge evil, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.
TOO LATE FOR THE HIPPIES
I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.
Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.
Half a year in Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought the classical Jewish experience of volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets, oblivious to signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS BEFORE JANUARY.
Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.
Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.
THE CLASH OF CULTURES
Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the Greeks began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men. How offended must the Greeks have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.
When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had employed violent oppression, the Greeks plotted with far greater subtlety: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, they banned only three practices: the Sabbath, bris milah (circumcision), and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.
The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the universe; without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with our Creator. Bris milah is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.
The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Greeks resorted to violence. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to these three precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Sabbath, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the brit, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.
Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Greek oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new syncretism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the total incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the candles of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.
ILLUMINATING THE GENERATIONS
Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the Greeks did not disappear. To this day they persist in their cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.
But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.
In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own nine-year-old and her siblings are growing up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I can give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction. They know already that a tree beside the fireplace in December is not part of their world; as they grow older they will appreciate why it is not, and why a menorah is.
Through the generations and across the world, our people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.
Originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Light in 1997.
Anyone who has raised children — or been a child — should be well familiar with the plaint, “It’s not fair!”
If we’re honest, however, we’ll admit that our intolerance for unfairness is something we never outgrow.
- Another candidate got the job.
- My co-worker got the promotion.
- The professor gave me a B.
- It was the other driver’s fault.
- Why did my neighbour win the lottery and not me?
And those are the mundane questions. The far more imposing question of universal injustice is either too painful to contemplate or too devastating to ignore:
- The Pacific Rim tsunami.
- Hurricane Katrina.
- The twin towers.
- COVID -19.
- The Holocaust.
We want to believe in an all-powerful, all-merciful God. But how can we believe in a God who allows acts of injustice great and small or, even worse, seems to perpetuate them Himself?
Let’s start with a most fundamental question: why did God create the universe?
Thank you to Rabbi Yaakov Berkowitz of the St. Louis Kollel for inviting me to contribute to the Amud Yomi program with this discussion.