Chanukah: When Truth Collides With Memory

Chanukah is a challenging holiday for Humanistic Jews.

Yes, you read that correctly. Our little celebration of the Maccabees’ victory over the tyrannical Seleucid Greek empire is fraught with challenges for anyone who gains a clear understanding of what really happened in the mid-second century BCE.

According to the standard narrative, the evil Antiochus IV sought to repress religious freedom for the Jews of Second Temple Judea in order to unite his kingdom under one Hellenistic (Greek) standard. He was aided by Hellenistic Jews who betrayed their own people, rebelling against their faith and even defiling the Holy Temple, sacrificing non-kosher animals to Zeus.

On the other side stood a group of plucky priests led by the Hasmonean Family and their patriarch Mattathias. He and his sons – notably Judah – staged a revolt and defeated the Greeks. For this they earned the name “Maccabees,” possibly deriving from the word for “hit” or “hammer.” When they sought to purify their defiled Temple, they found a critical lack of holy oil that miraculously lasted for eight days! Thus was born the holiday of Chanukah, meaning “dedication,” for they had re-dedicated the Temple.

The first challenge of this holiday is the story of the magic oil, but it’s also the easiest to dismiss. No contemporaneous source so much as hints at such a miracle. It first appears hundreds of years later in the Talmud. It was probably invented or promoted in order to de-emphasize the military aspects of the story in favor of the miraculous nature of the victory and its aftermath. The rabbis who circulated the oil legend lived on the other side of two horrific defeats of the Jews at the hands of the Romans (in 70 CE and again in 135 CE). They saw no reason to fan the flames of rebellion. So they reminded their fellow Jews that God was the real warrior in the Maccabee story.

That’s not exactly a Humanist sentiment and because the story remains thrilling even without the magic oil, Humanistic Jews have no problem dismissing it. We don’t believe in magic anyway.

The real challenge lies in the rest of the narrative. What if the Maccabees weren’t so much defenders of religious freedom as they were zealous religious bullies? What if the Hellenizing Jews were simply seeking ways to be more cosmopolitan, universalist, open to fresh ideas and world culture? What if Antiochus IV was not a madman, but a reluctant participant in a war that he was generally uninterested in fighting?

Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi of Columbia University was one of the greatest Jewish historians of the modern era. In 1982 he published an influential book called Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. In it he examined the dichotomy that had emerged between the collective mythologized memory of the Jews and the actual history that academics were uncovering. He argued that modern Jewish historiography had led to a rupture in Jewish identity. The Jewish obligation of “Zakhor – Remember!” that was articulated in the Torah and for millennia thereafter was now threatened by the stark reality that much of what we remembered had never happened at all. Or worse, it had happened in a way that completely contradicted the way we remembered it.

Yerushalmi was a man of religious faith for whom this dilemma was greatly intensified. But the Jewish mythos is dear to many Jews and this dilemma challenges the secular and faithful alike. It was secular Labor Zionism that adopted the Maccabees as their symbol of resistance and Jewish empowerment. Some Humanistic Jews celebrate them as exemplars of human courage.

I find it impossible to admire the Maccabees. In fact, my sympathies tend to lie with the Hellenizing Jews. They at least sought avenues toward tolerance and integration with the larger world culture. But even those sympathies are probably misplaced. From everything I’ve learned about them, they were also elitist jerks.

Bereft of an inspiring tale to “Remember!” I must find other reasons to celebrate Chanukah.

I have discovered one, not in the bravery and derring-do of the Maccabees at war, but in something that they did subsequently. They declared a holiday. And in so doing they revealed something about themselves that I’m sure they would have denied. By declaring a new holiday these zealots – who regarded themselves as the bulwark against impure openness to world culture – demonstrated that they themselves had absorbed some of that world culture.

Declaring a holiday, you see, is not sanctioned by the Torah. Who may declare holidays? Only God may declare holidays!

The Maccabees led a revolt for Jewish religious purity completely unaware that the larger world had already snuck into their own subconscious. Even their selection of the date, the 25th of Kislev, the darkest night of the year, indicated that they had actually adopted the solstice holiday of the hated Greeks! Later they would claim that their eight day festival of light was a delayed celebration of Sukkot. Later still, Talmudic rabbis made it about a mythical jug of oil.

The Maccabees were not particularly nice people. We probably would not have liked their worldview. The other side, though open to the world, was power hungry and elitist. There were no real heroes, no one we can really admire.

But there was winter and solstice and a growing integration of the Jews into world culture. Thus was Chanukah born, a winter time festival of lights for a people who never had a solstice festival before. For me, that’s enough reason to celebrate.

Shabbat Funerals And Other Transgressions

On Monday morning I attended a meeting of the Michigan Board of Rabbis. Like most big city rabbinical groups, the Michigan Board of Rabbis is really just a board of some rabbis. There are no Orthodox rabbis involved.

When I arrived, the chairperson took me aside and told me that he was sorry for the late notice, but there would be an agenda item relevant to me. Someone had requested a discussion about “Funerals on Shabbat.” I may be new here, but I didn’t just fall off the matzah truck. There is only one congregation that holds funerals or memorials on Shabbat and that’s the one that I serve.

Toward the end of the meeting, the chair invited those who requested the item to state their issue. One colleague spoke up, offering the completely unstartling news that The Birmingham Temple sometimes holds a funeral or memorial on Shabbat.

Naïf that I am, I asked her what it was that concerned her. It turns out that she harbored some anxiety that my congregation’s practice would serve as a signal that this is something that other rabbis do.

Well, I thought to myself, that’s just ludicrous. I told her that I found it surprising that anyone would think that The Birmingham Temple somehow establishes precedents for other rabbis or synagogues. I explained that we operate out of a different value system than they and that we make decisions that express our integrity just as we hope that they do the same. I drew blank stares.

One of the senior colleagues acknowledged that he had heard Rabbi Wine speak about our different values, too. And I thought to myself, “Well good then. Let’s just drop the matter.” But he did not drop the matter. He decided to bring in yet another concern that by scheduling a funeral on a Saturday morning I put some people in the unfortunate situation of having to decide whether to honor the dead or celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah.

I was flabbergasted. Because I don’t think that quickly on my feet – especially when I’m hit by something so out of left field – I was left murmuring something about how I hardly think that the 92-year-old atheist I memorialized was really going to create such a dilemma.

What I should have said is that life is full of choices and it is not my professional responsibility to minimize those choices. My sole responsibility lies with the family of the deceased and what they desire. I do Saturday morning funerals because people want Saturday morning funerals. As a Humanist, that is reason enough for me. My value system does not prioritize an ancient ban on Saturday funerals. In fact, that ban is not included anywhere on any list of anything that I give two hoots about.

Later in a private discussion, another colleague reiterated the crisis of b’nei mitzvah conflicts that I am abetting. Talk about a disingenuous protest. If avoiding b’nei mitzvah conflicts is really such a priority for them, why are they not holding big b’nei mitzvah scheduling conferences? Every Jewish seventh grader in town is celebrating during the same year. Now that’s a conflict crisis!

They don’t hold such conferences because they really could not care less about b’nei mitzvah conflicts. What they care about is my flouting of their Jewish values. In a stunning demonstration of their complete lack of self-awareness, not one of them seemed to realize that they were doing to me what the Orthodox do to them. Do they not understand why Orthodox rabbis boycott the Michigan Board of Rabbis?

The item did not appear on the agenda out of some deep-seated concern over scheduling conflicts. Whoever put it there did so solely to point out my deviance while demonstrating their own Jewish authenticity. What they fail to understand is that I don’t value Jewish authenticity; it’s a meaningless concept to me.

The values of Humanistic Jews are in no way derived from Jewish tradition. Our Jewishness is a cultural attachment. What Jewish customs we retain are in the service of our Humanistic values, not the other way around. My ethical decision making is not based on asking, “Is it Jewish?”

The ban on Shabbat funerals is a Jewish value and I have no interest in Jewish values. My loyalty is to Humanistic values. They place the needs of individuals above any so-called obligations to tradition. Secular Humanists believe that we owe no allegiance to any religious tradition.

One of my mottos goes like this: “All culture is human culture and must serve human needs.”

I don’t ask these other rabbis to agree. But it would sure be nice if they tried to understand.

Cultural Jewish Conversion: A New Old Idea

Steven Cohen and Kerry Olitzky are two great advocates of Jewish inclusion. Now they have come up with an incredibly innovative idea that they’ve written about in the Forward. After noting that many, many people are already affiliating with Jewish communities and even calling themselves Jews without undergoing any kind of religious conversion, they offer this:

For those who would prefer not (yet?) to acquire a Jewish religious identity but still want a Jewish social/cultural identity, they could undergo what we tentatively called, “Jewish Cultural Affirmation.”

We believe that some prospective converts to Judaism feel that religious conversion demands what, for them, would be an insincere affirmation of religious faith. Perhaps they are agnostic or atheist or secular, or even committed to another faith tradition.

Wow! I couldn’t have said it any better myself! Of course, I have said it many, many times. And all of my fellow Humanistic rabbis have said it, too. And studied it. And written about it. And talked about it at symposiums.

Since Cohen and Olitzky have surely heard about Humanistic Judaism, it would have been nice to receive a little bit of credit for their innovation, given that we innovated it right here at my temple about fifty some-odd years ago.

No matter. It’s not about credit. It’s about a fantastic idea and I could not be more pleased that two incredibly well-respected Jewish communal activists and scholars are recognizing the wisdom in in.

As you might expect, not everyone agrees. Rabbi Andy Bachman would like to remind us that conversion is hardly a religious or theistic process at all. Why on earth would we ever need anything else? He writes in the Forward:

The idea is fundamentally based on the flawed notion that one can actually strip Judaism, Jews and Jewishness of religion. I mean, I guess you can if you want to. There may even be an app for it — who knows? But seriously, for the tiny sliver of non-Jews interested in binding their lives to a Jewish community, whether alone or with partners, there’s no need to imagine that faith would be a stumbling block to plain old conversion. I can’t imagine that any rabbi I know would turn someone away from the community because they were ambivalent about religion or God.

While I applaud Bachman for his openness to non-believers, I’m incredibly weary of hearing him and others rabbisplaining to me why my way of being Jewish is based upon a “flawed notion.”

And is he really telling the whole story? If I were a betting man, I would gamble that Bachman’s openness ends where his ceremonial work begins.

Would he ever conduct a bar mitzvah ceremony for a non-believing family that didn’t praise, worship or otherwise center around God? Would he perform a wedding ceremony sans theistic blessings? Would he alter the Kaddish to meet the needs of nontheistic mourners?

I know one thing for sure, he won’t conduct a conversion without a circumcision, the ultimate sign of the covenant with God. He tells us that in the comment section. His openness has some pretty obvious limits.

But really, the inadequacy of Bachman’s supposed openness is encapsulated by something else that he writes even as he protests his tolerance for disbelief:

You don’t want to believe? So don’t believe. Something inspired Abraham to start a new nation; Something inspired Moses to start a revolution and free an enslaved nation….

I guess it wouldn’t do much good trying to explain to him that this idea is fundamentally based on the flawed notion that Abraham and Moses existed.