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.

Atheist Jew? Apparently This Is Not A Thing You Can Be

Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s derision of secular Jews and Judaism is receiving a boost from a surprising source. David Silverman has joined him. You can read all about it in a recent Tablet Magazine profile about the leader of the confrontational American Atheists.

Silverman’s certainly not the first nontheist to reject his Jewishness. The great secular humanist, Prof. Paul Kurtz (founder of the Center for Inquiry), famously held a similar position. Israeli author Shlomo Sand just wrote a whole book about it…in Hebrew!

But Silverman, with his famously aggressive media blitzes, has decided specifically to set his sites on us nontheistic Jews:

[W]hile he’s still putting up Christmas-related billboards and arguing with the talking heads on Fox News, this season he has started to focus his atheist activism on a new target: Jews. Silverman wants Jews who don’t believe in God to assert their atheism and stop identifying as Jews.

Like Yoffie, he reasons that Judaism is nothing but a religion:

The only thing world Jewry has in common is the Torah, he says, and as a religious doctrine, the Torah cannot be reconciled with atheistic values.

Anyone who understands anything about the Jewish world should instantly recognize the flaws in this statement.

Do Jews who claim a faith in God really share anything in common in their attitudes about the Torah or Jewish “doctrine”? You might coax them into agreement on a common commitment to monotheism. But this only works because a commitment to monotheism is spectacularly vague. Ask them what they think God did or does and you’ll discover that they don’t really agree about God at all.

Silverman is free to define his Jewish identity and attachments – or lack thereof – in any way he wishes. But he is not free to define mine. I work as a full-time professional Secular Humanistic Jew. I’m pretty sure that this is not a figment of my imagination.

My other issue with Silverman actually has very little to do with Jewishness and a great deal to do with his advocacy for atheism:

Silverman wants Jews who don’t believe in God to assert their atheism and stop identifying as Jews. He believes that nonbelievers should “come out” to their families and friends and in some instances their work colleagues, identifying themselves as atheists. He argues that when religionless Americans avoid the word “atheist” to describe themselves for fear of sounding exclusionary, they are being dishonest. “Atheist is the correct word that has simply been made into a bad word by bigots,” he said, arguing that only the word “atheist” accurately conveys the proper meaning to people who are believers, “and telling the truth benefits everyone.”

I agree that atheists should come out of the closet. I did. It’s in the title of this blog.

The Tablet profile also describes his goal of uniting atheists:

Silverman’s rejection of his Jewishness fits together nicely with his long term goal of creating a cohesive voice for the atheist movement, which is rife with ideological divisions. He laments the fact that of the American population, 20 percent say they do not believe in a higher power, but only 2 percent to 3 percent self-identify as atheists. “Some call themselves secular humanists, and many call themselves Jews,” says Silverman, a term he argues is particularly damaging to the cause. When atheists call themselves Jews, it implies theism, he says, which “makes atheists look small and negates a learning opportunity.”

I join him in lamenting that so many people avoid the word atheist when it is the right word to describe themselves. But calling myself a secular humanist in no way obscures my atheism.

Unlike Silverman, I do not believe that there exists any such thing as “atheist values.” This is also self-evident. The Soviet Union was an atheist country. I certainly do not share its values. Ayn Rand was an atheist. Her values generally disgust me. Atheism is not a value system. It may lead you to adopt or reject a certain set of values, but it provides no values of its own.

Secular humanism is a real value system. It is shared by those who call themselves atheists, agnostics, ignostics and even deists. It is inclusive and positive. We can form communities around it; communities that are built on shared values and mutual needs…and, yes, even communities that are framed by Jewish culture.

Jewish civilization always had a profoundly religious element just as pretty much every single pre-modern culture had a profoundly religious element! But this is its history, not its destiny.

I genuinely believe that theism will one day fade from the pages of human history. However, the human need for ceremonies, identities and communities of conviction will not disappear. I challenge David Silverman to explain how his “atheistic values” will answer those needs.

Yoffie Redux: Godlessness Is Not The Answer!

I am thoroughly frustrated with Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of Reform Judaism. You may recall his January piece in HuffPost – and my response – in which he called secular Jews deluded and argued that Judaism is useless without God.

Now comes the Pew Report and the waves of discussion about how growing numbers of Jews report that they are atheists or agnostics and definitely not Jewish by religion. This has led some people to consider the possibility that the Jewish world may be better served by encouraging a little more consideration of cultural and Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Yoffie, writing in Haaretz, is disturbed by all the attention directed at groups that promote “cultural and secular humanistic Judaism.” (His refusal to capitalize the name of our movement signals his contempt.) After decrying the “preposterous” idea that secular forms of Judaism can contribute to the survival of the Jewish community, he makes this case:

…in the wake of the Pew results, the issue for the Jewish community is what our priorities should be and how we can best channel our resources. And the fact is that it makes no sense whatever to encourage the development of aggressively secular Jewish institutions and programs. The Jewish people has several centuries of experience with secular Jewish movements of various sorts. … And what they all share is an inability to sustain themselves over time; absent a religious anchor, they wither and die.

Jewish socialism is no more. Yiddishism has disappeared. Jewish humanism exists on the margins. And secular Zionism has failed as well…in the task of offering a meaningful Jewish existence to its Jewish citizens.

Yoffie is not completely wrong when he points out that some forms of Jewish secularism have vanished. So have some forms of Jewish religion. In fact, taking a look at the numbers, I’d wager that Reform and Conservative Judaism may join them some day.

Yiddishism or Jewish socialism hardly serve as helpful paradigms for the current discussion. Yiddishism died off because the largest group of Yiddish speaking Jews in the world was slaughtered and the other large group, immigrant American Jews, reared English-speaking children. Jewish socialism died because socialism failed. As for secular Zionism, I believe that there are several million secular Israelis who might take issue with Yoffie’s fitness to serve as judge of what is “meaningful” about their “Jewish existence.”

Yoffie’s tirade arises from fear. He wrongly sees the rejection of religion that is emerging organically within the Jewish people as a threat to the survival of the Jews. Though later in his article he downplays these trends by pointing out that “[f]ully 78 percent see themselves as Jewish by religion,” he conveniently fails to mention that this number drops precipitously for younger Jews. Like so many of their fellow Millennials, they have abandoned religious faith.

Movements like Humanistic Judaism, that have done outstanding work with minuscule budgets, are now seeking a little more financial investment in order to reach out to these people on their terms.  Yet while Yoffie and the Jewish religious establishments have enjoyed tens of billions of dollars in support, he arrogantly urges the Jewish community to resist the urge to invest in us:

The Jewish community must be wise enough to know that those who vociferously exclude the religious dimension of Judaism are offering a recipe for disaster. If our current institutions, including the synagogue, are not doing a good job of conveying Judaism’s religious message — and apparently they are not — then they must do better. But a one-dimensional, godless Judaism has never been the answer, and it will not be the answer now.

Let me make one thing very clear. Even I, an atheist Jew with no belief whatsoever in a supernatural realm or any such nonsense, do not “vociferously exclude the religious dimension of Judaism.” Humanists are realists. We absolutely acknowledge the various religious dimensions of Judaism.

What we vociferously exclude is the necessity of a theistic religious dimension. We simply do not believe in that. Our reason does not accept such a belief system. And what we have noticed – as anyone with eyes has noticed – is that an increasingly large number of people, including loads of Jews, agrees with us.

Moreover, while we have eliminated the supernatural religious dimensions of our Judaism, we have adapted a certain kind of religious dimension on our terms. Part of the reason that other cultural forms of Judaism struggled or disappeared is that they did not address the needs of Jews to celebrate or mourn in community. By offering all of the life cycle and holiday celebrations or observances, Humanistic Judaism does not replicate that mistake.

In his ignorance Yoffie characterizes our approach as “one-dimensional, godless” Judaism. He clearly understands nothing about what we do or believe. Maybe next time he could read an article about Humanistic Judaism or pick up the phone to ask one of us about it before he pontificates.

Yoffie also thinks that the rise of non-religious Jews (who maintain their Jewish identity) is a result of the failure of established institutions. This is actually hilarious when you consider that he spent sixteen years as head of the largest American Jewish denomination.

Personally, I would like to ask Rabbi Yoffie why he thinks that conventional synagogues “are not doing a good job of conveying Judaism’s religious message.” I would argue that they do a very good job of communicating their message to those who agree with them. Can’t this be enough for him? Is his religious worldview so impenetrable that it resists the possibility that some people just don’t share it? Or that in spite of their different beliefs, many of those people still consider themselves proudly Jewish?

Those of us who reject traditional or liberal forms of Jewish theistic religion do so for one simple reason. We disagree with them. We’re not confused by their inability to articulate their religious faith. We’re just not into it.

If Yoffie thinks that changing the message delivery system is going to change our minds, then he is the one who is deluded. Humanism is growing because, for millions of people, it makes more sense than any kind of theism, even the most moderate types.

And, for what it’s worth, theism is not the only thing that turns us off. We also reject tradition’s essentially dishonest approach to Jewish history:

Judaism’s foundational religious event is the revelation at Sinai, and while there are a variety of ways in which that event might be understood, the message of Sinai is that Judaism is more than individual religious belief; it is also the faith of a people with its own distinctive culture and history. …[W]e know from our experience in the modern era that the religious and peoplehood strands of Judaism are inextricably intertwined; neither one, in isolation, is sufficient to maintain some reasonable level of Jewish existence. When a Jewish community selects one while rejecting the other, it inflicts grievous wounds on itself.

Once again, let me remind Yoffie of a simple fact that he knows as well as I do: NOTHING HAPPENED AT SINAI. This “foundational” event can be understood in exactly one way that is consistent with reality: IT IS A LEGEND AND IT DID NOT OCCUR.

If he wants to believe that it occurred – and to accept one of the convoluted accounts of how it “might be understood” in spite of the fact that it didn’t really happen – that is his prerogative. A growing number of Jews are not buying it. Does he want them to disappear from the Jewish community? Are they not deserving of a form of Judaism that acknowledges the plain reality that SINAI IS A MYTH?!

He concludes with this:

…an ideology of Jewish secularism in its various manifestations is not what [American Jews] want or need, no matter what their personal theologies or levels of religious observance. They know now, as they have always known, that absent Torah, mitzvot, ritual and sacred texts, there is no Judaism — and no Jewish future.

It seems to me that I’ve heard all this before. Actually, I’ve heard it thousands of times before. Usually the rabbis who urge this line of thinking are a bit more bewhiskered.

Quite often they’re talking about Yoffie.