Hanukkah 5776 – 2015
We speak of many miracles in association with Hanukkah. We celebrate the miracle of a military victory of a small cadre of guerilla fighters over the mighty army of the great Selucid Empire. We speak of it as the victory of the few over the many, the pure over the impure, and of those faithful to Torah over the arrogant who tried to suppress its observance. Louis Brandeis said, “Hanukkah represents the victory of the spirit over things material”. He added that “the Maccabee’s victory proved that the Jews – then already an old people – possessed the secret of youth: the ability to rejuvenate itself through courage, hope enthusiasm, devotion and self-sacrifice of the plain people.”
That has been a big part of the miracle of our perseverance through history when we should have disappeared long ago from the annals of nations. The real challenge during the time of Antiochus came not from his oppressive decrees, but from the legions of Jews who eagerly walked down the path of Hellenization, forsaking their heritage of Torah for a bit of status in Hellenistic society. The real battle did not end with the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Selucid Greeks. Two and three generations after the Judeans drove out their oppressors, Hellenization continued to grow as an erosive force. Some Jews Hellenized at the expense of their Jewish life, while other Jews learned to adopt aspects of Hellenism without forsaking their essential Jewish lives. An entire culture of Hellenistic Judaism developed in the Greek-speaking world, with its cultural center in Alexandria, Egypt. Hellenistic Judaism, however, did not survive. It burned bright for a short while and then its flame guttered. The Judaism that survived was the Judaism of the Rabbis, who managed to acquire much of the philosophical and societal strengths of Greek culture, without giving up their immersion in Torah and the persistent daily practice of its precepts.
I imagine that the development of our North American Jewish subculture parallels in many ways the development of Hellenistic Judaism. We too want to dive headlong into the conglomerate surrounding culture. Like the Hellenists, we too often do so at the expense of our Jewish spiritual lives. Will a materially encumbered North American Judaism disappear from the stage of history like Hellenistic Judaism before it? That will depend on whether we, like the Rabbis of old, can learn to selectively adopt that which enriches us from the general culture, while still living spiritually as Jews. It remains for us liberal Jews – not just the Orthodox – to claim a place as North American Jews in history. That future remains for us to choose or abandon.
Those who do not make any efforts to observe mitzvot or be part of a Jewish community may still think of themselves as Jewish. If in their everyday lives, however, they do not practice any mitzvot, do not study any Torah, do not open their hearts to the Eternal One in prayer or meditation, then the next generation will no longer value even that tenuous Jewish identity. It would be very unlikely that their children and grandchildren would remain Jews living Jewish values. The Judaism that survives will be that of those who can be Canadians or Americans, without giving up the daily study of Torah, a daily routine of prayer and a daily practice of mitzvot. The Jews whose grandchildren will be Jewish will be those who do not have to fear the material because they temper how it affects their lives by grounding themselves in the spiritual.
Some see the real miracle of Hanukkah in the faith of those who lit the oil from that single cruse, though they knew that it would not suffice. The miracle of our generation will be from those fully Canadianized or Americanized Jews who know little of Torah but who struggle against all odds to rekindle the spark of God and the lamp of Torah. Be a Hanukkah miracle! Use this Hanukkah to rededicate yourself to living your life as a Jew. Base your business and personal decisions on the ethical values of Torah. Be an active part of the Jewish community. Study Torah each day and look for ways to live the values you learn. Your great-grandchildren will bless you for it.