ON BECOMING SPIRITUAL ADULTS
A Hanukkah Meditation
James Ishmael Ford
29 December 2019
(A Sermon based Upon Several Earlier Efforts)
Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church
Canoga Park, California
A candle is a small thing.
But one candle can light another.
And see how its own light increases,
as a candle gives its flame to the other.
You are such a light.
Moshe Davis & Victor Ratner
Once upon a time a friend who is psychic told me how I’d been a rabbi in a fairly recent past life. I liked that. A lot. Although the sad truth is, I’m goy to the bone. I still blush as I recall a school tour of a synagogue when I was nine or ten, when I asked the rabbi, as I didn’t see one anywhere else, if the arrangement of the ceiling lights was their cross?
This doesn’t mean Judaism wasn’t part of my forming consciousness. My maternal grandmother’s fundamentalist Christian theology, which meant our family’s theology included the belief that Jews are in fact God’s chosen people. This was an ideology that had two consequences for us.
The first was how important it was to convert the Jewish community. You know, get them back on the right side. Grandma was often in correspondence with various Messianic Jewish organizations, writing checks out of her very meager savings. And, second was how nice she thought it would be if we were somehow Jewish, ourselves.
Grandma put a lot of hope in her own maternal grandmother who had, she thought, a Jewish sounding name. Genetic testing that Jan and I gave each other a couple of years ago as Christmas gifts, suggests this hope is rather unlikely. Nonetheless, as I said, I liked it when my friend pronounced how I had once been a rabbi in some past life. Didn’t even matter that I don’t put much store in psychic pronouncements of any sort.
My spiritual pilgrimage began in my adolescence sparked by my serious doubts about the existence of the deity described in church, and a profound desire to know what was true. Over the years that have passed I’ve traveled a very long ways from fundamentalist Christianity and its concerns.
Still, as I’ve walked my way, and life’s journey twisted and turned and I ended up a Zen Buddhist as well as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I still found it a treat that in general it is our UU custom is to pay attention to some Jewish holidays. Honoring as we do this, our deep ancestral root. In fact, some have suggested if there are Jews for Jesus, Unitarian Universalist’s could be Christians for Moses. Well, but for the fact that these days only about twenty percent of UUs are particularly comfortable being identified as Christian.
However, nonetheless, there is that root. And there is little doubt whatever our current spiritual stance is broad. Perhaps even dangerously broad. Many, like with Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, find it hard to see the there there. Although this astonishing broadness is something in which I delight, and truthfully which allows someone like me a place in this community. Nonetheless Unitarian Universalism has several roots, including a taproot. And while I would argue the rich soil that nourishes our tradition is ancient paganism particularly as expressed in the Greek philosophical tradition, still, I have no doubt the larger part of that root is found within Judaism.
And so, I believe, it is more than helpful that we take time from time to time to look at the traditions of Judaism. Particularly the holidays. And to consider what they may say to us as contemporary religious liberals. It is a conversation with our ancestors. And you never know what can come out of such shamanic endeavors.
To be honest it can be dangerous for all who do such things. Digging into heart matters reveals much. It discovers, and then, opens doors. Doors that we are sometimes unprepared for. But with care and respect I believe there are lessons to be gleaned. And those lessons can be well worth the dangers.
Perhaps you’ve heard how someone goes to the rabbi and asks, “When is Hanukkah this year?” And she replies, “Just like every year, silly. It starts on 25h of Kislev.” For the rest of the goys out there, that’s a Jewish joke, friends. The Jewish calendar is a modified lunar calendar. If it weren’t modified, it’d be like the Muslim lunar calendar where there’s an annual drift of eleven or twelve days, and so major festivals gradually wind around the whole year.
In the Jewish calendar, there’s a bit of a float, but with little tweaks here and there which allows things to stay more or less in the same general seasonal area. And, of course, the dates are constant within that calendar. Hence, as much as I hate to explain a joke, that question, and the rabbi’s response. In our Gregorian calendar, of course, what some call the universal secular calendar, this year Hanukkah runs through the last days of December, from the 22nd to the 30th. So, this year Hanukkah ends at sundown, tomorrow.
And, with that, why Hanukkah? What’s the point to the eight days? As most of us know Hanukkah is an extremely minor holiday in the traditional Jewish calendar. It has certainly only grown here in North America because of its rough proximity to Christmas. It’s become a way for the Jewish community to celebrate the season dominated by our culture’s Christian hegemony.
Of course, that’s not the end of the matter. After that small irony of dealing with the season and its utility in standing out against Christmas, the ironies begin to pile upon each other. Especially for us, here. After all the story is, among other things, about a war between assimilationists and traditionalists. That is between religious liberals and conservatives. Actually it’s not putting too fine a point on this to say a war between liberals and fundamentalists.
Not what one would think of as a ready theme for Unitarian Universalists and our magpie religious tradition, assimilating many themes and traditions into our ever-evolving and dynamic faith. So, here’s the gateway into my point for today.
The ironies within this holiday are almost endless. For instance, many, most scholars suggest Hanukkah is in fact itself rooted in ancient pagan festivals celebrating light at the darkest time of the year. In that sense its roots are as pagan as are the roots of the Christmas holiday.
And then to compound the ironies its history of a fundamentalist victory over liberalism was first recorded by the Greek-speaking, think assimilationist, liberal Jewish community. And then preserved as part of their Holy Scripture by the early Christian community, think not their friends.
The early rabbis were wary of the Maccabees and their holiday for several reasons. But two principally. First the Maccabeean call to arms was a pyrrhic victory. Much ill would follow this revolt and its brief success. But also, the Maccabeean blending of priestly and kingly power during the brief Hasmonean dynasty whose founding is the celebration of Hanukkah, had more than a shade of resemblance to various Middle Eastern theocracies of recent history. Iran and Afghanistan come to mind. All of this should be deeply troubling if one thinks about it.
And the rabbis did think about it. And, it did trouble them. The rabbinic commentators choose to focus their attention, as limited as it actually was, remember “minor holiday.” The Reconstructionst rabbi Arthur Waskow observes, “To the rabbis, it was crucial both to call for courage and hope, and to do so in a sphere other than military resistance, which they… viewed (through the tragic lens of historic hindsight) as hopeless and dangerous and self-destructive.” A point, perhaps, for all of us to recall.
Waskow continues, “…(T)he story the rabbis told about the Light was the story of the rabbis themselves – absorbing that the Maccabees’ military victory had saved the nation, but that getting stuck there would be self-destructive. They needed to bring the Higher Consciousness of courage for Enlightenment into the people’s arsenal of spiritual ‘weaponry.’”
Higher consciousness. What should higher consciousness mean for us? Personally, I’m more inclined to the simpler word wisdom. And, I’m taken by that seeking of wisdom, which very much is in the story as the rabbis tell it. With that Hanukkah is all about our deeper calling. It becomes a calling toward our true freedom. It becomes a call into to a way of genuine wisdom. Reshaped in this way it is our heart story. It is about how we can find the light, how we can find our depth, our possibility. It opens the way of the wise heart.
And the wise heart must juggle contradictory information. Always.
The scholar and author Rachel Adelman cites columnist David Brooks’ December 10th, 2009 op-ed in the New York Times. Thee Brooks describes Hanukkah as “’the most adult of holidays. It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today.’ For Brooks, the story of Hanukkah is a ‘self-congratulatory morality tale,’ commemorating a Civil War, a war in which he may have fought on the side of the Hellenizers.’”
And, there are deeper currents yet. Adelman then cites the great Jewish scholar Theodore Herzl Gaster, who “suggests that the Hanukkah story is essentially about the inalienable right to be different. The festival teaches the value of ‘the few against the many, of the weak against the strong, of passion against indifference, of the single unpopular voice against the thunder of public opinion. The struggle was not only against oppression from without but equally against corruption and complacency within. It was a struggle fought in the wilderness and in the hills; and its symbol is appropriately a small light kindled when the shadows fall.”
Both, and. If we want to be spiritual adults, if we want wisdom, we’re going to have to take our history and our myth all mixed up. Which is fine, as long as we’re respectful, careful, and engaging in all of it to a purpose.
The purpose for us is that we find the light, that one miraculous light that lasts well past any possible reasonable effort. It is the path of passion, and heart. And this is our task, as it has been the task of every soul over the many generations. To take what is given, to look deeply into the matter at hand, and to allow our very selves to be transformed. And in that transforming to become spiritual adults. To become people who can take on the work that needs to be done.
There is little doubt today that our liberal religious tradition is the minority position. We are the weak in this struggle for hearts and minds. Right now ours is the unpopular voice that is nearly lost in the thunder of public opinion. And the call for us is to a struggle. It is a struggle not only against every oppression from beyond those walls, but to fiercely resist corruption of this spirit, losing to our own complacency. That is the small light we are called to notice today, the light burning in our hearts, the light that shows the way.
I suggest this story and our working with it calls us, you and me, to resist the dying of the light. To shine forth beyond all reasonable expectations. To become, each and every one of us by our example, by our willingness to not turn away, by our challenging all authority, particularly that voice in the back of our heads that says turn away.
Each of us needs to be that small candle in the great wind. And in doing so become the miracle.
And how do we do this? Question authority, of course. Particularly our own. Looking deeply, not just to do something, but to find ourselves, and our place in the family of things. We do this and the flame we are will leap from our hearts to others.
And with that there becomes a chance for this poor, dying world.
The onetime Buddhist monk and spiritual writer Clark Strand shifts the image of that flame just a little bit, perhaps in a way that can help. He notices how we can also use as our image how the world itself is on fire, consumed in a conflagration of grasping and hatred and endless certainties. And to which we can bring a different flame, that spiritual possibility, that small light.
As Clark sings to us.
To this burning house
Of a world, I add one log
And a little light.
May this turning of the heart, of our becoming the flame of possibility become the Hanukkah flame. May it burn, and burn, transforming our own hearts, and showing this beautiful suffering world a way through.
That’s our challenge. That’s our possibility.