Taking Chanukah Too Seriously

Taking Chanukah Too Seriously December 6, 2010

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, chieftain of the Reform movement, has gotten himself in quite the tizzy over Howard Jacobson’s innocuous Chanukah article last week in The New York Times.  First let’s look at some of what Jacobson wrote:

Everyone knows the bare bones of the story. At Hanukkah we celebrate the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, who defeated the might of the Syrian-Greek army in 165 B.C., recapturing the desecrated Temple and reconsecrating it with oil that ought to have run out in a day but lasted eight. Indeed, Hanukkah means “consecration,” and when we light those candles we are remembering the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

But how many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? I’m not asking for contemporary relevance. History is history: whatever happens to a people is important to them. But Hanukkah — at least the way it’s told — struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts.

…Isn’t there something a touch suspicious, for example, about our defeating the Syrian-Greek army? …Trouncing the Syrian-Greeks sounds worryingly like wish fulfillment, and the story of the oil that should have run out after one day actually lasting eight feels too much like parable.

The story doesn’t ring true because it isn’t true.  The reality of the story is hidden from us because it would be even less effective, if that’s possible, in touching our hearts.

I’ve told the true story of the Maccabean revolt on this blog and it’s readily available all over the internet and in hundreds of books.  There was no wholesale trouncing of the Syrian-Greek army and no oil miracle, either.

It was a civil war between two complex and competing Jewish world views.  The winners were the more religiously zealous and non-compromising, not exactly great role models for modern Jews.

So along comes Rabbi Yoffie to the rescue of Chanukah on Huffpost:

On Wednesday morning, as the Jews of America prepared for the beginning of the holiday that evening, the New York Times published on its op-ed page a rant against Hanukkah written by Howard Jacobson. Jacobson, the English author, attacked Hanukkah as shallow, imitative, inauthentic, primitive and lacking a compelling religious message.  As the article was read and shared throughout the blogosphere, Jews reacted with puzzlement, dismay and not a little anger.

…The Hanukkah narrative, like all holiday narratives, is part myth and part history. Its central theme is the dedication of the Jews to God and their commitment to rebuilding and consecrating God’s Temple. The Hanukkah miracle suggests a clear and comforting message: In times of distress, God comes to our aid. At the same time, those who prefer this-worldly values can emphasize other themes of the holiday, such as the importance of battling assimilation, affirming religious freedom and resisting oppressors.

It’s actually Yoffie’s take on Chanukah that puzzles, dismays and angers me.

First of all, as to the “clear and comforting message” of God’s aid, I call bullshit.  God comes to our aid in times of distress?  Only in storybooks.  Can someone please help these self-deluded Jewish teachers understand that the REAL history of the Jews is one in which God did nothing for us in times of distress?  Geez, the Holocaust only happened some seven decades ago and he’s already forgotten that our fictional God failed to make an appearance.

As for the “this-worldly” values of “battling assimilation” and “affirming religious freedom,” these are two completely contradictory values.  Assimilation is not such a horrible thing.  We Jews worked damn hard to assimilate into America.  It came with challenges to our continuity that are best answered by warmly welcoming newcomers and encouraging the development of a meaningful Jewish culture for the overwhelming majority of secular Jews.

“Affirming religious freedom” is the exact opposite of “battling assimilation.”  It means that we allow people to discover truth on their own.  For Jewish Humanists it means making the case for a secular Jewish identity and allowing people the real religious freedom to embrace or reject the tenets of any faith.

In any case, we all know that Chanukah is a pale reflection of the more hearty winter solstice celebration of Christmas.  It can’t really compete with that monster of all holidays so it shouldn’t even try.  If American Jews are not satisfied with the lights of the menorah, then the religious freedom that Yoffie touts allows them to participate in any or all of the secular elements of Christmas.  (I did it as a child and we all remained Jews.)  Of course, the Yoffies of the world feel the need to “battle” that kind of assimilation.  I would just smile and repeat, as always, “It’s all just human culture.”

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