This site is dedicated to the memory of Deb Tambor, a young mother who was rejected by her family and community for the ‘sin’ of following her own path and exercising her right to religious freedom.
The Maccabees make complicated heroes. Yes, they stood up for being Jewish against forced assimilation to Greek culture. And yes, they achieved Jewish independence for a hundred years, a model for Jewish self-defense and dignity that resonates even today. At the same time, they were religious fanatics, the haredim of their day: the first person killed in the revolt was a Jew participating in Greek religion, and the Maccabee kingdom made the nations they conquered convert to Judaism (including circumcision!). We who enjoy to modern, secular culture, we who like a clean shave and “immodest” clothing, we have more in common with Hellenized Jews the Maccabees hated than with the Maccabees themselves.
Hanukkah is a complicated holiday. The miracle of the lights story first appears in the Babylonian Talmud, but it is NOT in the histories of Josephus or First or Second Maccabees, which were written much closer in time to the Maccabean revolt. In fact, the Books of Maccabees give alternative reasons why the holiday is 8 days long: a Temple dedication like Solomon’s in I Kings, or Sukkot out of season. There may even be an earlier lighting holiday connected to the winter solstice, a common human experience not unique to the Jews, buried behind it all. Most complicated of all, for people who have become less religious, and who may have family they no longer connect with, a season of celebration and joy can bring loneliness and sadness instead.
What can we do with this history and this holiday? There are many human reasons to celebrate light fighting darkness that also apply to those on their own derech: the light of knowledge fighting superstition, the light of inspiration helping us move forward, the light given by human discovery to improve the world. Even though the Maccabees and today’s traditionalists try to impose their Judaism on others, the fact that Jews are still arguing about ways to be Jewish makes us part of a deeply rooted tradition. And, even without miracles or mitzvot, many of us value Jewish survival, Jewish distinctiveness, and the richness of unique Jewish expressions of the unique Jewish experience, our family’s subset of the human experience.
The most important symbolism Hanukkah can provide to those “off the derech,” on their own derech, is the role they can play. When the shamash is used to light other candles, it keeps burning just as brightly, and together even more light shines. We can be the shamash to others, to our community, to people in need, even to ourselves through difficult times. The secular Israeli Hanukkah song “Anu Nos’im Lapidim – We are Carrying Torches,” puts it very well in its last stanza:
Ness lo karah lanu –
Pach shemen lo matzanu.
Basela chatzavnu ad dam –
No miracle befell us –
No cruse of oil found by us.
We quarried rock until we bled –
And then there was light!
Rabbi Chalom was ordained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in 2001, and received his PhD in Near Eastern Studies – Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies concentration from the University of Michigan. In addition to his work with the Institute, Rabbi Chalom is the rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago, Illinois. Contact Rabbi Chalom at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-602-4500or read his blog on http://hjrabbi.wordpress.com.
by Peter Walters
Remember Chanukah – dreidels, chocolate coins, latkes, lamp-lighting, all that stuff? Great wasn’t it? One of the really great things about Chanukah is that it’s almost as good as Christmas, but without the whole goy-guilt.
Remember how it was put: the time when the few defeated the many; the small beat the great; a handful of yeshivah bochurim and Kohanim defeated the whole Greek army. The nasty goyim tried to stamp out our religion and desecrated our Temple; but God performed a miracle for us and provided oil for the menorah – so now we light the Chanukiah for eight nights to publicize the miracle. Chanukah doesn’t have any fasting, like Yom Kippur, or any crazy cleaning like Pesach, and we don’t even have to build a shack to live in. All in all, Chanukah is a very feel-good festival. It even helps us feel better about Christmas.
However, there is another side to Chanukah. The Rabbis of the Talmud were more diffident than is their norm when describing Chanukah, and with good reason. Jews are very attached to their status as a victimized minority, so winning battles (at least since the time of Yehoshua) hasn’t sat very easily with our self-image. And I’m sorry to say, it gets much worse.
We are given to understand that Chanukah is a war of liberation against the Greek-Syrian forces under King Antiochus Epiphanes. But, sadly, it really wasn’t. It was a civil war, with Jew fighting against Jew, until King Antiochus intervened on one side. The first person killed by our hero Mattityahu, was a Jew. It was not only a political struggle, it was preeminently a cultural and religious struggle between Jews who saw themselves as part of the wider Mediterranean world of Greek culture, of religious tolerance, of secular education and science; against religious extremists who wanted to keep Judaism and Jewish culture exclusive, narrow, intolerant and ignorant of the wider world. The Maccabees were the Islamic State of their day, killing any Jew whom they suspected of deviating from their own version of fundamentalist Judaism.
Rather than possessing an irrational hatred of God-given Jewish religious practices, Antiochus was, as was normal at the time, very tolerant of all the many religions in his kingdom. And the leader of the Hellenising party in Israel was none other than the Kohen Gadol (high priest) – who rejoiced in the Greek name of Jason. He presided over the opening of a Greek-style gymnasium in Jerusalem, and many of the Kohanim enjoyed wrestling and bathing after a hard day’s korbanot (sacrifices).
The Jewish diaspora was very numerous even then, and, although still religious, was overwhelmingly Greek in culture. Jews were doing very well for themselves as part of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world, thank you, and they were happy to leave being meshuggeh frum to the peasants back in the middle of nowhere.
Well, it couldn’t last, could it? The traditionalists tried to take over and oust the Kohen Gadol, putting one of their own choosing in place. King Antiochus, hitherto happy to let the Jews get on with things themselves, had to intervene to prevent what had become a civil war from getting even more out of hand. And we all know the rest: eventually the fundamentalists won and set up their own priesthood and government, outlawing Greek-style practices.
Think for a moment what it’s like for the fundamentalists to win. Think of Iran when the Islamic revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Think of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Think what it would be like if Islamic State won. That’s what happened to Israel as a result of Chanukah.
Of course it backfired. The fundamentalists invited the Romans in to help them, which was rather like inviting a wolf to guard your sheep. Then they took over Edom and forcibly converted its population to Judaism; which came back to haunt them because King Herod was an Idumean descended from such converts. After another battle a few years later with the Syrian Greeks, there was another civil war, this time between the Maccabees and the Pharisees. Finally the Romans, again on the pretext of coming in to help, took over Israel and ended any real independence.
Very interesting, but so much for history – what does all this mean for us?
At Chanukah we celebrate the victory of the fanatics, the fundamentalists and the extremists over the forces of education, internationalism and tolerance. Rather than being a festival of light, it is about extinguishing light in favor of darkness. For those of us who have left the Charedi world with its own intolerant fundamentalism, and have boldly stepped into the world of secular learning, scientific thinking, respect for others and tolerance of others’ views, Chanukah is no celebration. It is a disaster. Make no mistake: if Mattityahu and Yehuda the Maccabee were here now, we would be the first up against the wall.
Think of that when you are munching your latkes.
Several years have past since I wrote about anger during the early part of my journey. These days I am in a good place emotionally, and I have two miracle children, born thanks to advanced medical technology. I don’t hold grudges, but who would I be angry at anyway? I no longer believe God is responsible for individual suffering. It is up to human beings to make the world a better place. On my own derech, I have learned profound lessons that I never imagined possible without religious guidance. One is that there is no such thing as perfect. I have learned to forgive fallible people for an imperfect religion.
While I don’t have expectations beyond what is humanly possible, I also don’t feel limited: I see that humans have an amazing capacity to grow and change. My still frum family has grown in acceptance of our differences. And I am proud of my own growing strength in facing new challenges, such as advocating for my special needs child or fighting for social justice. Today, I am filled with hope and determination.
Searching for a way to bring light and meaning to the upcoming Jewish holiday?
Here’s a great resource from the Society for Humanistic Judaism:
As Baal Teshuvas, we had done everything right, even choosing to make aliyah so we could guarantee our kids a Jewish education. That dream dashed after a year completely opposite of what we’d expected, we came back home to a bad economy and dwindling savings, a good chunk of which went to a year of yeshiva tuition for our older kids. It was that year back in the US that I began seriously questioning everything. I couldn’t understand how people could do everything right, and still have to suffer. There was no logical god-centric reason why our little family, unable to get decent paying work in our professional fields, was facing the possibility of losing our home. Yes, we had the requisite college and graduate school degrees, the training, the experience, and the exemplary resumes. But God wasn’t with us. When we finally admitted that we might need some temporary financial assistance to hold us over until we had steady work, my faith was already waning. It was with a mix of shame and anger that I called social services in order to find out how to proceed. How could we have done everything right and still be forced into poverty? My rabbi told us that we can’t always understand the ways of God. But that wasn’t good enough for me. If there was a God, I thought as I prepared yet another tight budget meal of pasta and sauce for our family of six, he was horrible and ineffective, and he had no place in my life. I was done.
I had never been angry enough at God to go against what I thought were his wise teachings. But after my second miscarriage in three years of trying to start a family, I was not simply depressed like the first time. This wasn’t just a random fluke, not only was conceiving a struggle (we had gone through several cycles of clomid before conceiving the first time), this time, when a miracle had happened we thought, and we somehow had conceived on our own without any of the drugs, this time, God had failed. I can’t remember exactly what procedure/test we were doing, but we were again staying overnight at a hotel close to the fertility clinic so I could walk back and forth on shabbat (fertility treatments require precise timing, for there to be a chance for it to work). Shabbos morning we woke up to the rain, and as we trudged through the wet cold streets, I started to explain to my husband, that I couldn’t take it anymore, I didn’t deserve this, I had tried my best with every halakhah that I thought was important, even though I didn’t follow chumrahs, I didn’t believe that God nitpicked and condemned for little things. God was supposed to be merciful, kind, but he wasn’t. When we finally arrived exhausted at the clinic, instead of going right up to the receptionist and explaining that I couldn’t write on shabbat, I took the pen and wrote down my name to check in. I didn’t want to explain anything. Afterwards, my husband (who had never been orthodox, but followed the rules at home for me) offered to go back to the hotel by himself and get the car. It wasn’t yet motze shabbos, but I let him check us out of the hotel, and before dark we were driving back home. I had had enough.
At first I had trouble thinking up any sort of resentment I have developed on this journey. In my case, my progression towards my own derech has in no way been caused by anyone in the frum community who may have wronged me, and so generally don’t carry any resentment towards my frum family, rabbanim, etc . After giving it some thought, however, if I do, in fact, feel any resentment , it is towards those back home who would look at or treat me differently, or even cut ties with me altogether, if they knew that I was no longer frum. I realize that “if they don’t accept the real you, then they never were really your friends,” but my hometown is my hometown, and I should be able to go back there and be my true self without having to feel like people are looking at me differently. Life is easy since I live far away from my hometown, and so I really do not think about this issue very often at all. But on those occasions when I do, the resentment just motivates me to do whatever I can to create a more tolerant world, where, as long as they’re not harming anyone, people can be truly accepted for being themselves.
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