Tuesday, December 23, 1997

It's Okay To Be Different!
Ancient Message of Chanukah still relevant today

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach,
Temple Beth Am,
Williamsville, New York

It is perhaps an accident of time that the eight-day festival of Chanukah and Christmas, fall so close together. They even sometimes coincide. (But only sometimes. Chanukah, based on the Hebrew calendar, not the Gregorian one, can fall as early as the end of November or as late as the beginning of January.) It is perhaps an accident. But it is, at one and the same time, both unfortunate and fortuitous that these quite different holidays come so close together.

It is unfortunate only in that many people assume that Chanukah is "the Jewish Christmas." In fact, Chanukah (the older celebration by nearly two centuries) is one of the minor holidays of the Jewish year, and has been elevated in importance only on the basis of its close proximity to a time when so many others are celebrating, and when the American economy goes into a frenzied overdrive.

It is also unfortunate since, because the two holidays fall so close together, some people simply assume that they have the same message, that of universal peace and love.

Universal peace and love, reconciliation between human beings and the divine, these are, of course, among the most important themes of human life. As such, this message is an important part of Jewish life. But it is not this holiday, or this season that celebrates these themes for Jews. In fact, the celebration of Chanukah has a very different story to tell.

Once upon a time (well, it was 165 B.C.E. to be exact), in a place far away (well, Israel -- and with airplanes you can get there quicker than you could with camels) there was a people, the Jews, who were ruled over by another people, the Seleucid Empire, the Syrian part of the remnants of what was once Alexander the Great's territory. The Syrian-Greeks wanted everyone to be the same. They were used to the fact that in every land they conquered, people began to imitate them. The conquered peoples took on the clothing of their rulers, and their customs, and their cuisine, and their culture. And their gods.

Every people they conquered emulated them. In every land their ways held sway. In every land, that is, except one. In ancient Israelites, the world's first and at that time still only monotheists, could not simply take on Greek culture completely. Because to do so meant to take on the Greek gods. And that was impossible for a monotheist to do.

While Israel was at peace, and gave the Syrian Greeks no trouble, these conquered people were perhaps a curiosity, but they were of no greater concern than that. They could be tolerated. They could be indulged. But when there was trouble in the land, when there was internal tension between those Jews who wanted to imitate the Greeks to some degree (although not to the point of taking on the pantheon of polytheism) and those who did not, when the people became difficult to rule, the limited "tolerance" of the Syrian-Greeks evaporated. Not understanding monotheism at all, not understanding why there were not willingly placed statues to the ruling gods, the Seleucids, under King Antiochus Epiphanes IV, simply banned Judaism. They made the practice of the religion illegal -- punishable by death.

The details of the Maccabean revolt are somewhat well known -- how a small band of Jewish resistance fighters, knowing the land well and (tradition says) graced by God, managed to overthrow the mighty empire, to recapture and cleanse the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, to rekindle the Eternal Light which the enemy had extinguish with the scant single sack of purified oil that remained -- only to witness the flame lasting for eight full days, until the time when new oil could be made.

The details are well known, perhaps... but it is the motive behind the details that makes the timing of Chanukah so fortuitous. For what motivated the Maccabees, the Jews who revolted against the Syrian oppression, was a fight for survival, yes. But it was not a war of conquest. It was not a war to end all large empires, or turn a minority into a majority. In the midst of an overwhelmingly gentile world, against oppressors who wanted to make everyone the same, the fight of the Maccabees was just as much about the right to be different.

The right to be different. The right to be a minority. To survive, to even thrive, as a minority, who share many but not all of the values of the surrounding culture. It was the message of Chanukah centuries ago. And, for Jews, it is the opportunity in the celebration of Chanukah to this very day.

In one sense, it is precisely because Chanukah falls so near to Christmas, that in celebrating Chanukah Jews are reminded, especially in this part of the country, of what it is like to be different. The continued celebration of the holiday as a minority thus contains the fulfillment of its own message. At this season, in days gone by, Jews fought hard for the right to be different. To celebrate this Jewish holiday still, even while wishing Christian neighbors well in their different and much more visible celebration of this season, is to remember the ancient fight, and relive its message anew.

Jews and Christians celebrate at about the same time at this season, and thus share a spirit of celebration. But we do not share the specific holidays of our tradition, and the message is not the same. But that should not be a problem. Because it is okay to be different.

Monday, December 01, 1997

The Visible Jew: The Real Hero of Chanukah

The Visible Jew:
The Real Hero of Chanukah

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed

Jewish children know the story of Chanukah by heart from an early age. They learn of Judah Maccabee as they learn about Power Rangers, they can recite the reason why we light candles for eight days far sooner than they can properly pronounce the names of the more major Jewish holidays: there was a single cruse of extra virgin olive oil (what is a 'cruse" of oil, anyway -- Royal Caribbean does the Persian Gulf?), enough to light the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light for only a single day, is lit and -- miracle! -- lasts for eight days!

The story is fine for young children. But if this is all that Jewish teens and adults know of the holiday of Chanukah, we are depriving ourselves of a more powerful message, a lesson well suited for our own era, and our own area.

For if we study the sources, if we peek into our past with an ear to history and politics, we will learn a very different message. (Copies of an article I wrote which describes this history in more detail for any who are interested are available from the office of Temple Anshe Hesed, 814-454-2426.)I believe that the lesson of history, the true miracle of Chanukah, is that the Jewish people found a way to survive -- indeed, to thrive -- as a minority in the midst of an overwhelming and very different majority culture.

The secret was to be open to the world around us, to not isolate ourselves -­ but to always, always, stand with pride and even in public ... as Jews. And I believe that it is this strategy, developed in response to the assimilationist pressures of Hellenism that is the secret of our survival through all the subsequent centuries of living as a tiny drop of still distinct oil in a vast watery ocean of others.

To keep the flame of faith and culture alive. To survive and stand proud even as a minority. How greatly does living in an area with a very small Jewish population, as do I, give us the chance to celebrate the true message of Chanukah?                            For here it is hard to forget how much of a minority we truly are.

When a local high school has a Bible Club that meets during the Activity period during school hours, we know we are a minority. When secular organizations from the PTA to the Social Workers Association open with Christian prayers, we know we are a minority. When it takes special arrangements to get kosher food, we know we are a minority. When (yes, there is a positive side) we are constantly called upon to be ambassadors of our ancient heritage , explaining its simplest practices to others with patience and pride , then, too, we know we are a minority .But at no time of the year more than now, when Christmas lessons are taught in the local schools for an entire month , when the holiday of our neighbors seems absolutely ubiquitous, when every cashier and every clerk we encounter wishes us a Merry Christmas, it is now more than ever that we feel how few we are .

It is always a judgment call: when to draw a line, and when to blend in. Part of the reason we survived was because we learned to be open, to foster friendly relations with and yes, even to learn some things from our neighbors. But it is too easy to forget the other half: that when anything loomed to detract from our identity, to confuse our children, to dilute our Judaism, we took a stand -- even an unpopular one. We stood firm, and without fear, for we knew that without this balance we would not be.

We can see the balance between accommodation and its limits even in the celebration of Chanukah itself. We give gifts now at this season. It is based on an ancient tradition, to be sure, but let’s be honest. The real reason that Chanukah has become a gift-giving holiday is because of the influence of Christmas. So we give gifts but as Jew on Chanukah. And in front of a menorah .We do not buy trees. Here is no such thing as a Chanukah Bush. Your children want nature in your home? Build a Sukkah.

There is a reason our tradition teaches us to place our menorahs in the window. (Was this in the days before flammable curtains? now it takes a paper decoration or an electric menorah to do the trick.)To stand up, to be counted , to say to the world that is celebrating one thing that we are celebrating something else ... that is the core commandment of Chanukah in our day .

The visible Jew is the true hero of Chanukah. And living where we do, we are blessed with the opportunity to know the heart of the miracle of minority survival as did our mothers and fathers, at this season, in ages past.

May your latkes give you the strength to face the winter!