Our December Dilemmas Started "In Days Long Ago"

    As we move into December, our winter holidays and stories come to mind, this year even earlier than most as Chanukah begins on the night of December 1.
    Our ideas about our identities - Jewish, American, human - connect deeply with our historical relationship with Chanukah. The story of Chanukah raised questions for our ancestors in ways that our own families’ stories of figuring out Chanukah and that other big American December holiday raise interesting questions for us today.
    The earliest rabbis found the Maccabees’ story of revolt and triumph over foreign invaders - the Hellenized Assyrians - very problematic. Here’s a short list of the questions that the rabbis may have raised about that whole episode in Jewish history:

  • The Maccabees fight against the Assyrians was also a fight against the Jewish establishment that had brought the Assyrians into Israel - in addition to the repelling of invaders there was also a civil war component between the hard-line religious people, the Maccabees, and the more urban assimilated Israelites.
  • The rabbis of the Second Century CE experienced a terrible backlash against the Jews under the Romans following a failed military uprising, so that generation of rabbis and those that followed had problems with the celebration and support of armed resistance.
  • The Maccabees established the Hasmonean Dynasty and created the first Israelite structure that combined both the powers of the monarchy and the priesthood, abolishing one of the essential balances of power within historic Israelite kingdoms and leading to significant corruption.
  • The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually did that which it was founded to combat - namely invite in a foreign power to foster greater security, eventually leading to the Roman domination of the whole region.

    Some of our own opportunities as Jews today parallel those of the Maccabees and the rabbis who saw problems with their history afterwards:

  • Creating a thriving, open Judaism that relates to and stands up to the other cultures around us;
  • Bringing meaningful discussions to our families that include all of our families’ diverse cultures;
  • And still feeling like we maintain and authentic link to the Judaism of our ancestors.

    So what do we do?
    We aim to create a customized, unique, working, interesting and fun Judaism for each of us and our families and our community. Celebrate the great things about Judaism - at this time of year that means making Chanukah much more significant, or at least much more fun, that it has been traditionally. Parties, singing, telling of the story, gift giving, celebrating with each other and sharing that celebration with our non-Jewish family members, friends and neighbors - all of these foster a sense of the inherent value of our Judaism, and its worth as something to do with our time that competes well with the alternatives out there.
    When we make Judaism ours, finding ways for each of us and our families to make use of our traditions in vibrant ways, that Judaism sustains us and contributes to our lives in new and amazing ways.
    I am available to help everyone try and figure out how to do this in ways that fit our lives - don’t hesitate to contact me with questions.
    A happy winter festival season to us all!

The Importance of a Non-Jewish Spouse - Moses and Tzipporah

Early in the Book of Exodus, Moses encounters the divine at the burning bush. In that exchange, God identifies the divine self to Moses four times as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – an elaborate use of repetition in a text known for being terse.

The first of these claims of divine identity to Moses is different from the other three – it says “God of your father”, singular, instead of “God of your fathers”, plural. Our sages throughout the ages come up with many explanations for this.

Nachmanides, a 14th century scholar from Spain, points to the idea that Moses plays a role most similar to that of Abraham, so that the first part of this central revelation to Moses emphasizes that connection. The connection that Nachmanides focuses on identifies the similarities as that of two prophets confronting populations with different perspectives on the divine. Abraham goes forth as the first to be in relationship with the divine as the leader of a people, and Moses must accomplish something similar in bringing the Hebrews back into relationship with a divinity that has been absent from their lives for some time.

I would highlight a different aspect of the parallels between Abraham and Moses – namely their relationship to circumcision, the distinguishing mark of the Hebrew male. Abraham heeds the divine command to circumcise himself and his household’s males in his 90’s, not an easy thing to do at even half that age. Moses’ circumcision goes unmentioned, but we read a hint of it around an incident with Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, which leaves us with the possible reading that Tzipporah may have in fact done Moses’ circumcision herself, his age being around 80 at the time.

This leads to the possibility that God said, “I am the God of your father”, singular, followed, but “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob”, to emphasize that like Abraham, Moses needed to circumcise himself. Moses never got around to it though, (we may understand why he hesitated), and it was Tzipporah instead who upheld this tradition for Moses and their sons.

This provides us with a beautiful understanding of the historical importance of the non-Jewish spouse in Jewish families. Often the most central of ideas of Jewish identity can slip the mind of the one thought most responsible for them. Then the partner who has learned about Judaism as an adult, making it their own out of a desire for the richness of Jewish heritage, might step in and remind us of something central that we forgot.

As a rabbi married to someone who became Jewish, I often find that Ginny will remember regular Jewish observances for our family far better than I do. Even more than that, Ginny will more likely safeguard the Jewish identity of our family than I will.