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!