A column about Jewish things.
Chanukah is Judaism at its least demanding and most comfortable. We light beautiful candles––two-thirds of American Jews do so at least once––and put them in windows, spin dreidels, sing songs, eat chocolate coins and potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts. Also, gifts are given, which practice has a goyishe genesis, but it’s at any rate (in the non-Orthodox Jewish world) as characteristic of the season as its analogue in a certain other holiday this time of year.
Why all this? Maccabees I relates that the Seleucid King Antiochus attempted a uniform paganization of his empire. The Israelite temple was desecrated, the study and observance of the Torah became capital crimes. Matthias was a zealous father of zealous sons, and when the king’s officers implored him to obey the king in return for honor and riches, Matthias raised his voice and said, “I and my family will not stray right or left from the laws of our fathers. Heaven forbid that we should turn from the instruction of the Lord, nullifying His covenant with us.” As he finished speaking, a Jew with deficient filial piety offered a sacrifice according to Antiochus’s wishes. Matthias killed the faithless Hebrew and the king’s officer—“Thus was he zealous for the instruction of the Lord”—and retreated with the righteous remnant of Israel into the hills. They were molested by the king’s soldiers and were offered generous terms of surrender: Obey Antiochus and live. They risked joining God in death rather than leaving him in life. After months of guerrilla resistance, Matthias’s son Judah gathered his men for a great battle, prayed, and recaptured Jerusalem. Judah rededicated the Temple and proclaimed a festival, and all Israel rejoiced.
The Maccabees not only defeated a homogenizing empire, but also discredited their brethren hoping to accede to the peaceful suicide offered by Antiochus. When the Maccabees returned to the Temple, they found enough oil to light the menorah, the Temple’s candelabra, for only one night. But the oil lasted eight days. The relit menorah kindled a bonfire of Israel’s vanities, during which the Maccabees’ idolatrous countrymen were forcibly reconverted or executed.
If my back-of-the-envelope sociology is correct, two groups of American Jews celebrate Chanukah for almost entirely different reasons. Orthodox Jews mostly know the full story of Chanukah just rehearsed. They’re under no illusions about its radically anti-assimilationist character. They find joy in Chanukah in large part because of what a revered teacher of mine calls Chanukah’s religious maximalism. The passionate members of any community are rarely most worried about enemies, who pay the community the dubious compliment of hating it. They’re most worried about (heartbroken by, frustrated with) the half-in/half-out, who nominally identify with the community and even live according to some of its precepts. Precisely because these participate incompletely, they put a kosher stamp on foreign practices.
Many non-Orthodox American Jews, in my experience, mostly find joy in Chanukah because the Jews defeated a mighty oppressor. Victimhood is a prized status. Chanukah is a weeklong reprieve from the awkwardness of humanity’s oldest national victim occupying the West Bank while running the world’s most advanced military. Like Passover—the other most celebrated Jewish holiday in America—Chanukah is about the weak winning freedom and justice from the strong. The liberal Jewish love for Chanukah is consistent with the animating principle of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world. Jews in America have always been zealously concerned for the downtrodden at home and abroad.
But this special Jewish burning for justice will die out if decoupled from Jewish particularism. There is a bitter irony in American Chanukah, with presents imported from Christmas given to commemorate the ancient Jewish soul’s purification from gentile practices. Many non-Orthodox Jews in America live everyday life in imitation of the Irish and the Italians and the Polish and the Germans in America: white, middle-class, politically unexceptional, with a heritage preserved only by anglicized surnames. This voluntary decline is Jewry’s greatest shame. In fifty years—a single lifetime and change after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the founding of Israel—the American bourgeoisie will have absorbed most of liberal American Jewry, deleting the very trait that has made Jews such fierce and outstanding liberals.
That is, unless we Orthodox choose to leave our comfortable insularity, and persuade our brothers and sisters all over the country that the Lord has not forgotten about them, and still hopes for great things from all of us. Or unless anti-Semitism exiles Jews from the right universities, firms, banks, clubs, schools, and neighborhoods—and the answer to “Why do we remain Jews?” suddenly becomes, “because we have no choice.”
Or unless a child sees the candles of these eight bright nights illumine a window overlooking some languid suburban street, and hears the story of the brave men and women who despised the opulence, the honors, the sensuality, the comfortable indecisiveness of a world of many gods in favor of their Father in Heaven—and decides to become a new (albeit very different) Judah the Maccabee.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.
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