I sometimes think that the hardest part of Judaism is its regimen of self-improvement. Moderate your appetites—no Chateau this-and-that, no Swiss on a reuben, no lobster. Sex is for marriage and marriage is for children. Revere your parents. These are very tall orders. But they also aren’t far from the bourgeois virtues, which is why plenty of moral atheists ask themselves: If I can live well without God, what’s the point of religion?
The question misunderstands the claim of faith. God does not only sharpen the virtues we could have discovered through natural reason alone. God claims all parts of our lives—even those parts that seem inviolably sacred all by themselves: romantic love, friendship, national loyalty but also tragedy, horror, depression.
Chanukah reminds us of God’s totalizing demands. During Chanukah, we celebrate the Maccabees’ defeat of the Seleucid empire and its Jewish converts during the Second Temple Period. The Seleucids banned Jewish practice and study and profaned the Israelite temple in a campaign to convert their subjects to paganism. Many Jews assented. But the Maccabees refused, and successfully rebelled against their Hellenist oppressors before defeating their apostate brethren in a civil war.
Civil wars are national disasters. Countrymen kill countrymen, friends kill friends, brothers kill brothers. Couldn’t the Maccabees have lived and let live, allowing each Jew to choose for himself between Sinai and Olympus? Why would God intervene and destroy, or deputize us to destroy, the few loves we have in a short life?
As the Maccabees understood, God is the source and final end of our earthly loves. God is called jealous twice in Exodus, both times in reference to the ban against idolatry. Strictly speaking, idolatry is the worship of God’s lessers: Baal, Moloch, the earth, the stars. But we adopt an idolatrous posture whenever we assign intrinsic power and meaning to things that, in truth, are powerful and meaningful only because God makes them so. So, for instance, God commands Abraham to sacrifice what he most loves––and in so doing, lets Abraham redeem his fatherhood over Isaac and a future great nation. Once Abraham proves he’ll keep nothing, not even his son, safe from God, God congratulates Abraham for his pious fear. Abraham and the Maccabees understood that God’s jealousy is not needy, like a human being’s, but generous: By inviting the Infinite into our lives, we earn the right to share in goods that, like all things, truly belong to Someone Else.
I learned a lesson about God’s jealousy a few years ago in a very different context. I was visiting the concentration camp at Majdanek with my high school class during our senior year. As my classmates walked through the gas chambers I tarried outside, numbly contemplating the indifferent Polish sky. After some minutes I walked inside, saw the low concrete ceiling and the garishly dappled walls of the gas chamber. Around me on the floor sat sixty or seventy young women my age. They were Americans, studying at a seminary in Israel for a year before college, and like our group they were visiting the camps and ghettoes of eastern Europe. One of their teachers was explaining, “So in this perek of tehillim, Dovid ha’melech is. . . .”
Why was this woman talking about Psalms in a gas chamber? Why was anyone talking about anything in a gas chamber? By any human standard this was indecorous, inappropriate, presumptuous. Be silent, I seethed inwardly, and let the dead sleep, and keep God out of it, it’s too late for his concern. I viewed Majdanek as its own fiefdom of sacred horror, untouchable by outside forces. But I later realized that I was trying to keep part of God’s world unredeemed. A ghastly part to be sure, but a part that, no less than any other part, falls squarely within a jealous God’s claim on creation. The young women of faith around me knew, as I’ve tried to learn since, that not to pray in Majdanek is to misunderstand the total claim of faith, leaving in place an alternate power source in the universe. The Psalms are for weddings and the Psalms are for death camps. “Out of the depths I cry to you, oh Lord!”
Chanukah celebrates the triumph of men and women who believed that the duties of friendship, community, and tolerance are sacred if they serve God’s purposes and profane if they don’t. In a similar way, the young women at Majdanek reclaimed a vile zone for the God of life. Both the Maccabees and the young women kept nothing, whether sublime or obscene, from their creator’s redemptive touch.
Tonight, the last night of Chanukah, Jews will publish their faith by lighting candles on windowsills and on mantlepieces, reminding the world of a jealous God’s white-hot love.
Cole S. Aronson is a student at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.
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