Chanuka: Insularity or Influence?

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Chanuka: Insularity or Influence?

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein

 

 

            It is customary to view the spiritual encounter between Judaism and Hellenism as a battle of ideas. I would like to claim that there is another side, one that is human and existential, that makes the struggle much more complicated.

 

            As the Gemara in Shabbat (21b) implies, on Chanuka we publicize the miracle also to "Tarmodai," that is, to gentiles. This is odd, since the Maccabees symbolize Jewish separatism, for they favored self-insulation from non-Jewish culture. The mityavnim – the Jewish hellenizers against whom the Hasmoneans fought, were the ones who sought to engage the gentile world. What are we doing on Chanuka – looking for a common ground with the world at large, or secluding ourselves in our own religious culture?

 

            As a matter of fact, the ultimate ideal is for Judaism to bring its message to the world. There are things in Greek culture which we can accept, and there others that we cannot. The positive side of Hellenism was designated by our Rabbis with the term yofi (beauty). The aesthetic in its broad sense, cultural and moral, is part of the universal heritage of mankind, Jews included. Thus, we have a common language with the world at large. This language should be the means to communicate our message.

 

What is that message? That the universal moral values of mankind are rooted in a transcendental world of sanctity and spirituality. The ethical sense is not some dim natural tendency, nor a blind, inexplicable instinct. The exalted feeling that a person experiences when engaging human values, actually does reflect something exalted, an image of God created by Him, a grandeur beyond comprehension which received its verification when God revealed Himself to man. This is our ideal; this is our contribution. Through it we try to sanctify God's Name in the world.

 

            Life would be so simple, if only we could view our connection to the spirit of universal culture in terms of the ideas such as these. But reality makes these ties exceedingly difficult. This is because our weakness is liable to turn this message, this essential dialogue with the nations, into a deceptive show. For there are two ways to initiate this kind of dialogue with the nations. On the one hand, it is possible to do so out of recognition of the inherent worth of universal morality, and out of the desire to enrich and illuminate it from the unique standpoint of the Torah. But, unfortunately, it is also possible to undertake the dialogue for other reasons – such as to flee and deny other aspects of Judaism, those values which universal culture rejects. It is possible to talk about universality for reasons which are cowardly, rather than noble. The motive might be to publicly abdicate the parts of our heritage which cause us to be shunned, excoriated and hated by gentile society.

 

            Every time we make the havdala benediction, we note the difference "between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations." Israel is to the nations as light is to darkness. This idea is not acceptable in the general climate of opinion. Chazal homilized on the verse which compares Jews to "Kushites" – "Just as the skin of the Kushite is strange, so are the deeds of the Jews strange in comparison to the other nations" (Moed Katan 16b). The remark conveys the inherent, natural divide between Jews and gentiles – a strangeness felt both as a Jewish self-consciousness and also as an attitude on the part of non-Jews.

 

            How natural and understandable is the desire to erase this havdala; after years of persecution, to once again be accepted as a human being, a member of the universal brotherhood, no longer a strange life-form. The lure is great, but the price is high: denial of selfhood. The dream of acceptance may cause one to do things for the good impression they will make, even though they don't really contribute to one's well-being, for they are liable to drive one to sacrifice Jewish identity. We ought to carry on a dialogue about universal values out of belief in their truth and greatness. But the question will always loom – are we only using this as a cover-up, in order to distance ourselves from those other truths, the ones which find no favor in the eyes of gentile culture, in order to be "accepted"?

 

            There is a touching story found in Megillat Ta'anit, and which is cited in the Gemara (Ta'anit 18a, and Rosh Ha-shana 19a). The Romans had issued a decree (again!) against learning Torah, observance of Shabbat and circumcision. The Jews reacted by doing something very modern - they demonstrated. They shouted: "Aren't we all children of one father? Aren't we children of one mother? How are we different from any other nation? Why do you persecute only us?" And a miracle happened. The government retracted the decrees; the Rabbis declared a holiday.

 

            In truth, the solution is so simple. All the gentiles want to hear is this. "Just declare that you are no different from any other nation, and we will accept you with open arms." And it is no lie, for Jews really are part of the brotherhood of man, like anyone else. But on the other hand, those Jews at the demonstration also said havdala every week. There is an aspect of Jewish identity which is basically different, whether or not it is to our, or anyone's, liking. This identity is the source of anti-semitism, and hence it is also generates that tragic Jewish characteristic: self-hate.

 

            A Jew could be willing to shoulder this burden, if he knew why. If his Jewish identity nurtures him spiritually, if it fills his experience, then the suffering may be worthwhile. But take a female college student, who hardly received any Jewish education, but was sternly warned by her father that she must "marry Jewish." Does she have the fortitude to withstand the glares of her male classmates? ("Not good enough for you?")

 

            This reminds us of the story told by Chazal (Avot De-Rabbi Natan 16) about the time that a Roman official, in a gesture of courtesy, sent two women to Rabbi Akiva for the night. The sage, of course, had nothing to do with them. The Roman later foamed at Rabbi Akiva's "conceitedness." "Aren't they people, just like you? Didn't the One who created you create them as well?" The gentile was using universality as a means of pressuring the Jew. Rabbi Akiva might have responded by invoking the Divine law. But, interestingly, he gave a different answer. "I could not do otherwise," he said. "They smelled to me of nevelot and shratzim." Rabbi Akiva meant that apart from any technical prohibitions, such fraternizing contradicted his innermost Jewish identity. His aversion to it was the same as the instinctive, almost biological Jewish aversion to eating treif. This Jewish identity, he was not prepared to sacrifice - not even on the altar of the "brotherhood of man."

 

            This predicament is central to the Jewish experience in our time. Let me give one more illustration.

 

How well I remember that point in history – it was right after the Six-Day War – that the world media began to pay inordinate attention to the Middle East. Catastrophes were relegated to the back pages in order to make headers out of minor items about Israel, which as a rule were derogatory. It took me a while to understand the phenomenon. Today I believe that the world community simply feels that we duped them.

 

The State of Israel was founded, because we (the Zionists) assured everyone that we are a nation like any other. Just give us what everyone else has, we said – a state and homeland – and you will see us becoming a member of the international fraternity, paying homage to democracy, the free market, and the pursuit of happiness. Like the Romans of old, the world community seized the opportunity. They gladly consented, for they sincerely wanted to relieve us, and themselves, of the burden of Jewish particularity.

 

But then came the Six-Day War. The world began to sense that the Jews want to come back to the Biblical heartland. They want Hebron, they want the Temple Mount; in short, they are not relenting their claim to a unique identity, to a unique relationship with God, and to a unique role in history. This was not part of the bargain, as far as the world was concerned. And so they increased their corps of inspectors and watchmen, to make sure that we kept our promise. The world demands assurance that all the Jews want is security and survival like any other people, and that they have given up all that annoying nonsense about their spiritual identity. In fact, the official Jewish spokesmen, the leaders and politicians, are constantly broadcasting declarations that all we want is peace, and that there is nothing we won't give for it. Yet somehow, the world is still suspicious that they are being hoodwinked; they don't seem convinced. One hopes that there are still Jews who aren't convinced, either.

 

The Chanuka lamp can be lit only at night, because, as the Gemara says, no one lights candles by day. This statement is odd, because the candle is there to make a statement, not to physically illuminate. On Pesach, for example, our "advertising" is done with means that make an impression by their strangeness, such as dipping twice instead of once, and so on. But on Chanuka, since the message has to reach gentiles as well, we must beware of "gimmicks." The dialogue must be there, but it must be based on the utter truth. The innermost truth of Jewish identity, the ner ish u-veito, is the foundation. We have much to say about justice and morality, but we say it from the place of our uniqueness. The connection between morality and sanctity is a teaching of Judaism; the non-Jewish world can absorb it only by listening to the Jewish people; and only Jews who do not shrink from their identity can spread it. Therefore on Chanuka, it is the innermost light, lit in the home or the Temple sanctuary, that paradoxically sends its message outward, to the public domain, the reshut ha-rabbim.