Monday, December 19, 2011

Two Tough Questions

Its been said that all an average student needs to become excellent is to be fortunate enough to experience one outstanding teacher. That relationship will provide the inspiration for a lifetime. In fact many of us have had such singular encounters that has left an indelible mark on our lives: I was lucky enough in the 60’s to have encountered a teacher in Camp Moshava (Wild Rose, Wisconsin). Avraham Nuriel z”l, a shaliach to our community (later became a professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University) spent the summer in Moshave teaching us the geography and history of Israel, but special was the daily class on the teachings of Harav Cook. Those informal learning experiences sparked discussion among the campers and it’s those conversations especially that have accompanied me all these years. I’m not always aware of those discussions, but invariably something triggers those memories recounting those conversations, which bring me back to Avraham Nuriel and his understanding of Harav Cook.

The two burning issues that concerned us young Zionists in the years just prior to the 67 war were two hypotheticals: What if America and Israel would no longer be allied and their interest were at cross purpose, where would our loyalties be? What if Israel was no longer a democratic state becoming something other than democratic i.e. fascistic or theocratic, would we still chose to live there? Would we still support Israel assuming that we lived in America? At the time these were merely hypothetical, given to mental gymnastics, because no matter what we said, it really didn’t matter. Israel was a secure ally of America enjoying support from Congress, the Executive branch and Israel was the darling of the media. I never imagined then that those two rather simple questions would haunt me a half century later. Nor would I be recalling those heady intellectual conversations sitting under a tree while Avraham helped us work through what I understand now to be extremely complex issues.

There is a side of me, the youthful traces which wants me to believe that these two questions ought to be consigned forever to undisturbed memory, stored there for another time. No need for concern, certainly no need for panic. President Obama may lean toward the Palestinians but Congress has our back. Besides, even if Obama wins another 4 years, Israel can stonewall him until his term ends. The damage he can do while significant may be reversible with a more even handed president. Regarding democracy, my still youthful, optimistic shadow believes that Jews have embedded within our DNA democratic values. We are an “am kishe oref” (stiff necked people), argumentative, not given to indulge others, brutally honest, demanding of our government, with a history of cut throat journalism that is the backbone of a true democratic system.

The other side of me, the more seasoned mature side that has seen life in its beauty and ugliness is skeptical about our future as a democracy and as an ally of the United States. Less concerning for the moment is the issue of our relationship with America because; as long as Israel is a strong democracy there will be support for Israel. If however we begin a tailspin that undermines democratic values then our nexus with American Jews and ipso facto America will wane. I wince at the thought that while we are not in a tailspin yet there are undemocratic trends, which ought to flag our attention and concern. The fact that Hillary Clinton made her remark in a private setting expressing her concern for the marginalization of women within Israeli society ought to be taken seriously. There are other glaring examples many of them emanating from the religious communities whether haredi, hardal or any other flavor. It appears as though the haredi community less tolerant of secular Israel is trying to impose its way on the majority. To wit: a lecture at a community center in Haifa had haredi ushers direct women in (in spite of their reluctance) to the back of the hall, assuring that the men and women were separated. It oughtn’t be open season on Muslims or secular Jews because there is a strong haredi coalition in the Knesset. The bus incident with Tanya Rosenblit makes me wonder if she will become the new Rosa Parks of Israel.

The West, including Israel is hyper critical of the Muslim penchant for their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran with the exponent that their women are treated like chattel. I am beginning to sense the same tendencies within the hyper-religious community who happen to be the loudest and most visible with Israeli society and who occupy seats in the Knesset thus highly influential on multiple levels. This trend will continue and will slowly erode the matrix of Israeli democracy unless the governing body in its wisdom draws a line between church and state.

Israel will do well if it learns from Greece. The Greeks too are closely aligned with its religion, Greek Orthodoxy. Because Greek orthodoxy is interwoven into the fabric of society there is no separation of Church and State. One can hardly be Greek and not be Greek Orthodox. Their way out of this conundrum are the dictates of the European Union which are enforcing certain steps to untangle the state from the Church. Israel ultimately will have to do the same thing if it wishes to safeguard its democratic values.

As hard as I find it to imagine Israel living under a non-democratic system of government I can’t fathom what it would do to American Jews. Probably the ultra religious ties with Israel would grow tighter as the ties with the liberal communities in America would grow weaker. Concomitantly, liberal lobbying for Israel would curtail, as would philanthropy: the American Jewish community turning inward, marshalling its resources to service their own needs.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Perpetuating the Myth or Recasting Chanukah

Every year as Cheshvon slides into Kislev I begin again pondering the meaning of the Chanukah story, its legacy, what we should be taking away from the story and its celebration. Insight and understanding change over the years, depending on perspective and context but what has been consistent over the years is my reluctance to accept the miracle of the oil as the prima facie reason for celebrating Chanukah. According to the story, the rebelling party under the flag of Judah the Maccabee having restored the Temple to its previous sanctity weren't successful in finding a significant supply of uncontaminated sacramental pure oil to light the Menorah for more than one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for a week; thus celebrating this miracle and the rededication of the Temple. In Judaism there are no true miracles other than events that happen in nature but out of time sequence. Jesus walking on water has about as much currency as a one-day supply of oil turning into an eight-day supply.

As a matter of fact there are no primary sources in our cannon referencing the oil story other than a brief tertiary source: a Talmudic reference with the classic argument between Hillel and Shamai as to how we light the Menorah. The only reliable primary source is the Book of Maccabees I rendered illegitimate by those who canonized our sacred texts. Naturally the Talmudic reference to the story is suspect because of the pharisaic political ax to grind with the Sadducees. It is for this reason as well that R' Yochanan Ben Zachai conveniently excluded the Book of Maccabees I from inclusion into the canon.

Simply put, the Pharisees and their exponent, rabbinic Judaism refused to credit the Sadducees with any relevance. In effect the intention of the rabbis and Sages was to write out of history the important contributions the Sadducees made towards the development of the Jewish people. The Talmudic version of Chanukah was no more than a ruse to thwart attention away from the Sadducees and to give undue credit to the Pharisees in their fight against the Greeks. The Book of the Maccabees l, however tells the true story. It is an accurate account (as accurate as possible) of the fighting and the history of the period, never, however, mentioning God or the sanctity of the battle. In a sense it is similar to the notable battles fought in Israel in the modern period. There may be those who feel comfortable ascribing our victories to god and the effort of yeshiva students learning and praying. The preponderance of Jews however would ascribe the victory to the power of the IDF, the superb training of its soldiers and its legendary acumen in field improvisation as well as maximizing the uses of equipment, and perhaps its ally, the United States.

The unvarnished story of Chanukah is a story about the military victory of the Hashmonayim against the occupying power, an empire that swallowed up Judea. The Hashmonayim were an amalgam of Sadducees, the priestly class and Pharisees who initially wouldn't take up arms on Shabbat because of the injunction against hill Shabbat. It was the Pharisees who were commingled with the Sadducees in the fight against the Greeks that decided to continue the good fight on Shabbat due to pichuach nefesh (mortal danger), the same rabbinical dispensation used today by the IDF; nationally security trumps Shabbat observance.

The Pharisees had another problem as well. There were many Jews who adopted the celebration of lights, imported and popularized by the Greeks to celebrate the winter solstice. Sounds familiar? The Pharisees the forerunners to rabbinic Judaism ingeniously incorporated the lights into the Chanukah story, thus co-opting Jews into a massive celebration and at the same time cutting the legs out from under their rivals, the Sadducees (Constantine did the same thing by incorporating the pagan Christmas tree into Christmas celebration thereby co-opting the pagans). This technique was used as well by them when they incorporated the notion of the “world to come” (olam haba). By so doing they were able to recruit more conscripts to their cause by promising them a reward greater than any other.

So where does this leave us on the eve of Chanukah when we prepare to light the candles and celebrate the miracle of the oil? And what about our children. Do we perpetuate the myth? How ought we approach this holiday? Should we approach it the same way we celebrate the miracle of the Six Day War?

Initially the aftermath of the Six Day War was accompanied by a national euphoria. More than that Jews from all over the works were able to lift their heads high for the first time ever with pride in being Jewish and part of something much bigger than them. But the euphoria slowly began to ebb and the realization set in that perhaps we need to address the repression of the Palestinians. We didn't do enough then nor have we done enough since. The Chanukah story too, was initially accompanied with great euphoria, but not enough attention was placed upon tolerance of - namely Jews who sought to live within a broader culture context, which was anathema to the Hashmonayim. These weren't tolerated and children were circumcised with or without parental permission.

This kanaut, zealotry, a thread running throughout our history must be in our DNA because today, as I right this I am witness unfortunately to intolerance once again in Israel. Making a bracha on the Chanukah is a bracha l 'vatalah (for naught) if we can accept the teachings of Safed's chief rabbi Shmuel Elyahu who believes that Jews should drive Arabs out of Akko or that of another illustrious rabbi Eliezer Melamed who want the Christians expelled from Har Beracha who said that "when we came to live in a religious community, we never imagined that one of these days we would be forced to live alongside people of a different religion, which doesn't match our faith and lifestyle." Sounds like nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Painful and disconcerting. Perhaps we should perpetuate the myth.