For most Americans, November means Thanksgiving is just around the corner. This year, in an unusual confluence of the Gregorian and Jewish calendars, Hanukkah falls out on Thanksgiving. According to my sources, it will only happen again in the year 79,811! This year’s reality, then, offers a unique opportunity to reflect on Hanukkah independent of the atmosphere of the American holiday season.
We are all familiar with the Hasmoneans’ unlikely military victory and the miracle of the cruse of oil. But if we delve deeper, we should ask: What was the root of the conflict between ourselves and the Greeks? Our sources state that on the Greek agenda was the spiritual annihilation of our people; since the Greeks knew us as the “People of the Book,” they attempted to rob us of this identity. In the words of the Hanukkah prayer Al Hanisim, inserted into the Amidah and the Birkat Hamazon, the plan was “to cause us to forget Your Torah and have us transgress Your statutes.”
And yet the Greeks themselves, immersed in art, literature and philosophy, were anything but anti-intellectual. Why, then, does Jewish tradition characterize the Hellenistic influence as “darkness?” What was there about the Greek orientation that posed such a threat to the Jewish survival?
The answer may lie in the nuanced language of the Al Hanisim: We don’t assert that the Greeks opposed Torah learning per se, but that they threatened hukei ritzonach, Your statutes. The Hellenists supported Torah study only as a branch of Greek wisdom, as another intellectual discipline. Jewish resistance against such an orientation, and the ultimate rediscovery of the flask of oil, prompted the sages to institute the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah for eight consecutive days. Each Hanukkah night we celebrate “Ki ner mitzvah v’Torah or” — “A candle is a mitzvah, and the Torah is light.” The pure oil with the Kohen Gadol’s stamp mirrors the rekindling of an authentic, Godly Torah that had been withheld from us.
In the wake of the Pew Research Center survey on American Jews, many of us parents, educators and communal leaders have begun to re-examine the messages we are conveying and the direction in which we are taking our respective Jewish families and communities. Along with an emphasis on Jewish engagement and the appreciation of diversity within our communities, it’s now time to ask some tough questions: Are we, the Jewish leadership, also successfully conveying the eternal, immutable components of Jewish belief and practice? Are we effectively transmitting the profundity and beauty of a personal life built on Torah study and mitzvot? Are we igniting the uniquely Jewish flame in the souls of our fellow Jews?
In a recent blog post in the Times of Israel, Prof. Jeffrey Woolf of Bar Ilan University remarked on the stark contrast between the Pew findings and a parallel Israeli study. Prof. Woolf notes:
The findings are almost symmetrical opposites. Israeli Jews believe in God (over 80 percent). There is a Jewish Renaissance (in Study, Culture, and Observance) in Israel that literally boggles the imagination (even as it confounds the usual definitions of Religious and Secular). And, while individualism and individual expression are certainly not absent, the sense of national cohesion, what we call bayachad, is movingly strong.
Woolf observes that while Judaism protects and values the individual, it makes demands upon him. Instead of striking a balance between Jewish particularism and universalism, “American Jews,” Woolf laments, “have attempted to effect that separation by totally recasting and denuding Jewish tradition, in order to align it with contemporary mores.”
On the eve of Hanukkah 5774, we as a Jewish community must consider certain existential issues that we have been avoiding until now. Comfortable in our respective “denominations,” preaching to the converted, many are realizing that we have been lulling ourselves into believing that everything will be just fine.
Question: If the Jews of the first Hanukkah took such an approach, what would the Jewish world look like today?