Magazine article Tikkun

A Chanukah Proposal

Magazine article Tikkun

A Chanukah Proposal

Article excerpt

To a considerable degree, the Jews survived as a vital group and as a pulsating culture because they changed their names, their language, their clothing and with them some of their patterns of thought and expression. This ability to translate, to re-adapt and re-orient themselves to new situations, while retaining a basic inner core of continuity, was largely responsible, if not for their survival, at least for their vitality.... Assimilation properly channeled and exploited can thus become a kind of blessing, for assimilation bears within it a certain seminal power which serves as a challenge and a goad to renewed creativity.

-Gerson D. Cohen, "The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History," 1966

Inscribed on the invitation to a Christmas party were the disturbing words "Have you been naughty or nice?" There is nothing wrong with being invited to a Christmas party, but it bothered me that the theme of moral accounting was being imposed upon me in December. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the period for Jews to consider when we have been "naughty or nice." The invitation, by assuming that everyone adheres to the ideology of Christmas, unconsciously invalidated the Jewish time of ethical judgment.

We all have stories around this holiday season that reflect the impact of Christianity on Judaism. Even though as Jews living in America we are constantly exposed to secular American culture, Chanukah is the time when we most acutely experience Christianity and the Christian element of America. Indeed, the relationship between Christmas and Chanukah represents one of the major ironies of American Jewish life. During this holiday we celebrate the Maccabees' victory over the imposition of a non-Jewish culture, in this case, Greek religion. And yet, around the same time of this festival of Chanukah we feel the most assaulted by a non-Jewish culture, in our case represented by the Americanized incarnation of the Christian religion. We see Christmas trees, lights, and shows everywhere. We persistently hear Christmas songs and exhortations to have Christmas spirit. Santa Claus, reindeer, and creches surround us. Many experience over-emphasis of Christmas and under-emphasis of Chanukah in our children's schools. Let me make clear that I am not against the celebration of Christmas. Nor do I claim that, like the Syrian Greeks, Christians celebrating Christmas are seeking to eliminate judaism. Rather, 1 am expressing what 1 feel as a Jew-the irony that the tension and conflict between judaism and Christianity erupts most acutely during Chanukah, that is, during the holiday that recalls the tension and conflict between Jews and non-Jews.

For most American Jews, the meaning of Chanukah is summed up in the Al Hanisim prayer that we insert into the daily liturgy during Chanukah. According to the prayer, "in the days of Mattathias, son of Yohanan, Hasmonean High Priest, and his sons, a wicked Greek government arose against your people Israel, causing them to neglect your Torah and violate your laws." The prayer further describes how God miraculously enables the underdog Maccabees to defeat the powerful Greeks because of their zealous commitment to judaism. The story is simplistic: we celebrate the defeat of the pernicious, evil, Greek culture by Jewish culture. As the prophet Zechariah says in the haftarah for the Sabbath during Chanukah-"not by might and not by power, but by my spirit." Chanukah, in prayers like the Al Hanisim, commemorates the triumph of Judaism over Hellenism, of Jewish spirit over non-Jewish spirit, of Jewish culture over non-Jewish culture.

Yet this traditional story, so deeply encoded in our liturgy, obscures the real story of Chanukah. The real story reveals a different, more intricate picture, one we can find if we look again to the sources. There we will find accounts like that of the Jewish delegation and the triremes (triremes were Greek warships). Recorded in the Second Book of Maccabees (4:18-20), this story provides the background for the subsequent revolt led by Mattathias and his sons. …

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