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All or Something

12/25/2019 02:30:56 PM

Dec25

The story of Mattathias (Matityahu) and his five sons lies at the center of our celebration of Hanukkah. As conveyed in the apocryphal book of Maccabees, we learn of his zeal to repel the Syrian-Greeks, who sacked the temple after their successful campaign against Ptolemy in Egypt. We learn that the villain is the Hellenistic King Antiochus, and on this Festival of Lights, we recall how the small band of Maccabees repelled the stronger and larger Hellenistic Greek force. However, the account doesn’t just place the blame on the king. Rather, the text also places blame on the wicked Jews who invited in the foreign culture and adopted their customs. The text relates how they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem and forsook circumcision. Thus, later when Mattathias exclaims “Whoever is zealous of the law, and maintains the covenant, come with me,” he is talking to his fellow Israelites excluding the Jews who have already tied their destiny to that of the Syrian-Greeks.

As a modern Jew, the story of the Maccabees hits close to home. Like the “evil” Jews of ancient Israel, I too see the value of assimilation. Speaking English has given me access to troves of information I might have otherwise missed. I reap the benefits of technology and the science of society. I find the clothing appealing, the food delicious, and enjoy modern forms of entertainment. Yet while a large majority of my values are shared with American culture (honesty, kindness, loyalty), there are other values that bump up against Jewish norms (Shabbat, kashrut, prayer). And looking at the larger impact modernity has had on the Jewish experience, one can see the telltale signs of religious and cultural erosion.

Mattathias’ answer to this erosion was separation. Doubling down on the uniqueness of Judaism, the Maccabees fled to the hills and fought an all-or-nothing war with Hellenization. However, as a modern Jew, I opt for a more moderate approach. Like the Maccabees, I recognize and fear the dangers of this cultural erosion. Like Mattathias, I am dedicated to ensuring Judaism will endure into future generations. However, I am willing to do the difficult work that Mattathias wasn’t willing to consider doing. I am willing to navigate the often tumultuous cultural intersection between Judaism and modern secular culture. And thus, the battle we fight on Hanukkah is not how to rid ourselves completely of secular culture, but rather how we can embrace the parts of secular culture that enhance our lives, while maintaining the unique cultural character of our Jewish community. When we place our Hanukkah menorahs in our windows, it is more than just publicizing the miracle. It is a statement that we Jews have our own stories to tell, our own values to contribute, and particular way of doing things that we hope endures into the future.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Hanukkah.

Sat, October 31 2020 13 Cheshvan 5781