Hanukka and the Limits of Pluralism, By Stewart Weiss (Jerusalem Post)
“We cannot tolerate those who would change the basic rules of the game.”
“Thus observing the Sabbath on Sunday, believing in Jesus or redefining ‘Who is a Jew’ evoke a call to arms by those who sincerely care about the future of Judaism. And it is in this context that we have to address issues like same-sex marriage or gay and lesbian ‘rabbis.’ While Jewish law has always been willing to bend, it is not prepared to break.”
“If we go too far, we run the risk of becoming just another ‘ism'”
Over the centuries, we have seen countless “isms” – from feudalism to socialism to Marxism – either radically transform or disappear altogether. When the times changed, when societal conditions demanded, new approaches to life and new philosophies of nation-building rose up to replace the previous ones.
BUT JUDAISM is an exception to this rule. While we have indeed adapted to diverse conditions that impacted our people in various Diasporas at various times in history, we clung determinedly to a baseline framework and set of rules that were timeless and borderless.
Our clothes, our customs and our style of synagogue may have varied widely from Jewish community to Jewish community, but the core of our faith remained the same. We believed in One God; we had a Torah and its commandments to guide us; we had a calendar of holidays and a life cycle of events to shape our days, and we believed that Israel was our eternal homeland.
Despite the distance, a Jew from anywhere on the planet had an innate affinity with any other Jew he encountered. Which brings us to Hanukka.
I have always been amazed at the popularity of this holiday, arguably the most beloved and widely celebrated on the calendar. The sheer joy of the night – the light, the gifts, the victory over a cruel enemy who would control our destiny – makes this an event you just have to love. Yet we often forget that there were not one, but two battles that took place on Hanukka.
The more famous battle was against the Syrian-Greek forces of Antiochus, who had outlawed some of the basic tenets of Judaism and defiled the Temple. But the lesser-known, perhaps even more crucial struggle was against those Jews who had decided to abandon their allegiance to Judaism and adopt the mores of the foreign culture swirling around them. It was the threat presented by these Hellenists that spurred the Maccabees into action and convinced them that the situation called for drastic measures.
In fact, the first “shot” fired in the war was when Matityahu the High Priest killed a fellow Jew who was offering a pig on the altar.
This is also the significance of the miracle of the oil. While many jars of oil were actually found when the Temple was reclaimed, only one jar of oil was still pure and unsullied and still bore the seal of the High Priest. It was specifically that jar which miraculously lasted for eight days, thus sending the message that the element which remains pure – though it may be small and seemingly insignificant – is enough to fuel the continuity of the nation.
JUDAISM TODAY – not for the first time in our history – is locked in a struggle to define our character and evaluate our essence. While a certain amount of “dilution” may be acceptable, at some point the purity level must be safeguarded if we are to maintain our unique identity. As a faith system, we can accept those who, for various reasons, choose not to follow certain aspects of ritual law; there have always been varying levels of observance among Jews, who often branch out like the menora itself.
But we cannot tolerate those who would change the basic rules of the game.
Thus observing the Sabbath on Sunday, believing in Jesus or redefining “Who is a Jew” evoke a call to arms by those who sincerely care about the future of Judaism. And it is in this context that we have to address issues like same-sex marriage or gay and lesbian “rabbis.” While Jewish law has always been willing to bend, it is not prepared to break.
If we go too far, we run the risk of becoming just another “ism.”
The writer, an Orthodox rabbi, is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. firstname.lastname@example.org