This is a text version of my sermon from the Shabbat of Hanukkah, 12/8/18 –
There has been a bit of a hullabaloo in the Jewish community over the last few days about an op-ed article that appeared in the NY Times last Sunday, just on the eve of Hanukkah. The title of the article was ‘the Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,’ in and of itself provocative, like any good title, and enough to get you to read further. The author, Michael David Lucas, claimed that in contemporary times the celebration of Hanukkah has become hypocritical. Why? Because most of the Jews who gather to light their menorahs during the 8 days are secular, but the real story of Hanukkah – he says – is a story of religious zealots – the Maccabees – fighting to impose their religious worldview against Jews who were secular and assimilating into Greek culture. So the author argues that the Maccabees would not have accepted the secular lifestyle of most of us who celebrate the Hanukkah today.
Obviously this is not the understanding of Hanukkah that you learn about in Hebrew school. The story of Hanukkah that we tell our children and grandchildren has nothing to do with an internal Jewish struggle. Instead, it is a story of right versus might, of a small and relatively weak people rising up against one of the most powerful armies in the ancient world, and somehow defeating it. It is a story of freedom and the triumph of the human spirit, of what people can accomplish when they come together and fight for a cause they believe in. The story of the Maccabees has also been a point of pride for Jews for more than 2,000 years, an example of the strength of the Jewish will to survive, and the loyalty and dedication of Jews to their tradition and heritage.
Which I think is precisely why this article has been so controversial. The story of Hanukkah that I just summarized is the one we all grew up on, the one we’ve believed in our entire lives, and when someone challenges that story, or even tries to take it away from us, we get upset and angry, and we push back. A number of you have asked me about the article, emailed me, called me, or actually in Shirley’s case brought the article in to show me, and I can tell that you are feeling a bit perplexed. So let me try to clear it all up a bit if I can in the few minutes I have this morning. I am not sure whether I’ll leave you feeling better, worse, or the same, but I suppose you’ll let me know.
The first thing I would say is that the author is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. And he is a little bit right and a little bit wrong about a couple of different things. He is right in that we do know there was an internal Jewish battle that was going on in the year 165 BCE, the time that the events of Hanukkah took place. Ancient Israel was controlled by the Assyrians who had adopted Greek culture, and many Jews had become Hellenized – that is to say, they were more and more thinking and acting like Greeks. In other words, many Jews at the time were what we would call today ‘secular’ Jews. And there was tension between those secular Jews, who were comfortable assimilating and living more modern lives, and the Maccabees, who did argue for a strict and traditional adherence to Jewish law. That is all true.
But the Times article is wrong in assuming that the primary struggle was a Jew against Jew struggle. There is no question that the real enemy the Maccabees were battling was the Assyrian army, and there must have been some kind of consensus in the broader Jewish community at the time that that was a struggle worth waging. Why? Because it is impossible to imagine that the Maccabees by themselves, without the support of their fellow Jews, could have accomplished what they did. So it is odd, to say the least, that the article in the Times barely mentions the Maccabees’ defeat of the Assyrian army. As Lincoln famously once said, there are things you can prove by telling part of the truth that you can’t prove by telling all of the truth. And that is one area where the article misses the mark.
I would argue that the other is in the article’s misunderstanding of what it means to be a secular Jew. And the author of the article – in a way pokes fun at himself and his own Judaism – his own discomfort with being Jewish – and by doing that he diminishes the role of the so called secular Jew, both today and historically, in terms of Jewish community and Jewish continuity.
Because of the way he described himself, I would say it is highly unlikely that that author of the article is sitting in shul this morning. Which is a shame, because it would be a good thing for him to spend some time thinking about the Joseph narrative that we reading from the Torah right now. He might be surprised to realize that Joseph is without question two things: one, the person who enables and ensures Jewish continuity for his time. It is the foothold that he has established in Egypt that gives him the power to ultimately bring the rest of his family there, to feed them and give them shelter, so that they will survive through the terrible famine afflicting the ancient near East at that time. You can very plausibly make the argument were it not for Joseph, Jacob’s family would not have survived, and Judaism might have ended right there.
But the other thing about Joseph that would surprise the Times author is that Joseph is the most secular Jew in the entire Torah. It isn’t even close! Joseph is so secular – he has become so Egyptian – that his own brothers can’t even recognize him, because he is wearing Egyptian clothes, he has completely adopted Egyptian culture, and he is speaking Egyptian like a native. It is not a stretch to say that Joseph – one of the great figures of the Bible – one of the great heroes of Judaism – is just as secular as anyone sitting in this room this morning, and probably more secular than many of us!
But being secular doesn’t mean that your Judaism isn’t important to you. Being secular doesn’t mean that you haven’t been lighting Hanukkah candles each night, or that you don’t go to a Passover seder or come to synagogue on the HHDs, or care about Israel, or donate to Jewish causes, or enroll your children in Hebrew school so they can become Jewishly literate and educated. So called ‘secular’ Jews do all of those things, and because they do them Jewish continuity and Jewish life are assured for a next generation, and a next, and a next.
This is not to say that we don’t need our Judah Maccabees, our religious zealots. We do, and it goes without saying they have an important role to play in Jewish life. That is part of what Hanukkah reminds us of, and celebrates. But I don’t think it is a coincidence that every year when we are celebrating Hanukkah and remembering the Maccabees, we are reading about Joseph from the Torah, Joseph the great secular Jew.
Few of us can be Maccabees – I know I certainly can’t. But all of us have a chance to be a Joseph. And when we are proud of our Judaism, when we care about Jewish community, when we play a part in ensuring Jewish continuity, we are walking in his footsteps. And I don’t know about you, but for my feet those shoes feel pretty comfortable. חג שמח ושבת שלום!