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The United States of Hanukah



Lawrence Bush/Jews Assembly Kit

Hanukah, like most Jewish holidays, can be understood on many levels. In its classical rabbinic framing, it is the story of the miracle of the cruse of oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. Among Jews in the U.S., Hanukah has come to be seen as the prototype of the struggle for religious freedom, which is at the heart of our American sense of meaning and value. In the Israeli context, the military virtuosity of the Maccabees, which led to a victory for the few over the many, has come to occupy the focus of a nation that has lived that story over and over again in its short history.

All three of these framings of the story emphasize the conflict between the Jews and the Syrian Greeks. In fact, however, the conflict that truly underlies the story of Hanukah, as recorded in the books of First and Second Maccabees, is primarily intra-Jewish, a conflict among Jewish subcommunities that held a variety of positions regarding the relative value of Hellenistic culture and the appropriate response to the process of the Hellenization of Judea. There were groups of Jews who eagerly embraced Hellenism on all levels, groups who accepted the trappings of Hellenism but resisted fundamental religious compromises, and groups who resented and detested anything that so much as hinted at an association with Hellenism.

According to the classical version of our story, it is exclusively the third, most anti-Hellenistic group of Jews, to which the Maccabees belonged, who are the heroes, and the Syrian Greeks who are the exclusive villains. Probably closer to the truth is that it was the combined forces of the Jewish anti-Hellenists and the moderate Jewish Hellenists who were able to overcome the radical Jewish Hellenizers, supported by the military might of the Syrian Greeks. This more accurate and morally ambiguous version of the story was first brought to my attention by my graduate school professor, Saul Wachs, who challenged us, as future Jewish educators, to think about how to teach the complete story of Hanukah, including the intra-Jewish dimension of the conflict.

I offer the following as one way of trying to meet this challenge.

For most of the American Jewish community and, I would argue, for many Israelis as well, the classical version of the Hanukah story, as well as the more complete version described above, contain thematic elements that create cognitive dissonance or even undermine the cultural messages that our communities are attempting to cultivate through the observance of this holiday. This is so because most Jews today are culturally closer to the moderate or even radical Hellenizers, vis-à-vis Western civilization, than we are to the rejectionist Maccabees whom we honor as heroes. Our current Jewish reality, in other words, is highly resonant with the Hanukah narrative, but it is a more uncomfortable resonance than most Jews acknowledge.

However, because of the unique perspective on modern Jewish life first articulated by Mordecai Kaplan and developed over time by the Reconstructionist movement, we are in a better position to integrate fully the complete story of Hanukah and to offer our fellow Jews an approach to its celebration that not only dissolves the cognitive dissonance, but actually draws inspiration from and builds on the intra-Jewish dimension of the story.

The true story of Hanukah describes the challenge of living in multiple civilizations. While we are not caught in the same political web of intrigue that confronted our ancestors, we are surely facing a similar type of cultural cross-pollination and similarly challenging questions about how to respond to it. Hanukah teaches, as does Reconstructionism, that balancing the influences between our respective civilizational inheritances brings us to an area more gray than black and white.

Historically, most approaches to "hyphenated" identities have taken one of two directions: giving one's loyalty definitively to one or the other civilization, or compartmentalizing one's respective identities so that each is assigned its own areas of influence, but neither significantly affects the other.

Reconstructionist Judaism has tended to view our multiple cultural identities as dynamic, interactive and growth-producing. as such, the true story of Hanukah becomes a perfect context for looking deeply into our own psyches to explore the evolving relationship between our Jewish and American selves, and to gather together to evaluate what our respective cultures have things to say to one another. Under what circumstances do we feel tension between these voices within? Which situations produce harmony between them? This perspective creates an extremely rich environment for both individual and collective spiritual work, and moves us beyond the familiar intercultural anxiety over the superficial connections between Hanukah and Christmas that normally hold our attention.

I see at least four possible ways of examining this intercultural dynamic. All of them can be integrated into one's observance of Hanukah: first, using the lens of Jewish culture to critique some dimension of Western culture; second, using the lens of Western Culture to critique some aspect of Judaic culture; third, using the lens of Western culture to reinforce, highlight or celebrate a dimension of Jewish culture; and fourth, using the lens of Jewish culture to reinforce, highlight or celebrate an aspect of Western culture.

The first two "critical" stances have been nominally adopted by some parts of the Jewish community, in limited and general ways, at various points in American Jewish history. More traditional Jewish communities, for example, have used Jewish values to draw negative attention to the celebration of the individual that holds an important place in the American psyche, as well as to a perceived decline in moral values and behaviors. More liberal Jewish communities, for their part, have sometimes invoked Western values to castigate their more traditional coreligionists for adhering to outmoded and "unenlightened" religious practices such as the separation of men and women in synagogue. While Reconstructionists highly value the critical "counter-cultural" perspective that our "double vision" is capable of producing, many of us would critique both of these approaches -- the traditional critique, which tends to limit itself to the realm of general morality, and the liberal critique, which tends to focus on the realm of ritual.

In both of these examples, moreover, the critique flows in only one direction. For contrasting examples of intercultural critique from a Reconstructionist angle, we might note that American society could learn an important lesson from a Judaic understanding and observance of Shabbat -- that is, the importance of setting aside a period of time on a regular basis to be rather than to produce. In a parallel way, Jewish society can learn an important lesson from the Western democratic model about the value of moving away from our inherited structure of autocracy by those of greatest economic means.

If we turn to the second general category of intercultural points of mutual reinforcement and celebration, we enter territory much less explored by the mainstream Jewish community. Even the Reconstructionist movement has moved more slowly in this area, despite powerful modeling by Mordecai Kaplan himself. Identifying where our two cultures can reach across our collective inner life and create sparks of synergistic inspiration may be one of the most important goals we can pursue as a movement and one of the most significant religious contributions our movement can make.

Finding value within Jewish tradition by way of Western thinking is the more common and natural of these two perspectives. Many liberal Jews, for example, have been inspired by their appreciation of contemporary Western psychology to give serious thought to traditional Jewish burial and mourning customs. Yet the flow of influence from the Jewish to the Western has taken longer to grab the imagination of the Reconstructionist and broader American Jewish communities.

One of the most interesting and provocative examples of this flow of influence comes from Kaplan's own life: how he used to leave his t'fillin on after completing his morning prayers to wear them while reading John Dewey. Kaplan felt strongly that Dewey's thought was powerful enough to be classified as Torah, and the act of reading this work with t'fillin was both a sanctification of the text and an affirmation of the power of wearing t'fillin as a ritual act.

Kaplan also decided to publish a liturgy for the holidays of the American civil calendar entitled The Faith of America. He recognized that the potential of such holidays as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July to transmit American values and deals would be enhanced tremendously if they possessed prayers and rituals of their own, and he clearly drew on the structure and content of Judaism as he was putting together the texts and songs that became his prayer book for America.

There are recent signs that we are paying more Kaplanian attention to this side of the American-Jewish relationship. Both the JRF and CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), for instance, have published new Jewish liturgies for use on Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. These are more modest in scope than Kaplan's, but use language and a presentation style that are much more appropriate for contemporary American Jewish sensitivities.

A second, less noticed and more subtle process has been taking place that I believe deserves more attention: the composing of new blessings for experiences that fall outside of traditional blessing categories, and more often than not stem directly from our American identities. Groundbreaking work has been done in this area by Jewish feminist scholars who seek to reconnect a language of Jewish sacredness to the life experience of Jewish women. It seems to me that it is in our movement that people have begun to build most prolifically on this foundational work of Jewish feminism.

The recitation of a blessing in response to, or anticipation of, an experience, is perhaps the most basic and powerful religious technology Judaism possesses for imbuing life with meaning and a sense of holiness. While the ancient sages created an astounding number and variety of blessings, they did not come close to exhausting the pool of potential experiences that cry out to be sanctified -- and they could never have anticipated a whole world of experiences that have tremendous significance for us today. I know, for example, of rabbis who have composed blessings for casting a ballot in an election and for signing on to the Internet. Taking glass and plastic to the recycling center, or hearing a piece of music that is moving or inspiring, are other experiences that should be sanctified with blessings.

Any of the four perspectives discussed above would make a worthwhile focus for spiritual work, but I would especially like to encourage the application of Jewish sacred language to some of the new realities of 21st Century America and to some not-so-new realties that have simply never been looked at through the lens of blessing. This exploration contains exciting possibilities for our own spiritual lives as individuals and for our movement in general. Perhaps the JRF's website could serve as a clearing house for these new blessings.

I am certain that there are many, many examples among our lay and professional membership of actual blessing texts that have been composed but not broadly shared. The establishment of such a clearinghouse would provide a tremendous opportunity for our community to benefit from untapped sources of Jewish creativity and reaffirm our position as leading-edge innovators within American and world Jewish life—which is right where Kaplan would want us to be.

Ed. Originally published in the Winter 2001-2 edition of Reconstructionism Today.

Type: Dvar Torah