I have discovered hanukkah to be most enjoyable, not only when frying latkes and clogging my arteries, but when using the holiday’s (many his)stories to meditate on the long tension between universalism and individualism in Jewish identity. Why is it that I feel so convinced that Judaism has much to teach me on these matters?
First, I’ll share this—an edited version of the following article, which I read aloud at IADS services on Friday night:
Hanukkah as Jewish Civil War by James Ponet (click for the actual article)
The Hanukkah story is unremarked in the Hebrew Bible and barely referenced in the Talmud. Instead, it is recorded in books that were banished from the biblical canon by third-century rabbinic authorities and exiled, as the Books of the Maccabees, to the Apocrypha. That collection, which takes its name from the Greek “hidden away” or “secret,” is mostly made up of Jewish writings in Greek—novels, sermons, histories, prophecies. The original story of Hanukkah, then, is the literary expression of a people that had deeply absorbed the language, thought, and values of Hellenistic civilization.
There are a number of reasons why rabbinic Judaism abandoned these texts. In the aftermath of the devastating losses inflicted by Rome on the Jews of Judea—beginning with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., more than 200 years after the time of the Maccabees—the rabbis wanted to shape an inward-looking Judaism. They chose to portray the Jews as a historically small, proud, self-isolating people, ready to martyr themselves in the battle against tyranny, a people capable of sustained spiritual resistance to foreign domination. The rabbis recast the Hanukkah story to match that self-image. They emphasized God’s intervention on behalf of the Jews who’d been forced by the Greek Syrian King publicly to violate Jewish law. The Jews revolted, led by The Hasmoneans, the eldest of whom was Judah the Maccabee. With God’s help, they succeeded in capturing the defiled Temple and rededicating it four years later.
Read in its historical context, however, the Hanukkah story is really about a revolt against the Hellenized Jews who had fallen madly in love with the sophisticated, globalizing super culture of their day.
Here is how the first Book of the Maccabees describes Jerusalem on the eve of civil war and revolt in the time of Antiochus (translation by Nicholas de Lange):
At that time there were some evil-doers in Israel who tried to win popularity for a policy of integration with the surrounding nations. It was because the Jews had kept themselves aloof for so long, they claimed, that so many hardships had befallen them. They acquired a following and applied to Antiochus, who authorized them to introduce the Greek way of life. They built a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem and even had themselves uncircumcised.
In Judea, then, there were Jews choosing to die rather than publicly profane Jewish law—and there were Jews risking death to free themselves from the parochial constraints of that law. The historic Jewish passion to merge and disappear confronted the attested Jewish will to stand apart and persist.
That’s the clash of Hanukkah. Armed Hasmonean priests and their comrades from the rural town of Modi'in attacked urban Jews, priests and laity alike, who supported Greek reform and new rules for governing commerce. The Hasmoneans imposed, at sword’s edge, traditional observance. After years of protracted warfare, the priests established a Hasmonean state that never ceased fighting Jews who disagreed with its rule.
So the miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later invented covers up a struggle that pitted Jew against Jew… But really, who can blame them—
And in a sense, the rabbis weren’t entirely wrong. The Jews at once succumbed to Greek civilization, forcefully resisted it, and were transformed by it… Yet the Jews somehow became Greek without ceasing to be Jews, even as light—the holiday’s metaphor—somehow becomes matter without ceasing to be energy.
Here we find the historical miracle that Hanukkah implicitly celebrates: the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging, to be enchanted by the exquisite beauty of another without losing sight of your own charms. This relational art is ritualized on Hanukkah by the lighting of separate wicks or candles that build daily toward a unison of illumination.
So, as we celebrate our hannukkah, situating ourselves and our Judaism in an ever changing landscape, this holiday begs us to ask the hard question of how we define ourselves. What are the boundaries, if any, that we build around our personal and communal identities? What are the outward and inward reflections of our Jewish expression?
In the aftermath of the Bar Kochba debacle, at Hanukkah the words of the prophet Zachariah were read in the synagogue: “Not by power nor by might but through My spirit, says the Lord." In the glow of the candles this year we should wonder aloud whether the prophet’s vision is but balm for losers or
whether we can create a community, and imagine a world, that generates a new way for groups to be both part of the world and apart from it. Here is the hard question that an adult celebration of Hanukkah can bring into deliberate focus.
Second, I’d like to share some of the points of contention and conversation we had during Friday night dinner—in response to this article:
“You have to choose one or the other; universalist or individualist”
I’m thoroughly unconvinced of this argument. I think each of us partakes of both “states of being” all the time. In some sense, in America at least, our home is individual, our neighborhood, universal. In some sense, universalism and particularism seems to be about the lens we are able to bring to our daily experiences. Partly, our capacity for the universal is contingent on our own experience of difference. The more we have been exposed to “others” and seen our “selves” in them, the more inclination toward universalism is possible; the more isolated, the more individual. Yet, universalism itself mustn’t be romanticized. While understanding, respecting, and even revering commonality inspires compassion within ourselves—it also runs the risk of diminishing our passion. At least, this is what the individualist fears. When our sense of individualism is an outgrowth of a sense of right and wrong, much is at stake in our encounters with others. Yet, when individualism is rooted in unique cultural difference, such as food customs, sharing (and even transmission) is feasible. Interestingly, Jewish cultural difference is infused throughout with a sense of right and wrong (both perceived and enforced). Yet, I believe I have seen a Judaism that roots itself in being different, without clinging to being “right or wrong.” This Judaism is what I strive for—and for me, it is the bridge between individual and universal.
“Jews have always been tribal, have never truly been universalists”
In an attempt to unpack this, I want to visit an oft unexplored fragment of recent Jewish history, and that is the boycotting and divestment, incited by the global Jewish community, which occurred in response to the Third Reich’s rise to power at the time of the Second World War (The Transfer Agreement: by Edwin Black). I also recently read a history of Bulgaria’s Jewish community during the spread of fascism, which elucidated much the same point from a different perspective (The Lemon Tree: by Sandy Tolan). The global Jewish community had two dominant responses to the rise of Nazi power—one was to fight for a national home in Palestine (familiar to us because of its success in the creation of the state of Israel), the other was a world boycott of Nazi Germany (less familiar because it was ultimately abandoned in service to the creation of Israel). Though both instances required the support of the world community, they were born of two different ‘self’-perceptions. The creation of a nation-state is rooted in the perception of an individual identity which requires cultural, political, and military autonomy for protection. The boycott movement is rooted in the perception of a universal identity, which calls upon Jews and gentiles to act from a place of service to shared humanity.
In recent Jewish history, particularly in the creation of Israel, the voices in our midst that saw uncertainty and danger in universalism have won the debate. Yet, why must we forget the triumphs of universalism? Tolan reminds us of this diminishing narrative in exploring the Bulgarian Jewish community’s liberation from fascism. On the eve (or morning, rather) of deportation, non-Jewish allies succeeded in halting and ultimately overcoming the deportation of (Old) Bulgaria’s Jews. What struck me about this narrative was that 1) it was by far a minority experience in fascist Europe and 2) it took so many different individuals’ efforts and valorisms to resist and overcome. It was reminiscent of the struggle for global boycott, in that it required that all individuals fight for universal human rights. While Bulgaria’s Jews were rescued from deportation, their story doesn’t seem to have become one used to exemplify allie-ship and common experience. Though the global boycott movement was proving an effective weapon against Nazi Germany, it was ultimately abandoned for what became understood as a “more sure” guarantee of liberty, state sovereignty. The memory of the boycott is all-but-lost from the many holocaust teachings that were transmitted to future Jewish generations. It was as if our faith in the universal was lost entirely.
“Striving for universalism is synonymous with striving for a meritocracy”
DaVid made by far the most interesting point of the evening, which I believe rounds out this argument quite well (for now). He explained that, in his purview, we’re all faced with a choice. Do we choose to identify with a culture/community, which helps us through the world and increases our chances of success, or, do we choose to identify with the masses, and fight alone for our place in the world. Mmmm, a delicious question.
Considering the choices faced by the global Jewish community, as the Jews of Europe were enduring atrocities, believing in their commonality or fighting for their uniqueness emerged as the two routes to liberation. Yet, as each of us undoubtedly understands, believing in commonality requires a faith that many have come to regard as folly. Faith that the triumphs of the human heart, that compassion and understanding can overcome bigotry—as it only did in Bulgaria, and there for only _________Jews. Is it any wonder that Jews abandoned universalism when confronting the option to have a state of their own? Universalism is exhausting, uncertain, too often deadly. And, perhaps most importantly, it requires pre-work. We can’t assume a respect for human dignity when we haven’t put in the decades of tolerance that lead up to trials/crises.
For me, from my comfortable perch as a privileged twenty-first century American Jew, it seems to me that universalism is imperative in my Judaism. It is a universalism woven with an individualism, a strong cultural identity, and, perhaps most importantly, with the proverbial “six days of labor that come before the rest.” Meaning… as in so many other areas of life, the wisdom of the sabbath rest is not only that we take a day off from our routines, but that we live the other 6 days of our lives in an effort to be able to step away for one. It is an enormous task. And yet, I can’t help but see in it all the wisdom I’m looking for. My answer is not one or the other, but both. And the education, the learning, the hard work and thinking that must happen as we incline toward the crux of every week, as we incline towards hard times… that is the only imperative. There isn’t a right or a wrong, but there is TRYING, every day. So, the silences and forgetting(s) that permeate today’s jewish community—that allow us to make such assumptions that universalism has never truly been a Jewish value… well, to that I say lets go back and learn. We have so much to learn.