On Hanukkah, celebrate the Jewish counterculture

Jews are different. Judaism is different. Just ask Walter from "The Big Lebowski."

Ask any Jew to describe the miracle of Hanukkah, and this is what you will hear: The miracle was that a cruse of oil, sufficient for only one day, miraculously lasted for eight nights.

Dig deeper into the historical significance of Hanukkah, and this is what you will hear: The miracle was that a tiny army of Judean guerillas, led by the Maccabees, were able to defeat the mightiest army of the time – the Syrians/Greeks.

But, if you dig even deeper, you will discover this: The miracle was that this small band of Judeans, faced with the most sophisticated and powerful culture of its time – Hellenism – was able to achieve both a military and a cultural victory, in which the way of Torah survived.

Or, let me put it to you this way: Had the Greeks succeeded in crushing the way of Torah, Judaism would have died, even in its very cradle. No Judaism; no Christianity, and perhaps no Islam. The Abrahamic faiths would have disappeared.

Therefore, the victory of the Maccabees was the most decisive victory – militarily, religiously, and culturally – of the ancient world.

The Maccabees and other Jewish loyalists successfully stood up to the Hellenists, and they said two words.

“Yes” – to our culture.

“No” – to Hellenism. (Of course, it was not really that simple. Neither was the “no” as strident as we might imagine. The Jews did not totally reject Hellenism. They incorporated Greek words into Jewish life; as I wrote earlier this week, they used Hellenistic literary forms; they used Greek patterns of thinking and interpretation.)

But, out of the Maccabean victory emerged an uncanny Jewish ability — to confront a dominant culture, and to say, at least partially, “no.”

That is how Judaism became a counter-cultural phenomenon. Jews are different, because Judaism is different. It is baked into the very idea of kadosh — holy, set aside, intrinsically different.

Therein might lie the partial secret to antisemitism. The Jews exemplify difference.

Take the notion of time. There is a difference between Wednesday and Shabbat, and there is even a difference between “Saturday” and Shabbat. Jews bequeathed that notion of sacred time to her daughter religions – to Christianity and Islam – and yes, even to modern secular culture, in which some days are more important and “holier” than others, i.e., national holidays.

Nothing is more central to Judaism than Shabbat. For the Orthodox, this is easy; halacha (literally, “the way”) is the only way to observe Shabbat. It dictates the rules. The same is ostensibly true about Conservative Judaism.

There is a term for that: shomer Shabbat, to observe Shabbat – literally, to guard Shabbat. (I think of John Goodman’s character, Walter, in “The Big Lebowski” – a bowler, a convert to Judaism who doesn’t “roll on Shabbos!” and announces that he is “shomer f-ing Shabbat!”)

But, there is another way of doing Shabbat. Perhaps it is not as shomer, observant. Perhaps it means recalling the other biblical commandment about Shabbat—zocher Shabbat, remembering that it is Shabbat.

That act of remembering might produce its own commandments, though not in a strict halachic sense. For example: abstaining from consumer culture, driving to visit friends and family, exploring nature.

Jews have a different way of looking at places. The home is sacred. The holiest place in the home is the table. While we Jews have long ago abandoned a taste for ritual sacrifice, the table is actually a memory of the ancient altar in Jerusalem, where eating was a sacred act.

The synagogue is also a holy place. My complaint about American Judaism has always been that too many people view the synagogue as a museum, or even worse – a theater.

Often, congregants say to me: “Let’s ask someone from the audience to light Shabbat candles.”

Here is how I respond, inwardly: “There is an audience in this sanctuary. But, the audience is not us. The audience is God. We are the actors. The liturgy is our libretto. Worship would touch something deep within us, if we allow the poetry to wash over our souls and to somehow penetrate our being.”

But, ultimately (and this is radical): This is not for us, as much as we might “enjoy” (a word from the realm of aesthetics). Our words are, ultimately, offerings to God.

Synagogues should be places – to quote the theme song of the old television show “Cheers” – “where everybody knows your name.”  Synagogues should be what sociologists call “the third place” – the “first place” being your home; the “second place” being the workplace; and the “third place” where you hang out. For some. It’s the local tavern, or the coffee place (which is why Starbucks was so successful). For many, it is now the country club.

For Jews, it could be the synagogue.

Jews have a different way of eating. There is a difference between the slice of pizza, and the piece of challah. There is a time for pasta, and there is a time for matzah. There is a time to eat and a time to refrain from eating. There are foods that Jews eat, and there are foods that we might consider not eating, because of who we are, and because of what we have inherited from the generations. For some Jews, this might be a full observance of the laws of kashrut. For others, it might mean the avoidance of certain food items that Jews have historically avoided, like pork products or shellfish.

Jews have a different way of relating to geography. Jewish geography is not just figuring out who else went to your high school.

It is the implicit understanding that there is a huge difference between, say, Miami or Los Angeles or New York, and the land of Israel.

When Jew believe that the state of Israel should be better than other countries; should be more moral than other countries; should lead with Jewish values, rather than mere realpolitik (I am looking at you, Prime Minister Netanyahu), it is because, at the root of our absolutes, we believe that it is a holy place.

Jews have a different way of learning. Jewish learning is not for a grade. There are many places where our children can gain knowledge. There are many places where our children can rack up stuff to put on their “resumes.” There is nothing wrong with that, in moderation and in its proper place.

But, the synagogue is the only place where our young people can gain wisdom. It is learning Torah l’shma – simply for its own sake. It is a way of learning that takes us, momentarily, out of the world – only to send us back into the world, to transform the world.

For adults: The growth of book groups in America testifies to how this Jewish value of reading for pleasure and wisdom has spread into the general culture.

In all of these senses, Judaism – even and especially non-Orthodox Judaism – can become a counter-cultural expression. Counter-culture does not always mean a stubborn “no.” At the very least, it means confrontation, encounter, and a filtering out of the less attractive elements of a culture.

This is what Jews have always done. Question: What elements of American culture are Jews — of any stripe — prepared to confront and criticize?

The New Testament scholar, Leander Keck once said to me: “I have always admired the way that the Jews have refused to allow themselves to become lost in a generalized humanity.”

Thank you for that, Professor Keck.

Let us not let him down.


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