Recently a controversy has erupted (or re-erupted) in the Town of North Hempstead, on Long Island’s north shore. How it began is of little or no importance; nor, in the scheme of things, is its subject matter weighty: the lighting of a giant hanukiah in a town park. (Rest easy: This will not be a meditation on the First Amendment, or the separation of church and state, or anything like it. That’s for another post.)
What troubles me is this: the self-appointed guardians of Jewish identity have, I think, dug themselves a hole from which no “graceful exit” is possible. To jump quickly to the punchline: who is more assimilated, the secularist whose celebration of Hanukah explicitly acknowledges its minor place in the liturgy? or the religious who so fears acculturation that he erects a giant menorah in the public square to proclaim parity with the majority’s solstice festival.
As a Reconstructionist, I am keenly aware — and take pains to make my children aware — that Hanukah is a minor holiday; even while we observe its customs, what we celebrate is not the festival so much as its place in our history and culture.
Perhaps the greatest irony in this much-ado-about-nothing is the origin of Hanukah itself: the Maccabean revolt against a leadership that was assimilating, willingly, with the Greek influences of the time. (Civil war? No; just a little sectarian violence.) Fearing the permanent loss of Jewish identity, Judah Maccabee led his fellow-travelers against Antiochus; after months taking refuge in the mountains, they retook the temple grounds, rededicated the temple, and celebrated the eight-day holiday they’d missed while hiding out: Sukkot. No siege, no shortage of oil, no miracle of the lamps.
The Guardians of the Jewish Faith would turn back the clock to rabbinic times, but no farther; thus they fall into the same trap that has held Israel and the surrounding hostile nations in a deadly embrace for the last sixty years: the compulsion to remember the past, but only up to a point. How much more productive to honor the past, while setting one’s gaze — and one’s ambition — on some yet-unknown and unbuilt future. To do that, though, requires real vision and true leadership.