Candles and Candor

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A non-Orthodox writer recently reached out to ask if I would participate in a panel discussion about Chanukah.  The other panelists would be non-Orthodox clergy

While I cherish every opportunity to interact with Jews who live different lives from my own, I had to decline the invitation, as I have had to do on other similar occasions. I explained that my policy with regard to such kind and appreciated invitations is a sort of passive “civil-disobedience” statement of principle, “intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, [I] opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary.”

“Sorry,” I added, “Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”

The extender of the invitation, Abby Pogrebin, was a guest in the Shafran sukkah this past Chol Hamoed.  Both my wife and I were impressed with both her good will and her desire to learn more about traditional Jewish life and beliefs.  In fact, she is currently writing a series of articles for the secular Jewish paper the Forward on her experiences observing (in both the word’s senses) all the Jewish holidays and fast days over the course of a year.

Ms. Pogrebin recently produced her Chanukah-themed entry in the series and, with remarkable candor, reported that her research has led her to the understanding that Chanukah is really about the victory of Jews faithful to the Jewish religious heritage over those who were willing to jettison it.

“I know it’s too simplistic to say the Maccabees stand in for the observant, and the rest of us for the Hellenized,” she writes. “But implicit in so many rabbinic Hanukkah teachings is that we’re in danger of losing our compass, losing our difference – abandoning the text and traditions that make us Jews.”

Then she continues in a personal vein:  “And that sense of alarm makes me look harder at where I fall on the spectrum before Hanukkah begins this year.”

Ms. Pogrebin goes on to quote Jewish writer Arthur Kurzweil as maintaining that Chanukah “is about Jewish intolerance in the best sense of the word” – that is to say, intolerance of assimilation to the larger culture.

He adds an analogy: “Baseball has four bases. You can invent a game with five bases; maybe it’s even a better game. But it’s not baseball.” Judaism, he explains, “is not whatever you want it to be.”

She goes on to note that it was hard for her “not to see the echoes of Maccabee-Hellenist tension this very month,” citing her failure to enlist traditionally Orthodox participants in a panel discussion she was moderating, the one to which she invited me.  Having requested, and received, my permission to do so, she then quoted my response to her invitation.

Of course she finds reassuring voices, like that of Conservative rabbi Rachel Ain, who tells her “I wear tefillin every morning. They’re black and what all the men wear. I find it so powerful. I also wear a kippah, but it’s a beaded kippah and I have a tallit that was made for me – it’s green and purple and blue – and it’s very feminine and very halachic… Hellenizing? I say it’s innovating.”

But Ms. Pogrebin is a tenacious reporter, and cannot ignore the other, more Jewishly grounded, testimonies she received.

And it personally pains her.  In words like Mr. Kurzweil’s and mine, she hears an echo of “countless voices in the observant world who would likely dismiss my level of Judaism as perilously assimilated.” And she is, understandably, distressed by that thought.

“Hanukkah,” she realizes, “celebrates those who refused to blend in.”

“Where,” therefore, she wonders, “does that leave those of us who, to one degree or another, already have?”

To my lights, Ms. Pogrebin is too hard on herself.  She’s no Hellenist. She may be entangled with the larger culture in which she lives – so are, to one or another degree, all too many observant Jews.  But she doesn’t reject the Jewish religious tradition, as did the Hellenists of old.  In fact, she has embarked on a quest to better understand our mesorah, and seems rightly suspicious of the blandishments of those who proffer “innovations” to Jewish religious praxis.

Observance, to be sure, is central to Yiddishkeit.  But a heartfelt undertaking by someone who wasn’t raised to be Torah-observant to learn more about observance, is hardly the enterprise of a Hellenist.  It’s the hallmark, I’d say, of a Jew.

© 2014 Hamodia