Category Archives: Chanukah

Still, Small, Defiant Lights

I’m always struck by the contrast this time of year between, on the one hand, the garish multicolored and blinking lights that scream for attention from so many American homes and, on the other, the quiet, tiny ones that softly grace the windows of Jewish ones. I think there may be cosmic meaning in Chanukah’s tendency to roughly coincide with a major non-Jewish holiday season.

For, while Chanukah is often portrayed by some Jewish clergy on radio programs and in newspapers as nothing but a celebration of religious freedom (or even, bizarrely, as some sort of salute to religious pluralism), the true meaning of the neiros Chanukah is clear from the many classical Jewish sources about the holiday – from the Gemara to the sifrei Kabbalah to the works of Chassidus. The celebration is entirely about the struggle to maintain Jewish integrity and observance within a non-Jewish milieu, to resist assimilation into a dominant non-Jewish culture.

The real enemy at the time of the Maccabim was less the Seleucid empire as a military power than what Seleucid society represented: a cultural colonialism that sought to erode the beliefs and observances of our mesorah, and to replace them with the glorification of the physical and the embrace of much that the Torah considers unacceptable. The Seleucids sought to acculturate the Jewish people, to force them to adopt a “superior,” “sophisticated,” overbearing secular philosophy. And so, the Jewish victory, when it came, was a triumph not over an army but over assimilation. The Maccabim succeeded in preserving the mesorah, and protecting it from dilution.

The overwhelming gloss and glitter of the non-Jewish celebration of the season are thus a fitting contrast to the still, small, defiant lights of the Chanukah menorah.

And in times like our own, when the larger Jewish world, l’daavoneinu, is so assimilated, and intermarriage so rampant, nothing could be more important for American Jews than Chanukah’s message.

Some try to make lemonade out of the bitter fruit of contemporary Jewish demographics, choosing to celebrate the incorporation of the larger society’s perspectives and mores into “new forms of Judaism,” and to view intermarriage as a wonderful opportunity for creating “converts” – or, at least, willing accomplices to the raising of Jewish, or Jewish-style, children. But they are dancing on the deck of a Jewish Titanic.

Lowering the bar for what constitutes Jewish belief and practice does not make stronger Jews, only weaker “Judaism.” And intermarriage is a bane, not a boon, to the Jewish future.

Over so very much of history, our ancestors were threatened with social sanctions and violence by people who wanted them to adopt foreign cultures or beliefs. Today, ironically, what threats and violence and murder couldn’t accomplish – the decimation of Jewish identity – seems to be happening on its own. Where tyranny failed, freedom is threatening to succeed.

Poignant meaning shines forth from the Bais Hamikdash’s menorah’s supernatural eight-day burning on a one-day supply of oil. For light, of course, is Torah, the preserver of Klal Yisrael.

Even the custom of playing dreidel is a reminder of that symbol of Jewish continuity. The Seleucids, it is related, had forbidden not only various fundamental mitzvos and hanhagos, they also outlawed the study of Torah, which they understood, consciously or otherwise, is the engine of Jewish identity and continuity. The spinning toy was a subterfuge adopted by Jews when they were studying Torah; if they sensed enemy inspectors nearby, they would suddenly take out their dreidels and spin them, masking their study session with an innocuous game of chance.

The candles we light each night of Chanukah recalling that menorah miracle reflect a greater miracle still: the survival of Klal Yisrael over the millennia. All the alien winds of powerful empires and mighty cultures were unable to extinguish the flames of Jewish commitment. “Chanukah” means “dedication.” It doesn’t just recall the Bais Hamikdash that was rededicated bayamim hahem, but calls on us to rededicate ourselves baz’man hazeh.

We do that by keeping ourselves from melting into our surroundings, and resisting the blandishments of those who insist that there is no other way. We know how to put the dreidels away and open the sefarim.

And with our determination, our mitzvos and our limud haTorah, we can prove worthy descendants of those who came before us, and continue as a people to persevere.

The great and powerful empires of history flared mightily but then disappeared without a trace. Their lights were bright but artificial.

Ours, small as they may be, are eternal.

Body and Soul

It sounds like a story about the fictional Chelm. The town philosopher sagely informs his fellow citizens that he has no face. He can’t perceive it directly, he points out, and besides, as anyone can plainly see, what people claim is his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The silly scene is inspired by celebrated scientists. Like Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, who has lamented human beings’ stubborn commitment to “dualism,” the idea that people possess both physical and spiritual components. He pities those who believe that there is an “I” somehow separate from one’s body and brain.

“The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls…,” he asserts confidently, “emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

Also enlightening the backward masses is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who condescendingly advises people to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.”

Or, as they might say at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the brain, perforce, must be the soul.  And your stereo speakers are the music.

Sometimes, though, intuitions are right and scientific dogmas wrong. Scientists, the noted British psychologist H. J. Eysenck famously observed, can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”  Some, in fact, are prone to a perilous folly: the confidence – despite the long and what-should-be chastening history of science, littered with the remains of once-coddled beliefs – that they have – eureka! – arrived at conclusive knowledge.

Were the contemporary “dualism” debate merely academic, we believing Jews might reasonably choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness and, perforce, of our responsibility for our choices – the unmistakable ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of substantial import.

The idea of the  neshamah goes to the very heart of many a contemporary social issue. It influences society’s attitudes toward a host of moral concerns, from animal rights to the meaning of marriage to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human  neshamah, there is simply nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from considering any “lifestyle” less proper than any other, nothing to prevent us from coldly ending the life of a patient in extremis. Put starkly, without affirmation of the  neshamah, society is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.

And the game is zero-sum: Either humans are something qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, or they are not. And a society that chooses to believe the latter is a society where no person has any reason to aspire to anything beyond self-gratification. A world in denial of the  neshamah might craft a utilitarian social contract. But right and wrong could be no more meaningful than right and left.

The notion is hardly novel, of course. Philosophical “Materialists,” believing only in the physical and bent on despiritualizing humanity’s essence were the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

And the footsteps in which they walked were those of Yavan. The ancient Greeks hallowed reason and inquiry, and celebrated the physical world. Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference to within one percent; Euclid conceived and developed geometry; Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system. And the early Greeks exalted the human being – but as a physical specimen, not more.

Accordingly, the most worthwhile goal of man for the Greeks was the enjoyment of life. The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

Which may be why the culture that was Yavan was so enraged by Klal Yisrael’s focus on kedushah. Shabbos denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; milah implied that the body is imperfect; kiddush hachodesh saw holiness where the Greeks saw only mundane periodicity; modesty, moreover, was unnatural.

The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings. And Hellenist philosophers who spoke of a “soul” were referring only to the personality or intellect. The idea of a tzelem Elokim, of a  neshamah that can make choices and merit eternity, indispensable to the Jew, was indigestible to the Greek.

Ner Hashem nishmas adam – “The soul of man is a Divine flame” (Mishlei 20:27). When we light our Chanukah lecht, we might keep in mind how, despite the declarations of some scientists and Chelmer holdouts, Klal Yisrael overcame Yavan not only on a physical battlefield but on a conceptual one no less.

© 2017 Hamodia

A Window into the Past

It’s barely visible. Taped to the inside of the front bay window of a neat, modest house on a nondescript street in Toronto is a photocopy of a spoon.

The window, off the living room, is dominated by two large, healthy banana plants that have thrived there for many years. But if you look closely at the window of the house near Eglington Avenue, where my dear in-laws live, you’ll see the reproduction of the spoon, and might wonder why it’s there.

The answer to that question has to do with my father-in-law, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well, an alumnus of a number of World War II concentration camps. And with Chanukah, too.

The spoon that was photocopied was one of the items he smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved him into “Camp Number Eight” – a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying typhus.

There were no labor details in that new camp, but the inmates were ordered to help in its construction, which was still underway. Having had some experience in the Lodz ghetto as a mechanic, my father-in-law helped the electrical technician install the camp’s lighting.

With his new access to tools, he brought his spoon to work and filed down its handle, making it into a sharp knife, which he used both to eat his soup ration and to cut the chunk of bread he and others were allotted and had to cut evenly to apportion it fairly. My father-in-law became the go-to person to wield his spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative peace among the prisoners.

When winter came, he was transferred to “Camp Number Four” in Kaufering, a camp more similar to Auschwitz. Despite the terrible hardships the prisoners suffered daily, however, my father-in-law, a Gerer chassid, and other G-d-fearing Jews in the camp tried whenever possible to do what mitzvos they could, despite all the dangers that involved.

My father-in-law always kept mental track of the calendar, and he knew when Chanukah had arrived. During a few minutes’ rest break, he and a group of inmates began to reminisce about how, back home before the war, their fathers would light their menorahs with such fervor and joy. They remembered how they could never get their fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, and basked in their warm, special glow.

And they spoke of the war of the Chashmonaim against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts. And how Hashem helped them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah and mitzvos once again.

If only, they mused, if only they could light Chanukah candles.

One prisoner said he had a small bit of margarine he had saved from his daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks? They began to unravel threads from our uniforms…

But a menorah. They needed a menorah.

My father-in-law took out his spoon.  Within moments, the small group was lighting their Chanukah lichteleh, reciting the brachos of “Lehadlik ner”, She’asa nissim” and “Shehecheyanu.” The prisoners all stood there transfixed, immersed in their thoughts… of Chanukahs gone by.

The small flame kindled in them, too, a glimmer of hope. As they recited She’asa nissim, the bracha about the miracles Hashem had performed for our forefathers “in those days”, but also “at this time,” they understood that the only thing that could save them would be a miracle. A “nes gadol,” in fact.

Non-religious Jews, too, stood nearby and watched the luminous moment in the darkness of their concentration camp lives. Who knows what difference it may have made in their own lives.

My father-in-law today, along with his eishes chayil, are filled with gratitude for his having been graced with a personal miracle and surviving those days – a harrowing story in itself, which he chronicled in his ArtScroll/Mesorah book “Destined to Survive.”

And they thank Hashem for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren He has granted them, kein yirbu, committed to lives of Torah and mitzvos.

A more elaborate menorah than a spoon is placed at their window each Chanukah. But the spoon, or at least a photographic reproduction of it, always shares the window space, a reminder of a Chanukah many years ago in a very different place.

And, somehow, the large, thriving plants that frame the window seem appropriate too.

© 2016 Hamodia

Candles and Candor

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

In Those Days, In This Time

The following essay was written for Haaretz and appeared on its website recently under a different title.  I share it here with that paper’s permission.

There’s a striking irony in the fact that Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays among American Jews.

Cynics have contended that it’s Chanukah’s proximity to the Christian winter holiday, with all the latter’s ubiquitous glitz, baubles and musical offerings, that has elevated Chanukah – seen by some as a “minor” celebration, since it’s a  post-Biblical commemoration – to the pantheon (if a Greek word is appropriate here) of popular Jewish observances.

In fact, though, Chanukah is not minor at all; a wealth of Jewish mystical literature enwraps it, and laws (albeit rabbinical in origin) govern the nightly lighting of the holiday’s candles and the recital of Al Hanisim (“For the miracles”) in our prayers over Chanukah’s eight days.

As to whether many American Jews are enamoured of Frosty the Snowman, well, it’s an open question.  Me, I prefer my winter nights silent.

But onward to the irony, which is not only striking but significant.

I recall hearing a Reform rabbi on a public radio program a couple of years ago extolling Chanukah as a celebration of “pluralism” and “tolerance.”  After all, the Greek-Syrian Seleucid enemy of the Jews at the time of the Chanukah miracle, he explained, were intolerant of Jewish religious practices.  Well, yes, but the Jewish rebellion wasn’t aimed at establishing some sort of Middle-Eastern First Amendment but rather to fiercely defend the study and practice of the Torah.  And to rid the Temple of idols.  Judaism has no tolerance at all for some things, idolatry prime among them.

What is more, the Jewish uprising also – and here we close in on the irony – was to counter the influence on Jews of a foreign culture.

To the Jewish religious leaders who established the observance of Chanukah, a greater threat than the flesh-and-blood forces that had defiled the Holy Temple was the adoption by Jews of Hellenistic ideals

For the Seleucids not only forbade observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, Jewish modesty laws and Torah-study, they held out to Jews the sweet but poison fruit of Greek culture, and some Jews devoured it whole.

The enemy, in other words, didn’t just install a statue of Zeus in the Temple, but an assimilationist attitude in some Jewish hearts.  And Chanukah stands for the fight against that attitude.

It’s easy to dismiss the ancient Greek soap-opera that passed for divine doings, the gods who were described as acting like the lowest of men.  It isn’t likely that many Jews (or Greeks, for that matter) really believed the tales of celestial hijinks that passed for spirituality at the time.

But the ancient Greeks had something much more enticing to offer. Hellas celebrated the physical world; it developed geometry, calculated the earth’s circumference, proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system and focused attention on the human being, at least as a physical specimen. It philosophized about life and love.

But much of Hellenist thought revolved around the idea that the enjoyment of life was the most worthwhile goal of man, yielding us the words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all Greek in origin.

Western society today revolves around pleasure too.  It adopts the language of “freedom” and “rights” to disguise the fact, but it’s a pretty transparent fig leaf.

To be sure, most Jews in the U.S. remain stubbornly, laudably, proud of their Jewishness.  But, all the same, they have been culturally colonized by a sort of contemporary Hellenism, American style.

Which bring us – if you haven’t already guessed – to the irony.

Because Chanukah addresses neither pluralism nor tolerance (admirable though those concepts may be in their proper places), but rather Jewish identity and continuity, the challenges most urgently faced by contemporary American Jews.

And its message stands right in front of them, in the flickering flames.

The “miracle of the lights,” Jewish tradition teaches, was not arbitrary.  Abundant meaning for the Jewish ages shone from the Temple candelabra’s supernatural eight-day burning of a one-day supply of oil.  For light, our tradition further teaches, means Torah, its study and its observance – not “contemporized,” and not edited to conform to the Zeitgeist, but as it has been handed down over the centuries.

When American Jews light their Chanukah candles they may not consider that the holiday they are acknowledging speaks most poignantly to them.

But they should.

© 2013 Haaretz

For older Chanukah-themed essays just click on “Chanukah” in “Categories.”

 

Shedding Light on Anti-Semitism

A sampling of recent events – a senior Turkish official’s insinuation that Israel is behind the Wikileaks scandal; Iran’s unlocking of a website for devotees of Nazi Germany; a neo-Nazi’s spray-painting of swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs on headstones in a suburban Chicago Jewish cemetery; the brutal beating of a Jewish school teacher in the Chassidic Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn – is a timely thing to ponder as we head toward Chanukah.

To understand what all the above “spirit of the season” has to do with the Jewish time of year, one has to move beyond bemoaning anti-Semitism, toward understanding it.

It’s not an easy task.  Irrational Jew-hatred’s astounding resiliency and its purveyors’ impressive creativity are baffling.  And anti-Semitism has been around for centuries, indeed millennia.  So, too, though, has been Jewish tradition’s take on the matter.

Classical Jewish thought’s approach to the question of anti-Semitism may have been most pithily rendered by the renowned Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik of Brisk (1820-1892), who wrote: “Know that the more that Jews minimize the ‘apartness’ that the Torah mandates through Torah study and the observance of the commandments, the more G-d allows hatred [within others] to bring about the necessary outcome – that the Jewish people remain a people apart.”

It says much about how far we Jews have drifted from the fundamentals of our spiritual heritage that such a thought strikes so many as outrageous.  How, they ask, could our attempt to blend harmoniously into larger society and to jettison religious observances increase anti-Semitism?

Yet that is precisely what the Torah itself repeatedly and explicitly predicts (as in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28), what authentic Jewish religious leaders have always maintained, and what alone explains the reality around us.  Once our initial umbrage at the idea subsides, what remains are the troubling but telling facts: Despite the Holocaust, and compulsory education in liberal values, and interfaith efforts, and Jews’ hearty embrace of the cultures in which they live – we are as hated as ever.  Perhaps more than ever.

That is the point.  Much as we may squirm, we Jews are meant to be “a people apart.”  And if we try to be “just like all the nations,” in the Torah’s disapproving words, G-d allows others to remind us of our role.

Which brings us to Chanukah.

Some contemporary Jewish writers – even, sadly, some clergy – seem intent on minimizing the significance of the Jewish holiday of lights, claiming it is but a minor affair, artificially magnified by its proximity in the calendar to non-Jewish celebratory days.  Nothing could be more misleading.  Chanukah, to be sure, is not a Biblical holiday; it is based on an historical occurrence that took place after Biblical times.  But it is the focus of a substantial amount of Jewish thought and lore, particularly in the mystical tradition.

What motivates the would-be Chanukah-diminishers, I suspect, is their discomfort with Chanukah’s elemental message.

Because according to Jewish tradition, the victory celebrated on Chanukah was only superficially about the routing of the Greek-Syrian Seleucid Empire’s forces from Judea.  More essentially, it was about the routing of the Greek assimilationist inroads into Jewish life.  To the rabbis who established the holiday, a greater enemy than the flesh-and-blood forces that had defiled the Holy Temple was the adoption by Jews of Hellenistic ideals.

For the Seleucids not only forbade observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, Jewish modesty and the study of Torah, they convinced some Jews to embrace their world-view.  They installed not only a statue of Zeus in the Temple, but an assimilationist attitude in Jewish hearts.  And Chanukah stands for the uprooting of that attitude, for the recognition that Jews are, and must be, different.

Which is why Chanukah’s observance does not involve a special feast – as does Purim’s, when the threat against us was physical – but rather only the lighting, and gazing at, the ethereal light of candles.  The battle of Chanukah was, in its essence, a spiritual one.  Light represents Torah.  And Torah – its study and its observance – is the essence of the Jewish people.  “A bit of light,” as the rabbis of the Talmud put it, “banishes much darkness.”

And so, as we light the Chanukah candles, watch their flames and consider events both ancient and current – “in those days, at this time” – we might give some thought, too, to both the spiritual state of the Jewish world today and to how widely, insanely we are hated.

And ponder the message of the lights flickering before us.

© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran

 

The Candle Within

It would make a good Chelm story.  The resident philosopher sagely announces that since he can’t perceive his own face directly he must not have one.  Besides, as anyone can plainly see, what seems to be his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The thought is inspired by “materialist” psychologists, who lament the persistence of the idea of “dualism,” the belief that human beings possess both physical and spiritual components.  “The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls are purely corporeal,” asserts Professor Paul Bloom of Yale, for example.  “They emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

Another would-be re-educator of the backward masses is Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who advises us to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.”

Or, as they might say back at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the latter must define the former.

Sometimes, though, deep intuitions are right and interpretations of evidence (or the lack of it) wrong.  And scientists, as the noted British psychologist H. J. Eyesenck famously observed, can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”

Were the contemporary dualism debate merely academic, we might just ignore it.  Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness – the ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of formidable import.

Negating the concept of a soul – what makes human beings special and requires us to take responsibility for our choices – yields deep repercussions in broader society.  It bears impact on a slew of contemporary social issues, from animal rights to abortion; from marriage’s meaning to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human soul, there is nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from casually terminating a yet-unborn life or a life no longer “useful”; no reason to consider any way of life less proper than any other.  Neither would we be justified to consider any insect our inferior, nor bound to any ethical or moral system.  Put succinctly, a society that denies the soul-idea is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.

The game’s zero-sum: Either we humans are qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, sublimated by our souls and the responsibilities that attend them; or we are not.  A soul-denying world might craft a utilitarian social contract.  But right and wrong there could have no true meaning at all.

The materialist notion is not novel.  De-spiritualizers of humanity’s essence served as the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

But the first “materialists” may have been the ancient Greeks, who placed capricious gods on the pedestal where, today, professors lay gray matter.

Hellas celebrated the physical world.  The ancient Greeks developed geometry, calculated the earth’s circumference, proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system and focused attention on the human being, too, but only as a physical specimen.

Accordingly, much of Hellenist thought revolved around the idea that the enjoyment of life was the most worthwhile goal of man.  The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

And so it followed almost logically that the culture that was Greece saw the Jewish fixation on the divine as an affront.  The Sabbath denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; circumcision implied that the body is imperfect; the Jewish calendar imparted holiness where there is only mundane periodicity; and modesty or any sort of limits on indulgence in physical pleasure were unnatural.

The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings, evidencing the basest of inclinations.  And when Hellenist philosophers spoke of the “soul,” they referred only to what we would call the personality or intellect.  The idea of a self that can make meaningful choices and merit eternal reward was indigestible to the Greek world-view.

As indispensable as it is to the Jewish one, which insists that humans are unique within creation, and that we are charged with living special lives; that our souls are eternal and that what we do makes a difference.

Chanukah celebrates the crucial difference between the ideals that embodied Hellenism and those that animate the Jewish people.

In recent years it has become fashionable among the ignorant to dismiss Chanukah as a “minor” festival on the Jewish calendar.  Anyone familiar with the centuries-old and voluminous mystical, conceptual and halachic Chanukah literature knows better

The Hellenism/Judaism philosophical battle continues to this day and its stakes are high.  Gazing at the Chanukah candles this year, we might want to recall the words (Proverbs, 20:27) of King Solomon, the wisest of all men: “A flame of G-d is the soul of man.”

© 2009 Rabbi Avi Shafran

 

The Art of Menschlichkeit

A New York tabloid recently mocked the Bush White House.  No news there; ‘tis the season, so to speak.  The fodder for this ridicule, though, wasn’t political.  It consisted, rather, of the artwork on the Bushes’ invitations to this year’s White House Chanukah party.  A beautiful snowy White House scene dominates the card; all the way off to the side, a horse is drawing a wagon bearing a holiday tree.

As in the past, some Agudath Israel representatives, myself included, received invitations to the Chanukah event.  I smiled at the card when it arrived, but didn’t find it offensive in any way.  According to the New York Post, though, someone – although unwilling to share his or her name – did.

If we needed more evidence, beyond the countless blogs out there, that some people have all too much time on their hands and all too little sense in their heads, it’s here.

Those who received the invitations are presumably Jewish.  Does the person who thought it clever to call a reporter realize how remarkable it is that there even is a Chanukah party hosted by the President and First Lady of the United States of America?  Is he aware of the fact that, in 1943, 400 rabbis marched to the White House to implore President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to allow more European Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to immigrate to our shores – and that Mr. Roosevelt left the building through a back door to avoid having to meet them?  (No Chanukah party that year, or for several decades thereafter, until Mr. Bush took office.)

Has the insulted invitee forgotten how President Bush, in an act of principle, ended our country’s participation in the 2001 Durban “Racism” conference, when it degraded into an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic saturnalia?

Does he not recall the President’s 2002 Rose Garden address, in which Mr. Bush boldly stated what his predecessors had always declined to say – that Yasser Arafat, despite his claims, never renounced terror?   Or how, last year, the President challenged Palestinians to “match their words denouncing terror with action to combat terror,” that “nothing less is acceptable”?

Despite all that, the anonymous Post informant chose to take offense at an innocuous illustration on an invitation from the Bushes.  To visit the White House.  In honor of Chanukah.  It defies all understanding.

And then, as if to widen further the gulf between the good will of the Bushes and the grumbling of the boor, yesterday I received a second hand-addressed White House invitation.  This one’s cover art was a silhouette of a menorah against a blue background; and enclosed was a note reading: “Please accept our apologies, as the invitation you previously received had the incorrect cover artwork.”

There is much about what Yiddish-speaking Jews call “menschlichkeit” (literally, “acting like a human being”; the word conveys graciousness and good manners) that the Post’s informant could learn from the Bushes.

Back when I received the first invitation, I asked Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for government and public affairs Rabbi David Zwiebel if he thought it was important for me to attend the Chanukah party.  I had mixed feelings.

I have no personal desire to make the trip.  Having attended other such gatherings, whatever thrill might once have lain in milling about in a large crowd or shaking the President’s hand no longer persists.  And as for organizational concerns, well, the Bush White House’s days are numbered – and the number is a small one.

On the other hand, though, some shapeless feeling was pushing me to want to make the schlep.

Rabbi Zwiebel thought a moment and said, “I think you should go.”   Then, after I asked “Why?” he verbalized in four simple words what had still been congealing in my own mind.

“To say ‘thank you’.”

© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Nature of Nature

It is a strange and disorienting panorama that Rabbi E. E. Dessler, the celebrated Jewish thinker (1892-1953) asks us to ponder: a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.

The thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground.   The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing – most astonishing of all – seeds of its own!

Notes Rabbi Dessler, there is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous.  We simply use the former word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and the latter one for those we have not before experienced.  All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.

It is a thought poetically rendered by Emerson, who wrote: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…”

A thought, in fact, that subtly informed famed physicist Paul Davies’ recent op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote that “the very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

And it is a thought, too, that, according to several renowned Jewish thinkers, has pertinence to Chanukah.

The supernatural nature of nature lies at the heart of the answer he suggests for one of the most famous questions in the canon of Jewish religious law, posed in the 1500s by the author of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo: Why, if oil sufficient for one day was discovered in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple when the Macabees reclaimed it from Seleucid control, is Chanuka eight days long?  True, that is how long the candles burned, allowing the priests to prepare new, uncontaminated oil.  But was not one of those eight days simply the day for which the found oil sufficed, and thus not itself a miracle-day worthy of commemoration?

Suggest those sources: Seven of Chanukah’s days commemorate the miracle that, in the time of the Maccabees, the candelabrum’s flames burned without oil.  The eighth commemorates the miracle of the fact that oil burns at all.

The suggestion pithily echoes an account in the Talmud (Ta’anit, 25a), in which the daughter of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before the Sabbath that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Sabbath lamps, and began to panic.  Rabbi Chanina, a man who vividly perceived G-d’s hand in all and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her.  “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar [as well] to burn.”

There is, in fact, one day of Chanukah’s eight that is set apart from the others, designated with a special appellation.  The final day of the holiday – this year beginning with the candle-lighting on the night of Tuesday, December 11 and continuing through the next day – is known as “Zos Chanukah,” after the Torah passage beginning “Zos chanukas hamizbe’ach” (“This is the dedication of the altar”) read in the synagogue that day.

The Jewish mystical sources consider that day to be the final reverberation of the Days of Awe marked many weeks earlier.  Although Rosh Hashana was the year’s day of judgment and Yom Kippur was the culmination of the days of repentance, later “time-stones” of the period of G-d’s judgment of our actions are cited as well.  One is Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot.  And the final one, according to the sources, is “Zos Chanukah.”

It would indeed seem to be a fitting day for thinking hard about the “supernature” in nature, the miraculous in the seemingly mundane.  For what is what we call a miracle if not a more-clear-than-usual manifestation of G-d?  And what are the Days of Awe if not a time when He is “close” to us, when G-d-consciousness is at front and center?

And so, perhaps the final day of Chanukah presents us with a singular opportunity to ponder how, just as the ubiquity and predictability of nature can mislead us, allowing us to forget that all is, in truth, G-d’s will, so too can the weeks elapsed since the late summer Days of Awe lull us into a state of unmindfulness regarding the import of our actions.

If so, the final night of Chanukah might be a particularly apt time to gaze at the eight flames leaking enlightenment into the world and, as we prepare to head into the dismal darkness of what some might consider a “G-d-forsaken winter,” know that, still and all, as always, “His glory fills the universe.”

© 2007 Rabbi Avi Shafran