On the eve of Chanukah 2018, the N.Y. Times chose to publish an article entitled “The Hypocrisy of Hanukah” by Michael David Lukas. It is worth reminding ourselves of this perspective and my critique of it not only because of the way it reveals the shallowness of those contemporary forms of Jewishness that are more about identity politics, lox and bagels, nostalgia, or fear of the non-Jew than about any substantive belief and so quickly boil down to a mild form of liberalism (on everything except Israel/Palestine issues) or a mild form of conservatism without any ethical or spiritual content, but also because of the way it reveals how ill-suited contemporary liberalism is to understand the appeal of right-wing nationalist chauvinism and hence to effectively challenge it. My new book Revolutionary Love is in part an analysis of the legitimate needs that the liberal and progressive world too often ignore, namely that many Americans hunger for something deeper than the the version of the holidays immersed in the culture of buying and spending. Liberals and progressives ignore the hunger for meaning and purpose of life that is at the root of the Jewish and Christian celebrations at this time of year, thereby making themselves less effective in reaching many American. Rethinking what is good about Chanukah (and Christmas) is part of the task of creating a Love and Justice movement.
So first, to get to the critique of Chanukah. In the New York Times article from 2018, Lukas portrays the problem of contemporary non-religious Jews in a Christian culture with its powerful and pervasive symbols and music of Christmas. Like most Jews, he doesn’t believe in the supposed miracle of a light that burned for eight days, so he digs deeper and what he finds outrages him. Namely, that Chanukah was, in his representation, a battle between cosmopolitan Jews who wanted to embrace the enlightened thought of Greek culture and a militaristic chauvinistic fundamentalist force, the Maccabees. Since he is sure that those Maccabees would reject him and his liberal ideas and politics, he is tempted to abandon the whole thing. But instead, he decides not to do so because he needs something at this time of year to offer his young daughter who is attracted to Santa Claus. He thinks that offering his daughter something he personally believes to be worse than nonsense is, as he puts, “all about beating Santa.” He can’t understand why anyone would identify with that chauvinist and militarist Judaism represented by Chanukah, when they could become part of the attractive universalist culture (in the Maccabees day–Greek Hellenism with all its deep philosophers, theatre, and technology). To paraphrase a response from Emanuel Levinas who presents the views of the assimilating Jews who wanted Jews to give up their Judaism rather than resist the imperialist power of Greece, “Oh yes, everything we need is in Greek philosophy—everything, that is, except the idea that we should care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. Look as you may, you won’t find that in Plato and Aristotle or Euripides or in the later works of the Hellenism that developed in Rome. And that’s why the Torah matters.”
I sympathize with Lukas’ plight and want to offer some very different perspectives.
Lukas proclaims proudly that he is part of the contemporary assimilationists, and thus wonders why he should celebrate a victory of the fundamentalists. Yet he does so because he wants to give his daughter a way to resist the pervasive Christian culture in which he is raising her. It turns out that indeed he is living in a culture which has put down and oppressed Jews for at least the past 1700 years since the teachings of the Jewish prophet Jesus, in the first centuries after his death embraced by slaves and other powerless people as a message of otherworldly hope against the tyranny of Rome, but were later twisted by the Roman emperor Constantine and his followers into becoming the foundation for a Christian world that used religion to advance a colonialist project which sought to dominate much of the known world to Europeans.
To refuse to bow down to the symbols of that culture in the 21st century continues to be extremely difficult for people who do not have an alternative transcendent spiritual framework that challenges the values that underlie the Christian hegemony. These values are still imposed on everyone in this society, not by law but by the powerful impact of the capitalist culture with its message that if you care for your family/friends you will spend beyond your means by buying material things that enrich the owners of the corporations. Lukas has become a victim of that culture, and only slightly alters it to participate in the idolatry of the marketplace by giving his consumption a new purpose: to make Chanukah into a pseudo Christmas, unwittingly undermining the potential liberation thrust of Chanukah and the liberation message which also underlies many of Jesus’ teachings and which are only now being reclaimed, against fierce opposition, by Pope Francis (and sadly, only partially, since Francis refuses to overturn, as he has the power to do, many of the sexist and homophobic practices of the Catholic Church).
The religious fanaticism of the Maccabees was generated first and foremost by the oppressive policies of Greek imperialism. Like American and European forms of domination in the past hundred years, Greek and later Roman imperialism were bolstered by cultural and scientific strength which were used to create a global culture which subordinated the independent farmers of Judeas and most of the other countries of the Mediterranean, teaching them that material rewards and physical prowess represented by the gymnasium and “perfect bodies” (which is why they criminalized the practice of circumcision) would be the best way to achieve economic security and “the good life.” But to enjoy this opportunity, Jews would have to give up what the Greeks saw as their “irrational belief system presented in Torah”.
The reason that rural farmers joined the Maccabean revolt was because the rule imposed first by Alexander “the Great” (conqueror and oppressor), forced them to give so much of their crops to the ruling Syria-based Seleucid or Egypt-based Ptolemaic Hellenists (two of the major societies that fought over control of Judea which lay between them) that these farmers were unable to adequately feed and provide sustenance to their families. And this practice repeats itself thru Western domination of the global south and west, and only recently have Asian elites sought to also get their snouts in the same trough at the expense of the more marginal but previously secure small farmers and city-based workers. These stories are being played out today in South and Central America, in Africa, and in parts of Asia, and more subtly inside the major capitalist countries between the well-off and the rest.
But why were the rebellions against Greek (and then later Roman) imperialism primarily in Judea and not as frequently elsewhere in the Greek and subsequent Roman empires? My answer: because the Jews had the teachings of their Torah that taught them that there was a force in the universe, Yud Hey Vav Hey, (namely, that force in the universe that makes possible the transformation of ‘that which is’ into ‘that which can and should be’, often mistranslated as Jehovah or Yahweh or “God”) and that force made it possible for Jews to get out of the slavery of Egypt and could again aid them to get out of this latest form of oppression. It was their faith in this force that led them to believe that the power of ordinary people could be “greater than the man’s technology” (to alter slightly the slogan of many liberation groups of the past and the present).
So instead of thinking that liberation lies with those Jews, past and present, who identify with the ruling powers of each historical period, whether that was the Jewish assimilationists of ancient Judaea or the Jared Kushners of our own time who cuddle up to President Trump and his bundle of liars and self-enriching imperialists (e.g., Republican congressional members, Fox News and others), Chanukah teaches that there is another path: to utterly reject their system.
Now here comes the big problem: reject them for what alternative? The liberals and universalists of our time, like those of the Maccabean order, did not have a worldview that could include what was good and potentially soul-nourishing in the religious and spiritual cultures of the past. That culture challenged the selfishness and materialism of class societies even while sometimes trying to accommodate to it. Just as the liberals cannot see the positive values in religions when they correctly critique fundamentalism, so too fundamentalists cannot see the positive values in liberal insistence on fundamental human rights and individual liberties.
The rabbis of the Talmud understood this dilemma. They did not want to legitimate the militarism, corruption, and violence of the Hashmona’im regimes that the Maccabees installed in place of Syrian Hellenistic rule, so they created the myth of the oil that burned for eight days and made that the miracle of Chanukah. What they should have done instead is to identify the real miracle: that people can unify against oppression and win against what at first seems like overwhelming odds against the forces that have all the conventional instruments of power in their hands, if and only if they can believe that there is something about the universe that makes such struggles winnable. My addition to that message: Don’t call that transformative force “God” if that term offends you, but develop some consciousness that there is something in the universe that makes liberation possible. That something is celebrated when in the darkest time of each year many of us light candles of Chanukah, or Christians light the candles celebrating their own version of that force in the birth of a baby who they believed would become a liberator or savior.
So instead of capitulating to the logic of the capitalist marketplace and trying to out-buy and out-shine our neighbors, we can embrace the possibility of possibility that Chanukah and Christmas both celebrate. There is nothing hypocritical about that, even if we do that celebration using the melodies and concepts of our own traditions to do so.
We cannot beat the fundamentalists unless we have an alternative worldview which acknowledges what is right in their rejection of the dominant materialist cultures of supposedly enlightened societies. Providing a meaning to life that bucks up against capitalism’s celebration of material things and the money it takes to get them is an attractive element in much of the fundamentalist worlds (including the versions which flourish in sections of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu worlds, etc). Liberal capitalists who shape much of the discourse in the Democratic Party don’t get this, and that is why they often lose. Yet the answer for us at Tikkun is not to embrace fundamentalism, but to embrace a spiritual or religious perspective that affirms higher meaning to life but still embraces the potentially liberatory elements in Western cultures, manifested today in the struggles for human rights and support for refugees while opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, and every other form of xenophobia–yet purging out of Western societies their insane commitment to endless growth, accumulation of goods, and rejection of any higher meaning to life besides domination over others or the endless pursuit of “winning” and proving ourselves better than others (“we are number one”) while ignoring the damage we are doing to the earth, to many of its people, and to all forms of life.
Chanukah is not just about having a response to the consumption craze around Christmas, it is about affirming a different worldview, a hopeful worldview, about replacing cultures of domination with a culture of love and justice, and recognizing that that alternative is not yet fully articulated in the Jewish world and needs all of us to make that clearer not only to the larger world but to our own communities, synagogues, and Jewish organizations, just as Christians need to do in reclaiming Christmas from the emptiness of capitalist consumption. These are themes more fully developed in my new book Revolutionary Love (still a great gift for this season or for any other occasion and available at www.tikkun.org/buyrevlove or online from Barnes and Noble, Target, or Amazon.com)
Jews should not fear Christianity, but support those elements in the Christian world that are similarly committed to rejecting the ethos of the competitive marketplace (and no, you don’t have to be religious to do this–we welcome secular humanists and atheists who share this perspective as well, but it’s nice to have all those values rooted in traditions that have been at this struggle for thousands of years, no matter how much they have been distorted at times, because so have marxist and socialist and even anti-patriarchal traditions been distorted as well). It’s in this consciousness that we join in this holiday season with all peoples to celebrate the holidays and recommit to helping the refugees and the asylum seekers at the borders with Mexico, and the homeless and the hungry, and all people around the world correctly worrying about the way our planet is being destroyed in the pursuit of “more” and “bigger” and are unaware how this kind of selfishness is really self-destructive.
P.S. Read my book Embracing Israel/Palestine to get a sense of how this same analysis leads to a critique of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians and also a critique of some ways of critiquing Israel that do not include sensitivity to the way Judaism has been twisted to become its opposite for many (but not all) Jews. I encourage Jews to stand up and challenge Chanukah celebrations that do not simultaneously critique the emergence of “tough Jews” who lack compassion and empathy for the Palestinian people living under Israeli rule.
Rabbi Michael Lerner
Chair, The Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org
Rabbi, Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in S.F. and Berkeley, Ca. www.beyttikkun.org
Author: Jewish Renewal: A path to healing and transformation; Embracing Israel/Palestine; The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right; Spirit Matters; The Politics of Meaning; with Cornel West: Jews and Blacks–Let the Healing Begin; The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left; Surplus Powerlessness: The Psychodynamics of Daily Life and Work; and most recently from University of California Press: Revolutionary Love.