18 December 2009
Rosh Chodesh Tevet 5770
This week has been jam-packed with student creativity and communal celebrations. From their outstanding performances in the edgy and challenging fall play, Ubu Rex¸ to Sunday’s inspiring opening of the senior class’s Czech exhibit, to the performances at last night’s first community-wide family Chanukah celebration, the light of our students’ souls has been reflected in and magnified by the glowing lights of the Chanukah candles.
Earlier this week, I received several emails from family members and friends asking if I had read David Brooks’ editorial in the New York Times last Friday, erev Chanukah. In the column, Brooks essentially “debunks the myth” of Chanukah, no doubt leaving many of his readers surprised and confused. So many of us know Chanukah as a holiday that commemorates the heroic Maccabees defeating the mean, anti-Semitic Assyrians and the one cruise of oil miraculously lasting eight days. But Brooks offers what I would call the “critical historical” account (as opposed to the classical Jewish or Rabbinic account) of the story. How do we as modern Jews deal with the fact that, for example, the first person the Maccabees killed in their revolt against Antiochus’ religious oppression was a fellow (assimilated) Jew? The editorial concludes:
“But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.”
Below is the link to the Brooks’ article:
At first the editorial did not faze me, for I have studied this history and, on a personal level, have found ways to integrate modern, critical history into my Jewish identity, my religious beliefs, and my understanding of and relationship with our Jewish story. In fact, I appreciated the clarity with which Brooks captures the complexity of Chanukah, which for him seems to redeem the story from a religious simplicity he cannot accept. But after reading it several more times, the article began to concern me. What about readers who do not have the background knowledge, the educational context, or the Jewish spiritual guidance needed to grapple with the larger questions Brooks raises: What happens when the version of events that we learn in history class conflicts with the version of the same events that appear in the Talmud or the Siddur? What if we discover that the heroes of the Jewish past are actually morally and spiritually complex historical figures? Put most starkly, after reading David Brooks’ article, how can I light the Chanukah candles and joyously sing the words of “Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)”?
To answer these questions here would both take too long and diminish the intellectual and spiritual significance of these questions. But what is clear to me is that this editorial and the questions it raises bear witness to the imperative that we give our children and ourselves the kind of Jewish education that prepares us to be, in the words of Gann’s mission statement, “knowledgeable, sophisticated and passionate about Judaism.” To me, the biggest threat of Brooks’ editorial and of modern, critical history in general is that people come to the conclusion that these three words in our mission statement are incompatible with one another and that we must choose between being “knowledgeable and sophisticated” intellectuals or “passionate” religious believers and observers. For so many, learning the “real story” generates cynicism about our Jewish narratives and the rituals that go along with them.
I am proud that Gann, and, in particular, our integrated approach to teaching Jewish history are at the cutting edge of preparing students to grapple with these questions in ways that do not threaten their Jewish identities but rather strengthen and inspire them. I bless us and our children to be able to open our minds to critical thinking and to the complexity of history and the world. At the same time we open our hearts to the meaning and power of our Jewish stories, the beauty of the Jewish tradition, and the possibilities of seeing and feeling the world through not only an intellectual lens but also a spiritual lens. Perhaps, this is the lesson of Chanukah.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach (Happy Chanukah),
Rabbi Marc Baker