A few weeks ago I attended a local event featuring Joseph Goldstein, the world-renowned Buddhist teacher and author who was here in Brattleboro to help the Vermont Insight Meditation Center celebrate its fifth anniversary. I enjoyed the gathering immensely and was energized by seeing so many bright, serious seekers and practitioners together with such focused and synchronized intentions. I just couldn't help but notice that there were probably more Jews together in the meeting hall that day than when we held our Yom Kippur services there a few months earlier. Had I been at the local farmer's market instead, I might have made a similar observation about how many Jews were there on Shabbat.
I think about this irony now in light of the Hanukkah story we celebrate this month. Back in 165 BCE when Greek culture was spreading throughout the ancient Near East, many Jews embraced it, favoring it over the ways of their ancestors. After all, the Maccabees were a small band of zealots, not a large one. Some scholars even suggest that the Maccabean revolt was not an uprising against foreign oppression as much as it was a civil war between Orthodox and Hellenized Jews. There were probably more Jews in the Grecian spas and marketplaces on Shabbat and Holy Days than in the early synagogues.
Then, after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian armies and re-dedicated the Temple, what happened? They established the Hasmonean dynasty which became embroiled in religious strife and political intrigue. Its earlier triumphs were soon over-shadowed by the corruption and excesses of its leadership. Because of this, the celebration of Chanukah came to be largely ignored within a few decades after its origins. It was only later, when Rome's crushing power began to be felt in Palestine, that Hanukkah was resurrected as a symbol of hope that Jews could be reunited in and through religious observances.
The central theme of Hanukkah since that time has been summarized by the Al Hanisim prayer which the rabbis composed and instructed us to read during this holiday. "In the days of the Hasmonean, Mattathias,... a wicked Greek government rose up against Your people Israel, causing them to neglect Your Torah and violate Your laws." The prayer goes on to describe how a small number of zealous Jews saved us, not only from an oppressive regime but from the lure of assimilation.
Even today Hanukkah is a time when we are particularly sensitive to the lure of assimilation. Christmas music floods the airwaves and we may find ourselves humming along. Our children may become enchanted by jolly old men in red velvet suits and fragrant trees, decorated with sparkling ornaments and surrounded by beautifully wrapped presents. Some Jews feel these ubiquitous symbols of Christmas are harmless; others find them offensive.
But if you think about it, we are surrounded by cultural influences year round that would have offended our ancestors even though we have enthusiastically adopted and benefited from many of them. Consider, for example, the arts and sciences initially developed by the ancient Greeks. Assimilation has indeed enriched our lives in many ways. But as most religious Jews see it, assimilation threatens our existence when Jews abandon Judaism in order to embrace another way of life.
While I agree that assimilation is problematic, I am suggesting here that there is an even more dangerous threat lurking in its shadows. Consider first, if you will, a chanukiah - the nine-branched menorah we use for Hanukkah. It functions as a symbol for it reminds us of the many stories and traditions associated with the holiday. The ritual of saying a blessing and lighting the menorah is also a symbol or a symbolic act for it represents an entire constellation of values - such as dignity, freedom and joy.
If you think about it, everything we do, make, and possess is a symbol or a symbolic act. From the food we eat and the cars we drive, to the way we relate to our children and our neighbors; every act and artifact represents in some way the values that give direction, meaning and purpose to our lives.
All this leads us to the conclusion that Judaism itself is a symbol. Judaism represents, to us and to the world, an entire system of values which is so precious to us that many Jews, throughout history, have sacrificed their lives to defend it. Sadly, such painful sacrifices only reinforced in many Jewish minds an idea that has persisted since ancient times: the idea that the Jewish system of values is not only unique but superior to those of our neighbors. If it were not superior, as the reasoning goes, why would so many Jews willingly (or unwillingly!) sacrifice everything for it?
Today we live in a world much different than that of our ancestors. We know much more about our neighbors and have learned that their essential values are not so different from our own. While they may be proud of their religious customs and ethnic origins, just as we are proud of ours, we must eventually come to the humble, if not painful, realization that underneath all the trappings, we are human. This means that while we can be just as bigoted and narrow-minded as our worst neighbors, we also have the capacity to be as altruistic and spiritually-connected as our best neighbors.
So the real danger we must guard ourselves and our children from is not assimilation of ideas or influences from other cultures or even other religions. The real danger is the assimilation of values that are not consistent with the highest values we know and cherish, such as dignity, freedom and joy. Although we may express them in unique ways, these values are not unique to us; they are universal, to be shared by all peoples. Like the distinct colors that constitute an entire spectrum of light, we are most complete when we affirm our fundamental interdependence.
The real threat to Judaism is not Hellenism or Christianity - or even Buddhism! The real threat comes, even from within our own camp, in the form of attitudes that foster religious intolerance, extremism, and the use of violence; and in attitudes of entitlement that ignore the harm they cause to others and to our planet.
I'm not suggesting that we Jews embrace other religious customs like singing Christmas carols, although practicing meditation and mindfulness may not be such a bad idea. But I am suggesting that we wake up to the implications of this radical perspective. If we can publicly admit that even the most fervently religious Jews can be as reprehensible as the worst of our neighbors, then we can begin to reclaim the true spirit of our tradition. Judaism was intended to serve humanity, from the beginning and in every generation, as a symbol of the noblest values and as an example of faithful adherence to them. I'm afraid that when we look at how ethnocentric and self-righteous some Jews can be, we will see how far we are from that ideal.
The word "Hanukkah" means "dedication," referring to the re-dedication of the Temple by the Maccabees in ancient times. What is it that we dedicate or re-dedicate ourselves to today? If it's to sheltering ourselves and our children from cultural assimilation, I'm not sure how successful or worthwhile our efforts will be. But if Hanukkah symbolizes a re-dedication to our most cherished values, like promoting dignity, freedom and joy - not only for ourselves but for all peoples - then Judaism is bound to succeed in fulfilling its obligation to humanity. Then we might join our Buddhists friends and their teachers (like Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg to name just a few) to celebrate the fact that religious observance, social engagement and enlightenment is possible for us all.
Rabbi Tom Heyn is rabbi at Congregation Shir HeHarim in Brattleboro, VT.