Hanukkah, religion and being an adult human

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Hanukkah, religion and being an adult human

Postby Sue U » Tue Dec 04, 2018 5:47 pm

How do we get beyond banality to derive meaning from religious holidays and observances? I lifted this truly insightful and moving essay from the Twatter machine. Reb Ruttenberg is fast becoming one of my favorite Jewish thinkers. Oh, and a happy Hannukah to you all.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

OK, people keep asking me about that NYT article where the guy is shocked to discover the fact that the war Hanukah commemorates is, like all war, full of pain and trauma and atrocity, that it's not like a child's picture-book.

I have thoughts on this. So a thread. 1/x

Listen, I was like this guy for years. I’d go to parties and nibble on my latke or sufganiya while grumbling under my breath. I’d light my hanukiyah, but I’d only do the bare minimum needed to fulfill the mitzvah and I’d do my best not to enjoy it.

The war through which we celebrate Hanukah was, in part, intra-Jewish, in which zealous traditionalists attacked and killed more assimilationist Hellenized Jews--WHILE FIGHTING THE SELUCID ARMY TO GAIN THEIR FREEDOM.

The catalyst for the violent revolution was the reigning Syrian Greek king, Antiochus IV, who demanded that Jews worship false gods and violate the Sabbath, or die.

Historically speaking, the miracle of Hanukah is that this small, bandit guerrilla army (the zealots) triumphed over Antiochus' large army and formidable weapons, against all odds, not only taking back the desecrated Temple, but re-dedicating it as well.

The “Hanukah miracle” with which most kids are raised was apparently invented by rabbinic sages living 300-600 years after the Maccabean events took place—the first time we hear the story of oil that was meant to last for one day but instead burned for eight is in the Talmud.

It’s not clear when the story originated, but some scholars posit that rabbis under Roman rule figured it wouldn't be clever to publicly celebrate a holiday marking the violent overthrow of a foreign government, particularly (possibly) in light of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion.
So, instead, they came up with the much more kid-friendly version about the oil which, conveniently, lends itself much more to spiritualized interpretations of Hanukah.

Why was it 8 days originally? There are a few theories. One suggests that the Maccabees were too busy waging war to celebrate Sukkot on time, so they did so later—but that doesn’t explain why Hanukah would become a whole separate holiday in subsequent years.

Two others offer a little more irony: one suggests that an eight-day winter festival of lights was widespread in Greek, Roman and Babylonian Antiquity, and another notes that that's how long the Greeks celebrated their military victories.

After the Hasmoneans/Maccabees/Zealots/heroes of our story won, once Israel was reclaimed and the Temple restored, Judah, the Hasmonean leader, and his brothers set to making a mighty Hebrew nation, by force. I'll be blunt: atrocities were committed.

One can, perhaps, understand why this holiday made me so angry for so long—why I’d go to synagogue and blurt uncomfortable facts about military history while everybody else was trying to enjoy a nice game of dreydel. It wasn’t really a fun place to be.

Then something shifted. I don't know what, or why. One year, though, I started sitting meditation in front of my Hanukiya every night, breathing with the candles, thinking about renewal, rededication, how to make something from what seems to be the utter desolation of nothing.

It's not that I had forgotten the atrocities committed at the end of the Hasmonean war, it's that… they didn't block me anymore.
Rather, I began to wonder how I might be able to clean up the despoiled Temple of our history, to once again sanctify my faith—in Hanukah, and in celebrating Judaism as it exists today.

Paul Ricoeur talks about a “second naïveté,” the ability to see God shining through the words of the Bible even after one has been immersed in the potentially cynicism-inducing theories of Biblical authorship.

I had learned about all this Biblical criticism stuff way back in college, before I believed in God, before I was interested in practicing Judaism. Historical-critical methodology had seemed perfectly rational and didn't bother me—so maybe I never had a first naïveté.

A few years later, God showed up pretty powerfully for me (or, more likely, I showed up for God) and I realized that whether the stories in the Torah were literally or metaphorically true, they were telling me something about the nature of the God I had already begun to meet.
Isn’t God bigger and more radiant than a few historical facts here and there? Can’t we do better, shoot for more? Dare I say... integration?

A mature adult faith demands that we take in difficult, painful facts and allow them to become part of our understandings of God, our language of faith and connection. Hanukah is not a holiday about innocence. Neither is Purim, actually–Jews did some slaughtering there, too.
Part of adult faith is being able to look truth in the eye, to take responsibility for it, and to not get stuck by the fact that it's not an easy story.
It certainly requires us not to take our frustrations on God. I know too many people whose faith was seriously shaken by Biblical criticism–as though God changes just because our understanding of history might.

As though God weren't bigger and far more expansive than that. As though it's God's fault that we're just getting some new information.
As if it’s God's fault that human beings sometimes behave in ways that are unforgivable. As though God's Divinity might not shine through texts written at different times and places, for different reasons.

An adult relationship to our tradition has to include the facts of bad human behavior and culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God Godself deserves.

Is there any reason that I can't be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemning the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous) survival?

Perhaps our q is not, "How can we possibly celebrate God and miracles if God didn't save our pure souls from the evil hands of others?" but, rather, How might we celebrate God and miracles while acknowledging the many complex ways in which our own hands have impacted history?

How might our theology shift to accommodate the awareness that our miracles have sometimes had painful consequences for others? How might we celebrate renewal, rededication, re-sanctification w/understanding not only of what it means to receive light, but also to give it out?
We have to be honest about the history that’s happened, to take responsibility for what has been done & to use what’s past to spark discussion and action about how to behave in our world today.

We can and should embrace the rededication of our souls, hearts and minds on a spiritual level, and we should also use these tropes of rededication to look at the world at large, to see what has been defiled and how we can make it holy again.

And maybe, after all, being able to move past a child-like faith into something more integrated and whole is, in itself, a sort of re-dedication, re-sanctification–in itself kind of a miracle.
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Re: Hanukkah, religion and being an adult human

Postby Lord Jim » Tue Dec 04, 2018 6:19 pm

Interesting stuff, thanks for posting that, Sue...

I like it when I come on this board and actually learn something new... :ok
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Hanukkah, religion and being an adult human

Postby RayThom » Tue Dec 04, 2018 10:42 pm

Achla. Toda.
“There is no great genius without a tincture of madness." Seneca 
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Re: Hanukkah, religion and being an adult human

Postby Big RR » Tue Dec 11, 2018 1:25 pm

I just noticed this post this morning; thanks Sue, it made my day.
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