Being Jewish Enough

Although we are deep into January already and looking towards Tu Bshevat, I’m still thinking about Hanukkah. While it’s a sweet, cheery holiday, especially beloved by children, it carries a deeper, darker meaning that we Jews 2200 years after the Maccabees must wrestle with every day. Intermarriage, Judaism becoming peripheral in middle age, and empty synagogues are part of the story of Hanukkah.

At the December service, we talked about how the Maccabbean war was the first evidence of the struggle for Jews to live in two worlds and to choose to remain Jews when offered other civilizations. Greek culture had seduced the Jews, as it had throughout the world, with its erudition and grace. The real story of Hanukkah is about assimilation, where we draw the boundary line between Jewish, not Jewish, and too Jewish. The war was not simply the wicked Assyrians against the noble, out-numbered Maccabees, but rather a war between rural, pious Jews living in villages and their more, cosmopolitan cousins living in the melting pot cities. When the war broke out with Mattathias claiming his small army, the villagers were ready not only to fight the Assyrians but to eliminate hellenization from Palestine.

The reason Jews know the simple, not quite true story of Hanukkah is because, frankly, the rabbis didn’t know what to do with the success of the fanatic, zealous Maccabees. And we don’t either. We deplore the violence that led to Rabin’s assassination and we are uncomfortable when we hear of Israeli abuse towards Palestinians. We want peace, we want enough Jewishness in our lives but not too much, and we like the Lubavitch Jews for their authenticity. If they hold on to the tradition impeccably, then we don’t have to do it. We need them as much as the hellenized Jews needed the Maccabees to make the world safe for Judaism. We can be assimilated, pluralistic Jews, and if at times we aren’t sure what makes us different from our Christian secular friends, that’s an acceptable price for acceptance in the larger society. And if we hear an occasional xenophobic, homophobic, or racist remark from the ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists, we accept that, too, as the price for ensuring Judaism’s survival.

Some will embrace halachic, i.e. legal Judaism as a refuge from the horror of an age seemingly without limits of taste and modesty. To be given answers for everything is very comforting. For others of us, however, who like living in the world despite its dangers and temptations, who understand Judaism not as a separatist sect but as a force in the world, this is unacceptable. Still, we need the fire and the passion of the Maccabees and the Lubavitchers, and we need protection from that same blazing heat.

How do we manage this? Like a fiddler on the roof. We do not cede authentic Judaism to those who do or know “more” than others. Reform Judaism is as authentic and representative of Torah-true Judaism as Chabad. Liberal Jews may have a responsibility to know more and do more, but they are not on a road way behind the Orthodox. Some of you have said that you don’t feel Jewish enough. What you may be feeling is that you ‘re missing daily practices that shelter you in the world.

If we don’t want fundamentalist Jews to be the definers and keepers of Judaism, we bear a great responsibility to learn from the Hanukkah story. We don’t have to wear tzitzit, yet we must feel we are “tied” to the tradition by making it an intimate friend, a dweller in our houses and hearts. By incorporating just one practice–the shema in the morning with gratitude for being given a new day, for example–we help ourselves to become who we want to be and we come to feel “Jewish enough.”

In February we’ll continue the conversation by examining the proposed new Reform platform that is calling for more ritual observance. Many holy sparks will fly, I’m sure, as we continue to search for the balance required to live in two worlds. Those of you who saw the film, The Quarrel, at the Selichot service, will remember the concentration camp survivors, best boyhood friends, who meet after the war. One has left Judaism completely and the other has entered it even more deeply their days in the yeshiva. Who is right? Let’s play the fiddle on the roof together and talk about it.