Learning to Do Minority Right
V’avatah reyacha k’mocha / Love your neighbor as yourself
Vayikra / Leviticus 19:18
V’avatah reyacha k’mocha, Rabi Akiva omer zehu klal gadol b’Torah.
Love your neighbor as yourself; Rabbi Akiva says this is the main point of the Torah.
Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 30b
Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
Let anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our heart
“Light One Candle,” Peter Yarrow
At the time I am writing this I am working with my fellow clergy on this year’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering. When you read this, hopefully, everyone will be enthusiastically talking about how enjoyable and successful the event was.
This year Chanukah and Thanksgiving intersected, Thanksgiving being on the first day of Chanukah. Of course this led to many mirthful comments about turkey cooked in olive oil or latke stuffed turkey. Actually cranberry sauce is quite scrumptious eaten together with latkes, and I’m sure some will have attempted to create a savory sweet potato latke.
Don’t you find it both unusual and unusually satisfying that these two holidays, one “religious” but celebrated very secularly and one “secular” but with an underlying religious theme, coexist together so well?
Thanksgiving, established as an official American national secular holiday, is actually meant to be a day for offering thanks to God (regardless of how one understands or believes in God) for what we have in our lives, especially our freedoms; and the ritual dinner is meant to be an analog of the legendary peaceful feast that Pilgrims and Native Americans enjoyed with each other centuries ago.
Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday that doesn’t have any source in the Torah or any other part of the T’Na’Kh (Tanakh, an acronym of Torah, Neveim/Prophetic books, and Ketuvim/Holy writings, ie, the Jewish Bible) to hang its yarmulke on. Even the frisky, inebriated, and silly celebration of Purim has a “scriptural source,” Megillat Esther. Isn’t there any book in the Tanakh that references Chanukah and if not where do we get the holiday from?
The books that make up the official Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, were selected and approved (canonized) at a conference of early rabbis led by the famous Rabbi Akiva in a town called Yamnia about 20 years after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and suppression of the first rebellion against Roman foreign rule. (Unfortunately Rabbi Akiva died a horrific death later at the hands of the Romans after he had endorsed a subsequent rebellion led by the Jewish general Bar Kochba, whom Rabbi Akiva had also proclaimed to be the Mashiach.) An obvious candidate for inclusion was the Book of the Maccabees, which tells the story of Chanukah. Why wasn’t it included?
Unlike the focus on what children are often taught about Chanukah, a rather doubtful legend about a day’s worth of olive oil miraculously burning for eight days, the Book of the Maccabees focuses primarily on the military exploits of Judah the Maccabee and his men (a group of priestly commandos who later founded the Hasmonean dynasty) as they route the enemy and reconquer their homeland with violence and righteous vengeance. Foreign religious influence and interference would not be tolerated in Israel. The bums were thrown out. The book also mentions proudly the good relationship between these Hasmonean rulers and Rome.
Twenty years after the brutal suppression of the Jews’ revolt, the thousands killed, and the Temple destroyed, this didn’t seem like something the rabbis wanted in our Bible. To provoke their Roman conquerors with stories about ejecting previous conquerors in a book that misjudges the Romans as allies and not potential conquerors is not what they needed. Additionally the rabbis smarted over how the Hasmonean Cohanim had violated the clearly given instructions in Tanakh that all kings must be of the tribe of Judah and be descended from King David and had seized the throne of the Kingdom of Judah. These Cohanim had also been represented by the Sadducees, who opposed the rabbis’ innovation of the Oral Law, which made Judaism now more portable and not dependent on a now destroyed Temple. The rabbis not only rejected the Book of the Maccabees from the inclusion in Tanakh but began the process of turning Chanukah from a bellicose, victorious war celebration into a “minor holiday” that would focus on a supernatural oil story and seasonal snacks. These rabbis foresaw that Jews would be a small and often vulnerable minority as they made their lives throughout the Diaspora. It would be important that our holidays not seem threatening to those whom we would be vulnerable to. This went along with the development of that special blend of smarts, diplomacy, and chutzpah that Jews became famous for. Also developing in pace with these traits was a growing quality of empathy and support for the oppressed. As we knew the bitterness of oppression too well, we for the most part as a group became sensitive to the oppression of others. Jews have always been in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights, for example. Here in the US, Chanukah to American Jews came to symbolize freedom of religion and the other constitutional rights that we enjoy here. By transforming the meaning of Chanukah, we conditioned our people to “do minority right.” We learned how to derive many positives from our minority status.
So now perhaps it should be clear why Thanksgiving and Chanukah are such a good fit. On Thanksgiving when every American regardless of religion or ethnic background can be found with friends and family munching on turkey, schmoozing, watching football, and maybe offering up a bit of thanks, a Chanukah that represents freedom and equality certainly has a place at the table.