November 26, 2010
Challenges to identity
Chanukah characters meld tradition with change.
It’s Chanukah, and Jews worldwide are paying tribute to the Maccabees. As the story goes, when Antiochus proceeded to outlaw Jewish practice, Mattityahu and his son Judah the Maccabee revolted, thereby preserving Jewish life. But, if we are going to learn any lasting lesson from the Chanukah story, I think it’s that we need a bit of Jason alongside Judah.
Jason was the Jewish high priest who assumed power under Antochius’ rule. But Jason is not much discussed. That’s because he was a Hellenizing Jew. Attracted by the values of ancient Greece, Jason (who may have changed his name from Joshua) did things like build a gymnasium. As the Second Book of Macabees states, “Despising the sanctuary and neglecting the sacrifices, [the high priests] hastened to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena after the call to the discus.” Seems that athletic prowess was a bigger pull, for some, than prayer.
It is ironic that the contemporary annual Jewish worldwide athletic games are called the Maccabi games then, since it was Jason, not Judah, who promoted a love of sports. Indeed, some Orthodox Jews oppose the infusion of an Olympic-styled athletic event with ancient Jewish symbolism. But, for most, the Maccabi games (and the Maccabiah events across Jewish summer camps) represent the perfect blend of competition and physical valor under a Jewish mantle.
Similarly, with declining Jewish school enrolments, some community leaders are decrying parents choosing hockey over cheder. True, the time crunch is one of the big challenges of the modern era, but I think we’re setting up a false dichotomy between Jewish life and leisure life when we present it this way. The good citizen is the healthy and happy citizen. The good Jew is the rounded Jew. How can one become a cantor without a deep grounding in music? How can one become a Jewish summer camp director without a feel for athletics?
But it’s not only secular activities like sporting games that owe something to Jason and his fellow priests. Even more formal Judaic practice, I would argue, benefits from an openness to the modern world. But here, Jason can’t go it alone; he needs Judah to get it right.
By attempting to Hellenize, Jason was casting his lot with the contemporary values of the time, including ancient Greek notions of rationality, science and esthetics. For their part, the Maccabees were attempting to preserve tradition in the face of cultural dilution. Both of these perspectives, I would argue, are important for the practice of contemporary Judaism.
I, for one, value social inclusion and progressive attitudes. I consider women to be adult persons with the intelligence, integrity and judgment of men. Hence, it is no surprise – as I have written here before – that I think it urgent that women should be counted in a minyan, that ever-important symbol of communal gathering.
Similarly, I think that gay adult love is just as legitimate and community-affirming as straight adult love; hence, my passionate support of same-sex marriage in our shuls. The centuries-old symbol of the wedding chuppah should have as many couples as wish to intertwine their lives be able to stand beneath it.
But, at the same time, there is great value in the deep, in-your-DNA, cultural grammar of tradition, including the preservation of art, music, literature and language. Traditional tunes, liturgical practices and ornamental objects are crucial vehicles for transmitting historical memory. And historical memory, in turn, serves to bind communities into units that won’t get lost in the whole.
I love that the Adon Olam prayer can be sung to virtually any tune, but it’s Russian Cantor Eliezer Gerowitsch’s 19th-century version that makes my mouth water for the Winnipeg pickerel cheeks and lokshen kugel following the Shabbat services of my youth.
Cultural memory sometimes resides in the smallest of details. On Rosh Hashanah, I was convinced by my cantor to abandon my modern pronunciations in favor of pronouncing the “eh” vowel as “ay” when I chanted Torah for the first time. While modern Hebrew has all but done away with those Ashkenazi-isms (to wit: I call my son Lev not Layv), in the synagogue, the traditional esthetics carry almost cosmic force in transmitting and preserving identity.
Traditional culture mixed with progressive values was something that neither Jason nor Judah could handle on their own. In our telling of the Chanukah story, we have understood Hellenization as an abandonment of Judaism, but that is too simple a reading. A community needs both forward-looking vision and memory-infused practice to retain its vitality.
That is the kind of Jewish continuity that I will be thinking about this year as I light candles, eat latkes and try to outwit my kids in a game of dreidel.
Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Huffington Post.