Sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
We heard in Irving Greenberg about some well known elements of Hannukah celebrations, how they evolved, and how Hannukah is a holiday rooted in history rather than nature traditions. It comes near the solstice and so its emphasis on light feels very natural right now, and consistent with that of other faiths at this time of year. But that is a coincidence or a miracle, rather than the root of Hannukah. Rather, Hannukah is a holiday that reminds us how powerful peer pressure is - how easy it is to lose sight of who we are in the larger crowd of a people or a nation - and how important it is to keep precious aspects of our heritage and identity intact in all their richness to sustain us, to share with our friends, to hand on to our children.
I´ve always liked Hannukah a lot. I grew up celebrating it in my half-Jewish Unitarian Universalist family. Every night we sang songs and lit the menorah. I love the songs. I love kindling the Menorah. Of course, I loved the gifts, when I was little. As a UU, sometimes we had eight nights of gifts right up to Christmas! I love the story, and I love that it starts with Alexander the Great, a particular hero of mine for reasones I´ll go into in another sermon. Many of you know my dog is named Maccabee. Perhaps because I do enjoy the holiday so much, it makes it easier for me to find new meaning in it every year, but this year it didn´t feel like I had to reflect long to find it.
The down side of the story, for me, is what happens in Judea after the fighting is over. As R. Greenberg gently puts it: "The Torah became the obligatory law of the land. The triumph of traditional Judaism appeared to be complete." What he thinks is the bad part is that there was literal infighting, bloodshed even, among the four factions: moderate hellenizers, Hasmoneans, Chasidim and Pharisees. The Chasidim dropped out because they didn´t want to be involved in the compromises necessary to allow Judea to function in a then Hellenistic world. The Pharisees fought with the Hasmoneans and hellenizers because they wanted, essentially, separation of temple and state - they didn´t want the compromises and corruption that are an inherent part of politics to taint their religion. Their concern was justified by ensuing events and ruler-priests who followed in the generations. The more embarrassing the ambiguities of history´s record, the more idealized the holiday which celebrated history became. Eventually the holiday became known for many things, including the miraculous oil, because of this desire to divorce it from events, even the original events Greenberg details so well: "the tenuous military triumph and the coalition that saved Judaism."
It´s true that that is a difficult part of the story, but that´s not actually the worst of it for me. What´s worse is the part he hardly mentions - the 'obligatory law of the land´ part. After the Jews won dominion back in their land, they did something they´d never done before: they went through and forcibly converted everyone in Judea to Judaism. Before that, people had been different things. Jews, of course, were only one thing, but many people who lived in Judea were not Jewish and followed their own faiths. After the war, this was not allowed. Everyone who lived in the area was made to be Jewish. This extended even to the forcible circumcision of adult males.
This has always seemed the most troubling part of a troubling story. This is nothing new. All the stories in the Hebrew bible are troubling. There are almost always difficult issues of blame, ethics, honor, violence and choices in any story we think of. The hannukah story, of course, is not a biblical story, it is an entirely historical story. It is the only Jewish holiday not dictated by the Bible but rather by rabbis. But in fact, to Jews there is no difference between the bible and historical holidays and stories. We see in Hannukah all the failings as well as valor of humanity. Jewish tradition sees all the failings and valor in all the stories behind the holidays, and in most biblical stories generally. Talmudic tradition points to the obvious failings of biblical "heroes": Moses who had a speech defect and was at first an unwilling prophet, Jonah who was an ungenerous prophet, Adam who lied and put the blame on Eve, Eve who seduced Adam in the first place, Jacob who deceived his father to receive his blessing...the only totally admirable figure I can think of is Ruth - and maybe her mother-in-law, Naomi.
But regardless of exactly how few heroes there are, the point is that for Jews, the many flaws and failings of religious legends remind us all that extraordinary challenges and opportunities fall to ordinary Joes like us. It is regular people who live and act and die in Jewish religious history - with all their ignoble moments and acts, even the good ones - not unrealistically perfect people.
The rabbis say in the talmud that this is because it is true, and because when our challenges and opportunities come, we should not, cannot, point to perfect heroes and say but I´m not like so-and-so, I can´t do this. We are good enough, smart enough, to see their flaws, even to judge them. So too are we good enough to enact our own lives with a sense that we too are living in history that may turn on us, that people will look at us for inspiration or as sad examples. Judaism´s emphasis on history reminds us that we are living in history and that in an important way: all history is religious.
The sad example of the Hannukah story that seems particularly potent this year is the zealotry of the Maccabees and their followers. I feel it in myself to be zealous and self-righteous. Raised by WWII parents, in a family that has had the good fortune to live the American dream, I am a patriot. Having lived in other countries has made me proud to be an American. I am not blind to all the flaws of our country, or I hope and believe I am not. And I work against them in how I vote and how I live here. But I am not blind to all the flaws in other countries, and all things considered, I have chosen to cast my lot with this nation because there is so much I love about it.
There has been a lot of talk about whether it is okay or not to be a patriot, whether one can as an enlightened participant in the global village, love our own house. Many of my fellow ministers were Vietnam War protesters who see the flag, who say they will always see the flag, as tainted, as empty, as a symbol of oppression and violence, not only to others in the world but to themselves. When they were long-haired peaceniks, flag--wavers signalled time to worry about getting beaten up. What a terrible thing for our country to bear. What a real comment on our own history. How sadly like the Hannukah story we have been in our infighting.
The Hannukah story is not just a story, and it is not just a story about other people, not as smart as us, not as complex as us, not as alive to the issues of life and death and what we want our national identity to be. We are a lot more like people in history than we often realize, because we usually learn their stories from a very different place.
To be sure, I do not want to oversimplify things to make my point. To many in the world, the United States are not like the Jews in the story, we are the hellenizers, sweeping across the world with our powerfully-compelling way of life that seduces rather than enriches, and homogenizes as it goes. But I am not talking about politics this morning, I am talking about personal identity. I am an American, but I do not want to be a zealot. And that is my struggle, a spiritual struggle. Not every patriot is a zealot, not every zealot is wrong, not every patriot is right. How can we love and not be blinded by our love? Zeal is a part of human nature. It is in all of us. I have never know a person who was not zealous about something. And it is not the passion in zeal that is a problem, it is the heartlessness that is the other side of zeal. Our passion for one thing makes us less caring, sometimes entirely uncaring about the other.
We are in the midst of history, and it is not only our national decisions and actions that matter right now. The honest struggle of each of us with zeal in our souls matters a great deal always. Hannukah reminds us that zeal is part of courage and also part of cruelty. Our capacities for both, as people, is great. When this time is over, what will we have done as a country? And what will we have done as individuals to allow us to to say: "I did the best I could and I am proud of what I did"? Hannukah is not about good people gone bad, Hannukah is about people achieving a lot of extraordinary things and putting their lives on the line to find the right path. We may, we should, judge them. So will we be judged. It´s humbling - a good gift for this season that reminds us how tenuous and precious we are. In this era when 'extreme´ means 'cool 'and 'cool´ means 'good,´ may we be measured and compassionate, not self-righteous but righteous, not merely just but generous.