Sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
We know the Hannukah story - heard it retold in today´s reading. Hannukah is the one Jewish holiday not ordained in the Bible. There are a few books about the Hannukah story, including 1,2,3 and 4 Maccabees, which each have a very different take on the Hannukah story. But the one element they all share is that it is understood as a remarkable event in history - the one time the Jews ever stood up for themselves and won. Over millenia the Jews were bullied and defeated by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks. Even after the victory of the Maccabees, eventually the Jews lost their self-rule, and were defeated and persecuted again, by the pagan Roman emperors, then by Holy Roman Empire, and then by Christians the world over. This inexplicable victory -over a force that was larger, better equipped, trained, armed, disciplined, experienced, funded - it could only be a miracle, and that justified it to the rabbis as a legitimate holiday to be added to the liturgical year.
So Hannukah is in many was the simplest of the holidays. And some of what it offers is simple: it is the opposite of Yom Kippur - instead of sobriety and fasting and repentent reflection , it is a time for rejoicing, eating good food, having fun, celebrating with loved ones, not doing a lot of work.
Hannukah is a time for gift-giving - doesn´t have to be for kids only - many adults give each other large or small gifts over the 8 days
Some of what it offers is more complicated: First there is the idea that miracles happen. Most especially we see this in the miraculous victory and rededication of temple, but there is also the very well-known Talmudic miracle story about the oil lamp burning for 8 days on only one day´s oil. Hannukah gives us a chance to reflect on how we see things in our own lives - do we believe in miracles? What is a miracle? Divine intervention? Extraordinary coincidence? If something happens, of tremendous importance and blessing to us, that is beyond our control, that is made manifest by the creative powers that operate in the world, isn´t that a miracle? Or are miracles only a fiction, along with angels and announcements of the birth of the prince of peace?
Second, there is the idea that God helps those who help themselves. This was a mjor source of conflict between the Hasids and the Hasmoneans. The ultra-pious Hasids believed that what was required for Jewish salvation was more meticulous and passionate devotion, while the Hasmoneans believed that they has a mandate to act and defend their faith, and that God would help them in this righteous action. The value of this idea may seem limited only to those who are quite theistic, but there are athiests who pray because they say prayer changes them, and then they are better able to live as they aspire to live. And there are thiests who pray for the same reason. And there are theists and athiests who don´t agree as to whether or not their prayers have been heard, but they agree that their prayers have been answered. What does that mean for each of us? Do we pray? What has prayer been like for us? When and how do we pray, and why?
Third, Hannukah offers a chance to reflect on the age-old issue of assimilation. The location of the gymnasium, where men exercised naked, visible directly below the temple mount was offensive to traditional Jewish sensibilities, just as a nudist colony would be provocative if it were constructed adjacent to the Vatican. By Hellenistic standards the human body was a thing of beauty and even holiness when consecrated to the games that honored deities at Olympus and Delphi. But to customary Jews in Judea, the body was prey to contaminating cycles and qualities that rendered it ritually impure, not to mention that non-Jews were of course not circumcised in accordance with God´s commandment, and that disregard of Jewish law was all too apparent in a gymnasium. Assimilation was as much a live issue for Jews living in ancient world dominated by Greek values, as it is for Jews living in the modern world dominated by American values. It is a perennial element in Jewish living, and it is not an issue for gentiles to ignore, especially given how much the issues was sharpened in the wake of the holocaust. It is important to understand why assimilation is such a painful issue for Judaism, which is essentially isolationist. In many ways a Jew is always a stranger, and this is painful, and difficult, for many Jews. Judaism is impossible to practice devoutly when wholly subsumed in a different culture, which is the root of Judaism´s conflicts with dominant cultures over the millenia.
There are people in this congregation for whom this is, and will remain, a painful issue. But it calls for and needs continued thought, on the part of all of us. Why are Jews like that? Or why am I like this? We can only come to terms with what Judaism means to any of us in our own lives and in the lives of our friends here when we spend some time thinking and talking, looking for answers that may resolve the conflict in us or in those we love. What does Judaism mean to me, what do I believe, what do I honor? And how can I lift that up in my life? How can we lift that up in the life of this congregation which has so many Jewish members and friends, and which spends time regularly on the ideas and rituals of Judaism throughout the year? Is this congregation a place where interfaith families can share not only our different heritages, but also the challenges and obstacles we enounter as we strive to integrate our beliefs and live fully and honestly with ourselves?
If you have been keeping count, you will notice I´ve offered eight questions just now. I offer them in the spirit of hannukah as presents, one for each night. May our consideration of them, as individuals and as a church, yield spiritual gifts. May those gifts of understanding and reconciliation sustain us, our children and our faith in this pluralistic world that so deeply needs the openness and breadth of our vision.
Happy Hannukah. Amen.