Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / December 23, 1997 / 24 Kislev, 5758
Chanukah is no laughing matter
I WANT TO KILL Adam Sandler. It's almost impossible to turn on the radio without hearing his moronic, demeaning "Chanukah Song" ("have a gin-and-tonic-a, smoke some marijuan-ica"). Leave it to a Jewish comedian to make the world's oldest monotheistic religion a laughingstock.
Obscured by a mountain of potato pancakes, latkes, presents, and cardboard dreidels are the dual aspects of the Festival of Lights -- the eternal struggle for the survival of the Jewish soul and the light of divine wisdom illuminating the world.
The way Chanukah is celebrated today (aping the gaudier aspects of Christmas) and Sandler's song are very much in keeping with the tragicomedy of Jewish life in America.
Some friends in Los Angeles got a letter from their son's day school assuring them that the child was "learning a Humanistic, meaningful Judaism that makes sense in our modern society." The notion of a "Humanistic Judaism" isn't merely meaningless but contradictory -- like low-fat latkes.
This is almost as absurd as an article in Moment magazine by Shohama Wiener that proclaims, "The rising importance of animal companions in people's lives makes it imperative that Judaism offer religious guidance on grieving for them." An imperative of Judaism is to differentiate between people and animals. To mourn for a pet is almost as incongruous as saying a Hebrew blessing over a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Attorney Alan Dershowitz has recently written a book (The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century) that, disregarding the evidence of the past 100 years, argues that the key to Jewish survival is a Jewish culture divorced from God.
"God is not central to my particular brand of Jewishness," Dershowitz admits. A "brand of Jewishness" to which God is not central is like a brand of Catholicism to which the pope is peripheral.
Dershowitz's prescription -- Judaism without Jewish law, Judaism where God has a walk-on part -- has been tried. The results are not encouraging.
More than 50 percent of American Jews marry American gentiles. Of their children, only one in four is raised as a Jew. The number of Jews, as a percentage of the population, has been reduced almost by half since the early '70s.
The boomers and the X-ers are practically lost generations -- witness empty synagogues, declining donations to Jewish charities and a staggering level of Jewish illiteracy. It wouldn't surprise me if many of those Jews affiliated with a synagogue (a minority today) wonder why their houses of worship were named for women -- Beth Torah, Beth Israel.
In the midst of this, Chanukah is a timely tale. The Maccabees did not eat latkes or bestow presents on each other; they were too busy fighting for the God of Israel to shop at Bloomie's. More than any other holiday, Chanukah speaks to Jewish survival -- not the survival of the Jewish body, but the Jewish soul.
Chanukah's dark secret is this: When the war against the Syrian Greeks commenced, in the second century before the common era, most Jews were on the other side. Then as now, religious Jews were a minority.
Greek culture carried Israel's elite, which also thought it could be Jewish without Jewish law. As well as a struggle for national liberation, Chanukah was a civil war pitting Jewish traditionalists against Jewish modernists. At the outset, the odds favored the latter.
But the Maccabees didn't fight alone. They were allied with a power far greater than Antiochus.
Chanukah's overriding symbol is light. Lighting the menorah is the festival's only commandment. The candelabrum is to be placed in a window, to testify publicly to the miracle (one day's oil lasting eight at the rededication of the Temple).
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, light is a symbol for knowledge. The Talmud tells us the 36 candles that are lighted over the eight days of Chanukah correspond to the special light that enveloped the world for the first 36 hours of Creation. The Aramaic for Torah is Oraisa -- the source of light.
Against all odds, this people will endure because the light of God's wisdom cannot depart from the world. Modern Maccabees like Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, the National Jewish Outreach Program, Reaganite Elliott Abrams (author of Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America) and Binyamin L. Jolkovsky, publisher of the Jewish World Review on the World Wide Web, have answered the muster.
It's a war against ignorance, apathy, assimilation and the veneration of false gods -- in short, no laughing matter.