Party’s over. Time to put up the menorah, take down the Chanukah bush, put away the latkes for another year, spend that gelt on something fancy, high-tech and useless.
Time also to return to our two intimately related questions. What are Jewish values? And can there be a vibrant 21st century Jewish civilization, of value to the world? Not just a bunch of super-Yids winning Nobel Prizes, selling apps for zillions and writing questionable novels – a genuine civilization that the world needs and will value.
We start with a not very original reconsideration of Chanukah.
The first time I heard a rabbi proclaim, “Don’t think about the war. Think about the miracle of the oil” – I was profoundly young and profoundly furious. Nobody tells me what to think. The fiftieth time I ran across that particular injunction, I knew enough Jewish history to understand why I wasn’t supposed to think about it.
In essence, Chanukah sanitizes the partial victory of a minority of religious fanatics/terrorists in a war that was primarily civil: Jew on Jew, with our buddy Antiochus supporting one faction, the Hellenizers, for reasons of his own. We know practically nothing about the Hellenizers since all the descriptions we have are provided by their enemies or detractors and, as one rabbi delicately wrote for a Gentile audience, the writings of the Hellenizers themselves did not “survive.”
Burned by the victors, perhaps?
Such is well-enough known. Yet one item still remains studiously ignored. For centuries before the Maccabean wars, and ever since, the majority of Jews have chosen to live outside Eretz Israel. Moreover, we have no evidence that the Jews of the Diaspora actively supported the Maccabean cause, any more than they supported the Zealots and other rebels during the Roman war of 66-70 CE. And you don’t need an endowed professorship in Jewish Studies to know how ridiculous and threatening, not to say blasphemous, so many Jews found the Zionist idea before World War II, and how abstract so much Diaspora support has been ever since.
Sure, we love Israel. Wasn’t ’67 great? But we also keep our distance.
And let’s be honest about something else. If the United States had said in 1945, “All Holocaust survivors are welcome to come here,” how many would have chosen Palestine over Pittsburgh? Or if Canada or Argentina or Australia had made the same offer? Or if the UN had decreed, “Germany did it, not the Arabs. Let’s establish an independent Jewish State in a chunk of Germany . . .”
Which is to conclude: The present notion of the Redemption of the Land, aka hanging onto the Territories, is the dream, not to say obsession, and the project of a minority of Israelis, a very small minority of Diaspora Jewry, and of utterly no interest to the vast majority of the planet’s six-plus billion souls.
Thus has it been, one way or another, since the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. So it is today. Indeed, when that imperious duo chose to bar the Samaritans from helping in the rebuilding of the Temple and forbade inter-marriage, Judaism abdicated its chance to become a genuine world civilization. True, the Hasmoneans had a whack at forcible mass conversions. True, the Pharisees later did their share of evangelizing and the Gentile “God-fearers” who partook of the faith minus kashrut and circumcision may have numbered in six figures or more.
Still, Judaism opted not to become a world civilization. And so it has remained ever since, by reason of defeat and oppression, and by reason of choice.
What of it?
Perhaps this. Those Jews who preach (and gloat?) that anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, and it is, demand unconditional solidarity and uncritical, active support for Israel. They urge something that never has been and, most likely, never can be.
Which raises the question of communal existence. Am Yisrael Chai. Of course. Existence is, to borrow a good Enlightenment notion, an unalienable right. It is inherent in being. It may be violated; it often has been and will continue to be. But every living thing possesses that unalienable right. Why do only Jews have to justify their existence, to the world, to each other, to themselves?
In like measure, there is virtually no such thing as an illegitimate nation. I can think of a few historical examples, most notably East Germany and the American Confederacy, but only a few. There are many illegitimate and evil regimes in this world. But how many serious people assert that Russia or even North Korea has no right to exist? Anyway, no one seems to be doing much about it.
Only Israel has to justify, endlessly, its own existence. And people are doing things about it.
So we suggest here that any consideration of Jewish values and Jewish civilization ought to begin with these two facts:
The perennially tenuous unity of the people and the “requirement” that Jews and Israel do what no one else has to do – justify their own existence.