Neal Borovitz
Neal Borovitz

Chanukah and the danger of religious zealotry

A View from the Pew

In the 21st century, both in Israel and in America, Chanukah has become one of the most celebrated weeks on the Jewish calendar. This is truly a miraculous status for a holiday that the rabbis of 2000 years ago did their utmost to suppress. The four Books of the Maccabees detailing the story of their ascent to power were actually suppressed by the Jewish leaders of the first century of the Christian era because of the zealotry they inspired.

The word Chanukah means re-dedication. As we all know the festival of Chanukah commemorates the Maccabean revolt against their Syrian overlords and the subsequent re- occupation and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Jews of that time. The Chanukah narrative of 165b.c.e. marks the re-establishment of an independent Jewish State after centuries of occupation by Babylonians, Persians and Greeks. The Maccabean era was also a time in which there was a prosperous, well established Jewish Diaspora community living in Athens and Rome and Alexandria as well as in the capitals of Syria, Babylonia and Persia. Their challenges therefore were two fold; to rebuild a vibrant Jewish community in the Land of Israel and to maintain and support a Jewish Diaspora community. Historians tell us that bridging the gap was not easy. There were conflicts between the Jews of Judea and the Diaspora. Jewish historians of the early Christian era, look to those conflicts as contributing factors, to the end of the Maccabean era, and the fall of the second Temple in 70.c.e.

As we celebrate Chanukah 5776, we Jews of the 21st century are engaged in an on-going struggle to recognize that the survival of Judaism requires us to see the Jewish world as Bi- polar. A strong secure Israel and a vibrant Diaspora, both dedicated to the service of God and the continuity of Judaism are essential for our personal and communal survival. Jewish History from the Maccabees to Modernity teaches us the necessity to take responsibility for our own destiny. This responsibility to be active rather than passive participants in history does not negate the need to reach out to others and build effective coalitions. The early Maccabees did not seek to wipe out the Syrians. Their goal was to live in peace with them. With the passing of Antiochus, a peace treaty was brokered between the Syrians and the Jews with the assistance of the super power of the ancient world, the Roman Empire, and the willing participation of leaders on both sides. Judea reached great heights under the successors to these revolutionaries known as the Hasmoneans. However, within a couple of generations the intra-Jewish battles over religious practice and the breakdown in the relationships between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish State lead to destruction and dispersion. The rabbis of the Talmud attribute the destruction of the Second Temple to the communal sin of Sinat Chinam, the hatred of Jews for one another.

This Chanukah, 120 years after the publication of Theodore Herzl’s The Jewish State, Israel, like Judea of the Chanukah story, faces serious threats from the chaotic political strife in Syria, Babylonia, ( known since the end of WWI as Iraq), and Persia, ( now called Iran). The Jewish world in this past year has also faced serious divisions over both political and religious issues that have the potential to weaken the body and soul of The Jewish People. Jewish History from the Chanukah story to today proves over again that Jewish Divisiveness, as distinguished from Jewish Diversity impairs our communal ability to battle the twin threats to Jewish Survival; Assimilation and Anti-Semitism, Today as we face increased Anti- Semitism worldwide; I am reminded of two teachings of Eli Wiesel,: “that to be a Jew requires one to be an optimist.” And that “To be a Jew is to have every reason to hate, but to nonetheless obey the command “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself”

Judaism teaches us that Teshuva is possible. Life can change when people change. This year marked the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a revolutionary document of the Roman Catholic Church which opened the door to Jewish – Christian dialogue, cooperation and mutual respect. Chanukah and Christmas are both responses to an ancient Roman pagan holiday that occurred at the winter solstice and that was meant to appease the gods so that daylight would return. Both of these festivals have become times of joyful celebration, personal rededication and Thanksgiving to God. The original Chanukah was, a delayed celebration of Sukkot, the Biblical festival of thanksgiving, as well as a celebration of the rededication of the Temple. In an age where ISIS battles for an intolerant religious hegemony in the Middle East and beyond, we, this week, celebrate the rabbinic understanding of Chanukah, as a fight for, rather than against, religious freedom and human liberty.

As our personal Chanukiyot burn bright, filled with individual lights, let us all see them as a symbol that the light of God burns within each of us; Let us also see them as a challenge to recognize that the Light of the Divine is not only in every Jew, of every religious stream, but in every human being, of every faith. To paraphrase Peter Yarrow’ s Chanukah song, Light One Candle for the Maccabee Children, may each of us work to bring the light of refuge and the light of freedom to all God’s children.

About the Author
Rabbi Borovitz was elected the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in June 2013 after serving the synagogue as rabbi for the previous 25 years. Prior to assuming his position in River Edge in the summer of 1988 Rabbi Borovitz served as Hillel Rabbi and Instructor in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Texas in Austin (1975-82), the Executive Director of the Labor Zionist Alliance on the United States, (1982-83) and as the Rabbi of Union Temple in Brooklyn, New York (1983-88). Rabbi Borovitz, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, received his B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 1970, his M.A. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious (HUC-JIR) in 1973 and was ordained at HUC-JIR in June 1975. In March of 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR. Rabbi Borovitz is an active leader in community affairs. He has been a member of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee for 25 years. He is the immediate past chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and has also served on the Jewish Federation Board. He currently serves on the National Board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and on the Foundation Board of Bergen Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Bergen County NJ. He is past President of the Bergen County Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis as well as the founding chairman of the Jewish Learning Project of Bergen County Rabbi Borovitz is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Standard and the Bergen Record and a frequent lecturer on Judaism; The Middle East and Interfaith cooperation.
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