Dancing In the Dark

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz: An open-orthodox Rabbi with the courage to sit with Santa.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz: An open-orthodox Rabbi with the courage to sit with Santa.

It is sad that many Orthodox Jews celebrate Chanukah as a festival of fanaticism. As a religious Jew it brings tears to my eyes. One can hear it and read about it in blogs and other forums. The delight of a pure Chanukah based purely on rabbinic rigidity to the code of law. Some of these zealots see the Maccabees as extremists willing to cut down more “liberal” Jews for tolerating Greek influence. They remind me of ISIS. Some lunatics even justify violence against Jews and gentiles for their beliefs. And on the surface, they may have an argument.

Both Jewish tradition and the historical first book of the Maccabees show that if the Greeks were cruel, the Jewish Maccabees were surely overly zealous. Matityahu killed a Jew for straying from the law, and within this one can hear the footsteps of contemporary violence towards other Jews for alien beliefs. Rabin of blessed memory was killed by such a fanatic who justified his violence in the name of the L-rd. Yet these misguided people are missing the point. There is the story of Chanukah, and there is the underlying tension of the story. I believe that the silent story is the real tale of Judaism.

The real lesson of Chanukah is that the Maccabee way is not the way! Violence begets violence, and fanaticism begets more of it. It is true that the Jewish way was threatened by Greek culture. The nude gymnasiums full of sweaty uncircumcised Hellenists writhing about were surely unsettling to the religious Jews. And yet the answer was a non-answer. We celebrate the Maccabees for the wrong reasons. In truth we should celebrate them for showing us what Judaism is not! There are ways to protest. Peaceful civil disobedience would have been preferable. Tolerance should have been shown to Jews who were attracted to the Greek lifestyle.

The legacy of Chanukah is that the candle and the light of love is the answer, the Judaism of egalitarianism and compromise is the real one we celebrate. This is the essence of open-orthodoxy. Respect for halacha and tradition but the courage to bend it and twist it so that is malleable and adaptable to contemporary life. And if it breaks, having the courage to say that perhaps if it broke, it wasn’t strong enough. And so, the breaking of the law strengthens it. These imaginative metaphors allow one to respect tradition without venerating it. Thus, even the breaking of the law is an expression of Halacha.

Mine is not the Chanukah of hate, of xenophobia, of patriarchy, chauvinism, white privilege, and the morality of the Stone Age. Mine is not one which would tell a woman that she lacks the right to abort a fully formed fetus, not because life is unimportant, but because as a woman it is her body! Nor is mine a Chanukah or Judaism which refuses to laugh and dance with the other. I pulled my back out dancing the Dabka with my Arab friend Noor. Crying in pain on my back for two weeks I was nevertheless able to laugh when I remembered the joy of dancing, prior to tripping, and smashing my hip on a cumbersome metal hookah.

I will never stop dancing with the stranger, with the LGBTQ, with the reform female Rabbi, with the pastor, with the worshipper of Vishnu. Nor will I deny those who deny G-d even though we may disagree. Traditional notions of idolatry will be respected, yet I will still dance and break bread with my Hindu friend in his home, even with a picture of Ganoosh staring at me from the piano.

Open Orthodoxy celebrates Chanukah, but it celebrates the Chanukah of tolerance, love, open-mindedness, and acceptance, and is willing to remember the Maccabees, but unafraid to criticize them. We need to have their courage but express it differently. Rather than lopping heads off and cutting down Jews who had surgery to repair a missing foreskin, we need to engage with them. Rather than say, “kill the blasphemer!” we need to open our hearts. When Jewish fanatics arise to deal with traditional law-breakers, we need to express our displeasure. ““No,” we must declare, “This is not the Jewish way!”

We need to be progressive candles in the dark, shining the light of warmth and acceptance to those still living in the Middle Ages. Such is the nature of true “open orthodoxy”.

About the Author
Father of two girls and one son, living in the Jerusalem outskirts. Loves to read, hike the Hill Country, and do yoga with my life partner Shira.
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