Todd Berman

Giving up truth – Chanukah edition

Lighting candles to commemorate the Talmudic story of the miracle of the cruse of oil may be the most popular mitzvah of all time; however, the Channukah holiday produced numerous explanations. Some view the holiday as a celebration of religious freedom. Some in the scholarly community suggest that economic factors played as much of a role as religious sensibilities. Many suggest the Hasmoneans battled the Seleucid empire and Hellenized Jews. Religious zealots competed with those who preferred to join the dominant culture of Hellenism. As much as it was a conflict between nations, Chanukah commemorates a civil war.

According to this last interpretation, the Intellectual descendants of Alexander the Great promoted a type of cultural colonialism called Hellenism. The goal of the Hellenizers, both Jewish, and gentile, was to create a grand society where everyone across the ancient world would participate in a virtual melting pot of societies and races. The Maccabees refused to abandon their traditional Jewish identity and instead fought the overwhelming combined forces of the Seleucids and the Hellenized Jews. As the Al HaNissim prayer recounts, the victory was for particularism against an ancient type of multiculturalism.

If this narrative is correct, what message can we take from these religious zealots today in a global society that celebrates multiculturalism and ethnic blending?

The development of philosophies and attitudes over the past few hundred years highlights a problem with the definition of truth or at least truth claims. Since the scientific revolution, thinkers have suggested that the world runs according to to set rules and laws. Physics, chemistry, and astronomy can explain how objects work. Evolutionary biology, psychology, history, and other social sciences can explain how society functions using globally acceptable narratives. Just as we know how the planets rotate around the sun and that feathers and bowling balls will plummet at the same rate in a vacuum, we know that history repeats itself, and economists can predict the rise and fall of the stock market. We understand the human creature as we understand the inner workings of the cuttlefish.

Many have pushed back against this worldview in the past half a century. Philosophers and pundits understand what seems now to be simplistic models of history to be subjective. Jean-François, among others, challenged all grand narratives. As Thomas Kuhn argued, scientific paradigms are, by necessity, constantly contested. Who writes the history books, what data the authors choose to highlight, and which perspectives are viewed play as much a role in understanding both past and present as particular series of events. Is there a truth with a capital “T”?

Suppose we abandoned objective truth claims for subjective interpretations; who decides what is right and wrong, what is true and what is false, what is moral and what is not? For many, the rejection of an absolute truth causes angst. Nevertheless, some thinkers have pointed out the grave danger of claiming full knowledge of the absolute truth. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the U.K. of blessed memory, quoted the political thinker Isaiah Berlin warning of the dangers of making such claims.

Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals and groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth… It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right; have a magical eye which sees the truth: and that others cannot be right if they disagree. This makes one certain that there is one goal and only one for one’s nation or church or the whole of humanity, and that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only the goal is attained – ‘through an ocean of blood to the Kingdom of Love’ (or something like this) said Robespierre:  and Hitler.

Lenin, Stalin, and I daresay, leaders in the religious wars of Christian vs. Muslim or Catholics v. Protestants sincerely believed this: the belief that there is one and only one true answer to the central questions which have agonized mankind and that one has it oneself – or one’s Leader has it – was responsible for the oceans of blood: But no Kingdom of Love sprang from it – or could” (The Dignity of Difference p. 42)

If Berlin, as Sacks quotes, is correct, that absolute truth claims lead to bloodshed, then are we not celebrating such claims on Channukah? Did not the war stem from zealots who thought they knew better than the Hellinizers? I suggest that the opposite is the case. The Maccabees of our tradition never pressed for universal appeal. They wanted to cleanse the Temple and return to Jewish sovereignty over our sacred spaces. Unlike Alexander and his followers, they never wanted to force their version of religion on the world. (Their descendants forgot this lesson.) As distinct from Islam and Christianity, Judaism is not universal. Salvation, whatever that means, in Jewish tradition is open, with a few caveats, to righteous Jews and Gentiles alike. So what do the modern Maccabees want?

The words of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg offer a fascinating path. He argues that the problem of modernity – with its scientific and social truth claims – presented a difficulty for religious people. Many have tried to debunk religious “myths” using modern academic methods. They claim a truth that many religious leaders feel the need to refute. However, Rav Shagar, as Rosenberg is known, offers a solution. Post-modernist thinkers, in one way or another, suggest that absolute truth claims either do not exist or are undoubtedly unattainable. Rav Shagar argues that religious thinkers should forgo making such absolute truth claims. “forgoing the truth also means forgoing the need for Truth. The result is acceptance of ourselves. “(Luchot Ve’Shivrei Luchot p. 43). Rav Shagra continues to spell out that giving up on demanding absolute truth means not being challenged by others’ truth claims. We can live with our truth while others live with theirs. This approach to limited or personal truth creates a different type of pluralism. Often people see pluralism in the Hellenistic form – a melting pot of cultures and traditions forcing all to acquiesce to a parve amalgam. However, perhaps the best way to live in a larger society is to allow each group space for self-expression. For Rav Shagar, this is true on the intellectual-religious level, but it also seems to work on the cultural one.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik expressed a similar notion regarding Jewish-Christian relations. Jews have always navigated a tense relationship between universalism and particularism – between being citizens of the world and a unique independent nation.

The Jewish religious tradition expresses itself in a fusion of universalism and singularism. On the one hand, Jews are vitally concerned with the problems affecting the common destiny of man. We consider ourselves members of the universal community charged with the responsibility of promoting progress in all fields, economic, social, scientific and ethical. As such, we are opposed to a philosophy of isolationism or esotericism which would see the Jews living in a culturally closed society.

On the other hand, we are a distinctive faith community with a unique commitment, singular relationship to God and a specific way of life. We must never confuse our role as the bearers of a particular commitment and destiny with our role as members of  the family of man. (Letter to RCA 1964)

For Rabbi Soloveitchik, authentic Jewish expression requires a modicum of independence and isolation. While Jews should participate in the global community, a profound and necessary value exists to remain an independent entity focused internally. Practically speaking, the Rav, as he was known, suggested that Jews could participate in general culture for the betterment of humanity but must remain isolated and independent theologically. He objected to any type of Jewish-Christian theological dialogue. Ironically, creating separate spaces may be the best way to find mutual admiration and respect for other faith communities.

I served as a campus rabbi as part of the OU-JLIC program. During that time, I discovered the value of maintaining an independent existence. I remember speaking with some students returning from an event at Chabad. The students asked me why at Chabad, there was none of the politics they felt negatively impacted events at Hillel. I asked the students if anyone had tried to start an egalitarian service at Chabad. They replied in the negative. When asked why not, they explained that it was Chabad’s space. I explained that Hillel attempts to enable various Jewish groups to work together. By necessity, this demands that groups make concessions to each other. While there are some beautiful aspects to students working together, sometimes something else is needed. Groups need their own space to express their own culture. For some, “pluralism” means everyone doing something together. At times, like children sharing their parents’ homes, conflicts will naturally arise. Parents must make time and space for each child to express themselves. Besides creating artificial unity, demanding everyone to work together can create tension. Sometimes having one’s own room creates the best environment for mutual respect.

A well-known story recounts that under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid empire in Syria,  the Greeks forbade the Jews to keep the Sabbath, the New Moon, and circumcision. The earliest source for this story seems to be a work called the Megillah of Antiochus. Scholars date the work to sometime in the rabbinic period. According to the story, the problem the Maccabees had with the Greeks started when the foreign rulers tried to impose religious restrictions upon the Jews. Shabbat and circumcision are two mitzvot that mark the Jews spiritually and physically. Declaring the New Moon was necessary to control the Jewish calendar. These three mitzvot represent the uniqueness or isolation of the Jewish nation and state. The problem with the Hellenists’ program in the Channukah story stemmed from their desire to press a foreign culture upon the native population. The Jews living in the second millennium BCE confronted the power of cultural genocide. Those siding with the Seleucid empire attempted to force their views on the other Jews, including reorganizing Temple worship. The Maccabees of the Chanukah story did not want to impose Judaism on anyone. However, they did fight for their truth. There may have been other causes as well, but seemingly the Maccabees saw this as an affront to their way of life. Channukah can be seen as the victory of those who want their own space for religious worship.

According to the Talmud, one should place the Chanukah lamp at the front door of one’s house. The light should shine toward the passersby. However, it is at the doorpost, neither inside nor in the public square. The doorway stands as the gateway between the public and the private. Channukah celebrates a people demanding space for their own story and their own way of life. We can celebrate together by respecting each person’s private space.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.