The great British Jewish historian, Cecil Roth (1899-1970), makes a fascinating point about the Maccabean revolt (in the gendered language common in his generation): “It was one of the decisive events in human history. Never before had men been convinced, as they were then, that an idea was something to fight for….” The Jews have a purpose, Roth essentially says. That purpose is to fight for ideas. Because those ideas were typically ideas at odds with the prevailing ethos of the cultures in which we lived, Jews were almost by definition countercultural, a voice that stood for something different from what everyone else was saying.
To be sure, Hanukkah is about purifying the Temple — and there are many Jews today who share the Maccabees’ passion for ritual and worship. Hanukkah is also about the Maccabees defeating the Greeks — and warriors, when we need them, we also have aplenty. If we didn’t, the State of Israel would not exist. But what about Cecil Roth’s Maccabees? Are we still willing to fight for ideas? Do we still see our purpose as being a clarion call, having something important — and unique — to say to the world around us?
For a long time, we did just that. Monotheism was a radical revolution. Shabbat, the notion that no person was so subservient that they didn’t get at least one day a week to focus on matters of the soul, sounds obvious today, but it wasn’t when the Jews introduced it thousands of years ago. The notion that women are not chattel was far from obvious in the ancient world. That is the reason for the get and the ketubah, a Jewish marriage license of sorts, that detailed the obligations of the husband to his wife should the marriage collapse. No matter how acrimonious the split, she could not be left destitute. How often do we recall that the ketubah was the first document in the history of humankind devoted to protecting the rights and wellbeing of women?
There was, of course, much more. The prophet Jeremiah railed against the institution of child-sacrifice. The Talmud went to extraordinary lengths to make the “owner’s” obligations to a slave so onerous that the Sages effectively abolished slavery more than a thousand years before the United States did.
In a world in which contemporary Jews seem to desperately want to fit in, it sounds strange to say that our “purpose” was precisely the opposite of fitting in. In a fascinating book, Joshua Berman argues that the point of the entire Tanakh was to be countercultural. He claims that the Hebrew Bible sought to weaken traditional seats of power and to create an egalitarian society of equally empowered citizens, in stark contrast to the cultures of the ancient Near East, in which the power of the king was unlimited. Thousands of years after the Bible, Europe would be awash in seas of blood as the French and Russian revolutions fought over precisely that principle.
But are we Jews still countercultural? Have the candles of that Jewish uniqueness burnt out? After all, monotheism is a basic assumption of Western religions, just as a Sabbath is bedrock of Western culture. Judaism’s ideas about decrying child sacrifice, abolishing slavery, protection of women – none of that is in question any longer. What if Cecil Roth was right, that the true Jewish revolt is a rebellion of ideas? What should we do today? Declare victory and go out of business? Say that we made our contributions, and we’re done?
Perhaps not. In this horribly broken world, could this be the moment when Jews might start sharing our own insights on social and moral questions once more? And if so, what might those ideas be? The answer to that is buried in years of Jewish learning and conversation, but even in this short space we can point to a few examples of what we have to say that the world needs to hear.
The Torah quotes Yitro (Moses’ non-Jewish father in law) and his advice to Moses on selecting leadership: “You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain.” Did Maimonides not advise that judges “should be endowed with the following qualifications: wisdom, humility, reverence, disdain of gain, love of truth, loved by fellow men, and of a good reputation.” Couldn’t we have urged that those standards be applicable not only for judges, but for leaders writ large? Perhaps not just for Jewish leaders, but all leaders?
While the vast majority of American Jews reviled Donald Trump and feared his re-election, some American Jews and many Israelis embraced him to the very end. But in how many Jewish communities that were largely supportive of Trump (because they agreed on immigration, thought that his economic reforms were good for business, or felt he was good for Israel, etc.), did rabbinic leaders model a discourse that might applaud policies but at the same time castigate leaders for colossal moral failings? Have we lost the capacity for nuance? Are we Jews no longer able to speak truth to the power of the crowd?
And what about on the left? Yes, execrable character needs to be denounced, but how should we treat people with the sort of character flaws that blemish us all? We’re a tradition in which all our leaders, religious and otherwise were far from perfect. Abram tells Sarai, his wife, to lie to Pharaoh, with possibly dire consequences. “Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” Though the rabbinic tradition goes to great lengths to insist that nothing untoward followed, the text of the Torah suggests otherwise, which is why Pharaoh chastised Abram: “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife; take her and begone.”
Similarly, recall King David’s sending Uriah to his death so the king could cover up his relationship with Batsheva. Here, too, the Sages were deeply uncomfortable and the Talmud even suggests that “Anyone who says that David sinned [with Batsheva] is nothing other than mistaken.” But the Biblical story is pretty clear, and most of Jewish tradition recognizes that. Yet, that same tradition says that David is the progenitor of the Messiah.
The point of these — and many other — examples is that our tradition understood that great leaders are always flawed people. We might wish that were not the case, but they are. Yet shouldn’t we acknowledge them for all they did contribute?
If Woodrow Wilson was a racist, that’s reprehensible. But nothing about his contributions to America warrant his having space named for him? Columbus isn’t surviving the onslaught (think Indigenous Peoples’ Day). What will be with Washington? Jefferson? What about FDR? (Or Ben-Gurion if this pseudo-intellectual fad ever reaches Israel’s shores?) Is America going to erase the narrative that lies at the core of its sense of purpose because people were flawed? Jews are a people who insist that we can venerate even that which isn’t perfect, admire and be grateful to even those who were flawed. Otherwise, nothing survives. We Jews essentially represent the very opposite of cancel culture. A Jewish voice from the left that also spoke to the left would be the counterculture of which our tradition was always made.
There’s lots more – so a few more thumbnails of much more complex issues. We’re a people that believes in the efficacy of repentance. So how ought we think about an accomplished journalist who admits that they put on blackface years ago in what was a stupid act, but long before they were a public figure? Does their career have to end? Genuine atonement and forgiveness aren’t a possibility? Is Yom Kippur just a charade?
What about national service? From Moses’ admonition to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Menashe that they didn’t have to reside in the Land of Israel but they had to join the fight for it (for that was their responsibility to their people) to the inspiration that young Jewish North Americans get from Israelis their age who have served their country – wouldn’t the United States be a better country and more united society if every American 18-year-old did some form of national service? There’s a Jewish voice — both ancient and contemporary — to be heard there, too.
Start these conversations, and suddenly, delving into Jewish texts isn’t only for the religious, but for everyone who wants to be part of an authentic — and increasingly urgent — Jewish conversation. Critiquing the society in which we live becomes not a progressive characteristic, but an authentically Jewishly countercultural one. What other ideas are waiting for us to recover them in the volumes that for thousands of years have been the foundation of thriving Jewish life?
The Jewish left and right engaging in intellectually serious and morally nuanced conversation about what Jewish texts might have to teach today? Jews reclaiming our ancient role of speaking truth to power, in our unique voice? With apologies to James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, what a different world that would be. It would be a world, actually, in which we were worthy of being the Maccabees’ heirs. Imagine that.