When Hope Triumphs Over Cynical Realism

Chanukah's Universal Message:
When Hope Triumphs Over Cynical Realism

Holiday Season Greetings!

Chanukah starts Tuesday evening, Dec.7th and goes for 8 days. We light one Chanukah light the first night, two the second night, etc.

Christmas and Chanukah share a spiritual message: that it is possible to bring light and hope in a world of darkness, oppression and despair. But whereas Christmas focuses on the birth of a single individual whose life and mission was itself supposed to bring liberation, Chanukah is about a national liberation struggle involving an entire people who seek to remake the world through struggle with an oppressive political and social order: the Greek conquerors (who ruled Judea from the time of Alexander in 325 B.C.E.) and the Hellenistic culture that they sought to impose.

Though the holiday celebrated by lighting candles for 8 nights recalls the victory of the guerrilla struggle led by the Maccabees against the Syrian branch of the Greek empire, and the subsequent rededication (chaunkah in Hebrew) of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., there was a more difficult struggle which took place (and in some dimensions still rages) within the Jewish people between those who hoped for a triumph of a spiritual vision of the world embedded (as it turned out, quite imperfectly) in the Maccabbees and a cynical realism that had become the common sense of the merchants and priests who dominated the more cosmopolitan arena of Jerusalem.

The cynical realists in Judea, among them many of the priests charged with preserving the Temple, argued that Greek power was overwhelming and that it made far greater sense to accommodate to it than to resist. The Greek globalizers promised advances in science and technology that could benefit international trade and enrich the local merchants who sided with them, even though the taxes that accompanied their rule impoverished the Jewish peasants who worked the land and eked out a subsistence living. Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theatre of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. To the Maccabbees, the guerrilla band that they assembled to fight the Greek Empire and its Seleucid dynasty in Syria, and to many of the Jewish supporters of that struggle, the issue of Greek militarism, social injustice and oppression were far more salient than the accomplishments of Greek high culture. Whatever might be the value of Athenian democracy, the reality that it exported to the world through Alexander and his successors was oppressive and exploitative. A useful counter to the current movie white-wash of Alexander would be to read the historical novel "The Ptolemies" (the name of the Greek dynasty that ruled Judea after the death of Alexander until the other Hellenistic dynasty of the Seleucids conquered it from them) written by Duncon Sprott (Knpof, 2004). Among other things, it gives a useful reminder of the context in which the Greek Hellenists opposed Jewish "mutilation" of the body with circumcision(which they punished with death): the common custom in some parts of ancient Greece to abandon and let starve to death those babies whose features were not "perfect," because the ancient Greek view of bodily perfection at the time of the birth of Alexander required that only those babies deemed likely to grow into beautiful beings deserved to live.

The "old-time religion" that the Maccabbees fought to preserve had revolutionary elements in it that went far beyond the Greeks in articulating a libratory vision: not only in the somewhat abstract demand to "love your neighbor as yourself," "love the stranger," and pursue justice and peace, but also concretely in Torah prescriptions to abolish all debts every seven years, allow the land to lie fallow every seven years, refrain from all work and activities connected to control over the earth once a week on Sabbath, redistribute the land every fifty years (the Jubilee) back to its original equal distribution.

The identification with the oppressed, enshrined in Judaism in its insistence that Jews were derived from slaves who had been liberated, and in its focus on retelling the story of being oppressed that was central to the Torah, seemed atavistic and naïve to the more educated and enlightened Jewish urban dwellers, who pointed to the reactionary tribalistic elements of Torah and sided with the Greeks when they declared circumcision and study of Torah illegal and banned the observance of the Sabbath.

The miracle of Chanukah is that so many people were able to resist the overwhelming "reality" imposed by the imperialists and to stay loyal to a vision of a world based on generosity, love of stranger, and loyalty to an invisible God who promised that life could be based on justice and peace. It was these "little guys," the powerless, who managed to sustain a vision of hope that inspired them to fight against overwhelming odds, against the power of technology and science organized in the service of domination, and despite the fact that they were dismissed as terrorists and fundamentalist crazies. When this kind of energy, what religious people call "the Spirit of God," becomes ingredient in the consciousness of ordinary people, miracles ensue. It is this same radical hope, whether rooted in religion or secularist belief systems, that remains the foundation for all who continue to struggle for a world of peace and social justice at a time when the champions of war and injustice dominate the political and economic institutions of our own society, often with the assistance of their contemporary cheerleading religious leaders. It is that radical hope that is celebrated this Chanukah by those Jews who have not yet joined the contemporary Hellenists.

Unfortunately, once the Jews had actually succeeded in overcoming the Hellenists, the military leaders (led by the brothers of Judah the Maccabbee) established a dynasty that became corrupted and oppressive on its own. Like the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and many other struggles with noble ideals, the people who fought these struggles were limited and (like all the rest of us and everyone else on the planet) had their own internalized distortions, so the regimes that they eventually created were less wonderful than the ideals that had originally motivated the struggle. We need not dismiss the original ideals as hollow or return to a cynical realism that proclaims the uselessness of struggling for ideals, nor need we deny the subsequent distortions, in order to celebrate these moments in which people were able to transcend the past and mobilize to support their own highest ideals. Celebrating these milestones in human history can recharge our own batteries and remind us of the need to continue to struggle against the cynical realism of our own times.

Yet the celebrations have to be honest and focused both on what was really behind the struggle, what are its positive lessons, and what its possible distortions. In Jewish history, Chanukah was always a minor holiday, and yet it was one of many aspects of Jewish culture which helped to sustain hope during the many centuries of Jewish homelessness and persecution. It had particular poignancy for Jews during the Holocaust--a memory of the moment when Jews had been more successful in struggling against oppression. Yet it was given a different meaning by the Zionist movement, which made Hanukah into a major holiday--seeing in those Maccabbees the historical precedent for a new kind of Jew that was emerging in Israel--tough, able to fight, able to overcome odds through military prowess. Soon enough that would and did produce a new kind of cynical realism--in which power and domination over others was accepted as the vindication for past suffering, and Jews became the Hellenists proclaiming the ultimacy of nuclear arms and superior military prowess and scorning at the ideas of reconciliation and atonement for the sins we had committed in our domination over the other. The arrogance of the Maccabees in power is being relived today, tragically, and as that happens, the power of the original message of Chanukah gets lost.

Nor has Chanukah faired well in the U.S., where it lost its powerful message for still another reason: the deep desire of a significant section of the Jewish population to "fit in" to the grand celebration of American materialism and power. In that culture, the anti-Hellenistic idea of Chanukah, its rejection of the ultimacy of power and domination, its insistence on being in the world in a different way (even to the extent that we would die for the right to NOT fight or NOT exercise domination and control over any aspect of our lives one day of the week--Shabbat), seemed totally out of place and counter-productive to our "making it" in America. So it was not surprising that Jews, many of whom felt ambivalent about not being Christian, tried to turn this into a major holiday to provide their kids with a compensation for not being Christian by buying them lots of Chanukah gifts ("see--we have gifts for eight days, not just for one!!"). Joining in the grand materialistic melee of holiday season consumption, Jews could prove how patriotic and like-everyone-else we were by acting as consummate consumers. Nor do I want to deny that this desire to fit in was at least partly a reflection of abiding Jewish fears of oppression--and therefore deserving not of ridicule but of compassion. Yet in the process, at least some Jews lost touch entirely with the real spiritual revolutionary message of the original struggle.

Today, we at Tikkun seek to reclaim this message, not only for Jews but also as a universal message: the way things are is not the only way things can be, the overwhelming power of the ruling elites of the world (and their coterie of cheerleaders who run alot of the media and disproportionately influence the universities and control most of the corporations) can be overcome when the Spirit of God becomes ingredient in the consciousness of the majority of people and they realize that the part of their consciousness that aspires for a world of kindness, justice, peace, ecological sanity and loving connection to others (a part that is normally drowned out by the vocies of cynical realism that most of us also have in our heads) is worth fighting for and could actually win!

Let the light of that RADICAL HOPE shine through in your lives during this holiday season!!!

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Michael Lerner
email: phone: 510-644-1200

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