Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

I Have a Little Dreidel…

December 2017

Much of what we learned (or perhaps, didn’t learn) in religious school when we were young, is not quite the whole truth. This is not a bad thing; it is a consequence of making education appropriate for the age level of the student. What is bothersome, though, is that too many of our children duck out & disappear, after bar/t mitzvah. After several years of learning nothing more substantial than apples & honey on Rosh Hashanah, after several years of learning nothing more substantial than spinning dreidels on Hanukkah our children & grandchildren (hopefully) resurface in our congregations, sadly as poorly educated adult Jews. In my experience, this phenomena is acutely manifest & most dangerous with regard to the story of Hanukkah.

Most of us seem to have learned that the Hasmonean uprising was a response to the religious persecutions of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, who started his Hellenizing campaign against the innocent Judean citizens of his empire either out of greed or to homogenize the religion of his empire & stamp out Judaism. However, in 2 separate accounts of these events, recorded in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees, not part of our Jewish bible, we learn otherwise. The book of 1-Maccabees (1:11-15) suggests that Antiochus was approached by the Jews themselves, desiring such changes. And, 2-Maccabees (4:7-17) presents an even more intriguing possibility; that the process of official Hellenization was started by the High priest himself!

Our hero, Mattathias the priest, was willing to risk martyrdom (1-Macc.2) rather than abandon the tradition, though there is no evidence that he would have suffered martyrdom in the related incident. The uprising begins only when another Jew offers to abandon God’s covenant. Indeed, when many of the Jews fled & were pursued by the Syrians, the soldiers promised amnesty if they would embrace the king’s law. It would appear, then, that the Hasmonean uprising does have something to do with religious freedom. But, as historians would inform us, the goals of the Hasmonean uprising were either never definitively stated or, more likely, underwent constant revision. If the uprising was staged merely to preserve religious freedoms, then it should have properly ended with the rededication (hanukkah means dedication) of the Temple & that little cruise of oil in 164 BCE. It didn’t; it evolved into a war of independence, an attempt to leave the Syrian Seleucid Empire & establish an autonomous Jewish state.

At one point, the book of 1-Maccabees relates an interesting tale: Rebellious Jews hiding in caves, refused the Syrian offer of amnesty. Also refusing to violate their covenant with God, they were unwilling to defend themselves because it was the Sabbath, regarding any fighting on the Sabbath - even in their own defense, as a violation of the covenant in its own right. To protect themselves on the Sabbath would be an embrace of the very principle against which they took action in the 1st place! All of them: men, women, & children perished.

When Mattathias, his son, Judah, & their intrepid band learned of this, they mourned the dead & made a pact not to repeat this mistake. 1-Maccabees (2:39-41) states that they concluded: “If we all do as our brethren have done, & refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives & for our ordinances, they will quickly obliterate us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.”

Self defense, as its name implies, does not entail leaving one’s security in the hands of others. Perhaps that includes God’s hand as well. In doing so, too many innocent people die needlessly &, as the Maccabees correctly surmise, preservation of self & of principle is not achieved. If a group is going to perish irrespective of the actions they take, should they not, at least, try to defend themselves & not passively submit? This is the lesson that the intrepid Maccabees learned & bequeathed to us. It is also the lesson offered by the resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto. It is a lesson that modern day Israel should take to heart as, consistently, we have seen the inefficacy of UN peace keeping, American intervention, & “peaceful” Palestinian negotiations in the Middle East.

Jews, Israelis, MUST protect themselves & not rely on the so-called good intentions of others. Only 80 years ago we saw how the world stood idly by & let Jews be herded into death camps & today Palestinian terrorists would carry on Hitler’s noble work. Why should modern day Israel repeat that same mistake? The depredations of Palestinian terror, of former Jordanians wishing to murder & maim, should be met with swift reprisal & not merely swept under the carpet.

Not only are some well intentioned people eager to appease the terrorists, there are others, such as Roger Waters, who strongly advocate for the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement which unfairly targets Israel for its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians in the disputed territories. This movement is also making some inroads on American university campuses & the number of Jewish students at these universities & colleges that are harassed & bullied is increasing as well.

Moreover, the world in general, is experiencing a rising tide of “Jew hatred.” We see it in the increased number of antisemitic incidents both in Europe & in America - threats against Jews, harassment in Whitefish, Montana, goose stepping nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, desecrated Jewish grave sites in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, St. Louis, Missouri, & Scottsburg, Indiana, as well as in Europe. These are the same sort of events that heralded the onset of the Holocaust, an historical event universally denied by white supremacists, a euphemism for racists, such as those in Whitefish. The only difference between November, 1938 & November, 2017 is that the State of Israel exists; there is a safe haven.

Sadly, however, there are Jews today, who, like their 1938 counterparts in Berlin, seem to think that if we keep a low profile the threat will just go away. Worse, there seems to be a cadre of Jews who actually think that appeasement, either in Israel or in the Diaspora, will soften any blow. Some Jews actually support the very people who have enabled American neo-nazis, emboldened them, & gave them a voice. If, instead, those Jews would listen to the voices from 1938, & some of them are still talking, they might be a bit more wary. Mattathias the priest & his sons were not taken in. By taking matters into their own hands, they allowed God to work a miracle. Perhaps the real legacy of the Maccabees is not the miracle of the oil, but the lesson that if we wish to observe the Sabbath, we may have to desecrate it to preserve ourselves & our future. When our ancestors did so, they prevailed. We can too.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman