Tuesday, June 18, 2024 -
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Chanukah: ?Give me Judaism or give me death’

The main theme of Chanukah is assimilation, that is, the impiety and destructiveness of assimilation.

Yet, I almost never meet a Jew who says he is assimilated.

However observant or unobservant a Jew might be, and whatever his theology or lack thereof, rare is the Jew who sees himself (or herself) as assimilated.

It’s as if Chanukah were irrelevant.

In antiquity, Jews fought and died to resist the forces that would compel them to give up Judaism. These forces came from the Syrian Greeks and also from assimilating Jews themselves.

In the famous story of Hannah and her sons, Jews gave their lives rather than eat non-kosher food.

The Syrian Greeks defined assimilation this way: the renunciation of bris (circumcision), Shabbos and rosh chodesh. (The latter requires a bit of explanation: In antiquity the festivals of Judaism were not listed on a calendar; their date depended on the sighting of the New Moon each month. This could vary, depending on weather conditions. If rosh chodesh were abandoned, there would be no Passover, Yom Kippur, etc., for all these holidays need a date, and that date depended on rosh chodesh, the ancient method for fixing the dates of the month.

So here we are today: Virtually every Jew defines Judaism for himself; ergo, no one is assimilated.

It might be easy for the observant among us to regard the unobservant as assimilated; but among those who would never dream of abandoning bris, Shabbos or the Jewish holidays, assimilation is still possible. Not only possible, but probable.

In antiquity, the mitzvah, the actual observance, and Jewish values were one and the same. If I were willing to risk my life to be circumcised, my observance and my values were identical. Today, that is only rarely the case.

We may etch the arc from the blatant to the subtle.

If I am observant yet deal in drugs, or launder money, or sexually abuse children, or falsify the documents of workers (all four examples have cropped up in the observant community in the last decade), I am assimilated. I have absorbed values contrary to the Torah, even though I follow the ritual regimen.

More subtly, if I am observant yet watch inappropriate movies or fritter away all of my spare time in the endless worlds of websites or sports statistics, I am assimilated.

True, there is a vital difference between study Torah via websites and, yes, assimilating their great potential for wasting time, if not worse. Still, Chanukah is a demanding holiday! It requires only that we hold on to such basic Jewish observances as bris, and such basic Jewish values as honesty and compassion, but that we ask ourselves: Do the teachings and the values of the Torah suffuse our entire lives? Critical decisions in life, such as which neighborhood to live in (near a shul or not?), or which college to go to (has an active Jewish student group or not?), or which profession to enter (allows for attention to family or not?), may reflect a clear bent toward assimilation or, to the contrary, a clear embrace of Jewish values.

That’s what Chanukah is really teaching: there is no area of life, from the big decisions to the daily choices, from ethical considerations to ritual observances, that is absent the potential to be a fuller Jew, or an assimilated Jew.

This is brought home most clearly to me as Shabbos descends in Jerusalem. The entire landscape — the land, the near total cessation of transportation, the focus on family, the mood, the holiness, the prayer, the dress, the tranquility — all change as Shabbos descends. This is not the case in the Diaspora. Our surrounding culture does affect us, whether we realize it or not, whether we resist it or not, whether we observe Shabbos or not. On some level, at the very least, we do assimilate values contrary to our own.

Chanukah says: Wake up. Be aware. Stay conscious of the challenge. Embrace more fully the values and the focus of those ancient Maccabean heroes who said: Give me Judaism or give me death.

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