Monday, December 20, 2004

Highlights From Rabbi Wolpe's Chanukkah Panel

Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai (C) served as moderator: "Did Chanukhah happen? And if so, what does it mean?"
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben (of a Reconstructionist shul): "Yes. My approach to all sacred text is like... I expect that everyone sitting at the table has had the experience of being quoted and then looked at it in the newspaper or periodical and thought, that isn't what I said or meant."
Rabbi Naomi Levy (Conservative): "Rabbi Wolpe knows a lot about that."
Rabbi Reuben: "The likelihood that people are quoted accurately in texts that are thousands of years old are not high. These texts can retain their holiness in part because they are old..."
Rabbi Pinchas Giller (Orthodox rabbi who works as a professor of Jewish mysticism at the University of Judaism): "There are difficulties with the question. There was definitely a violent war that took place at the end of the dark ages period, the 200 years between the end of the stories of the Tanach and the Maccabean wars. We just don't know what happened. We have little record of that.
"One group of that war were religious zealots who [made war] on Jews [who had assimilated]. There are two pages in the Talmud on Chanukkah. There are more pages on how to go to the bathroom. They had such discomfort with the violence of the narrative that they coined the notion of the miracle. And that came into being as the reason for Chanukkah. A thousand years later, the sage Ramban said that Chanukkah is all about that moment where the priest in the temple lights the menorah. That silent moment is the essence of Chanukkah. The original event is one thing. The way it has been taken later on is another thing.
"If Chanukkah were re-enacted today, the [Orthodox] Jews of the settlements on the West Bank, and of the Borough Park neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Williamsburg and the junction of La Brea and Beverly [Blvds] would pour out of their neighborhoods and hold guns to the heads of assimilated and liberal Jews and say, be like us or we will kill you. That's what it would be like to re-enact the actual story. That's the part that actually happened. It certainly has evolved."
Rabbi Levy: "All our holidays are constructed that same way. There are legends that we make that gather around some little points in our history. They may grow out of an agricultural festival... Judaism's response to darkness is to light a candle."
Rabbi Reuben: "Some people would say it was the zealotry of the Maccabees who wouldn't be my congregation, a liberal congregation, who kept Judaism alive."
"It wouldn't be any of the liberal strands of Judaism who would be the assimilationists. All of us in the room who are wrestling with what does it mean to be Jewish are on the other side [against the assimilationists]."
Because Jews have been a minority wherever they have lived for the past 1800 years, Jews have come to define themselves by what behaviors and attitudes distinguish them from the non-Jewish majority. Thus, Jews are much more obsessed with how Jewish they are, and that other Jews are not being Jewish enough, than are Christians or Muslims (where Islam is the majority religion).
Rabbi Wolpe: "Pinchas, what was there in Greek culture that Jews could not take on?"
Rabbi Giller: "That religion was cosmetic, that you could move in and out of. That everyone does what they feel like doing and everything is ok. That there are no immutable lines. If you are going to secede everything, that is one thing, but if you try to straddle a fence, to carry on Judaism but let the world in, that's a hard place to be. There are people who would rather close up their Judaism.
"Nietzsche said that when you find something humorous, it means that something inside you has died. When you see people still responding to Judaism...[it means that Judaism is alive and that is a miracle]. When I see some of my colleagues being jaded to [the enormous enthusiasm of people discovering Judaism for the first time], I wonder what in you has died.
"I was brought up in a small town in the South. My family was active in the civil rights movement. There are many small town Jews out there. Once you get past LA, it is not a comfortable place for a Jewish child. They don't speak so benignly about the warm fuzzy experience of Christmas. It is a time when many of them are imposed upon, interceded with. We are in a culture now that is hurtling towards blurring the line between church and state. Many Jews are taking a short-term approach that that is good for us. It is not good for us. It is not good for that little kid in middle America, the only Jewish child in his high school. Chanukkah [reminds] us that we have to hold out. We have to hold against.
"My sense of dislocation about the Gentile culture I was brought up in, particularly having to do with my childhood the civil rights movement, expanded out to a general suspicion of the culture that dovetailed into life in the late '60s which led me towards a fuller realization of Judaism.
"We have to honor that aspect of Chanukkah about drawing lines, before we say we're all clergy, we're all religions incorporation. We're all working together. Sometimes that is not true."
Rabbi Wolpe: "You don't evaluate your religious outlook the way you evaluate a medical decision. Faith is an orientation towards life. It is not a toting up of results. It is an encounter, not a rational decision. Anything you approach as rational, you must first separate from yourself."


Jeffrey writes: NY Times: Childless gay Jew hosts "Bark Mizvah" for his dog. The Times approves, of course.