Hanukka – A Children’s Ceremony

Parent

Many years ago the Jews in the land of Israel were not free. They were not free to rule themselves. They were not free to live in the way their hearts and minds desired.

A foreign king made their lives miserable. He sent many soldiers to make the Jews do what he wanted them to do. He took away their Temple and gave it to their enemies. The Jews rebelled. They rose up against the king. Under their brave leader Judah Maccabee they defeated their enemies and won their freedom.

Parent or Child

The Jews decided to celebrate their victory. They set aside eight days for a special festival.

The Temple was made ready for the celebration. The lights of the Temple Menorah were kindled and gave forth a bright light.

Judah Maccabee dedicated the Temple to the service of the people. He called this special festival Hanukka.

Hanukka is a Hebrew word which means dedication.

Judah Maccabee asked the Jews to celebrate this holiday every year at the same time. He wanted them to remember this victory.

Child

The Jews of this story were our ancestors.

Our ancestors suffered the cruelty of a foreign king.

Our ancestors fought for their freedom.

Our ancestors restored the Temple in Jerusalem.

Our ancestors heard the words of Judah Maccabee when he asked them to remember their victory.

Our ancestors saw the lights of the Temple Menorah rekindled.

Let us, therefore, remember what our ancestors did.

Let us kindle the lights of our Menorah in memory of their courage.

(Children light candles after reading. Family sings.)

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-lam

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nuk-ka

Radiant is the light of the world.

Radiant is the light of humanity.

Radiant is the light of Hanukka.

A CANDLELIGHTING SERVICE

Hanukka is the feast of light. In the winter the days are short and the nights are long. In the winter the light goes quickly and darkness lingers.

In the summer we take the light for granted. The sun is so generous. But in the winter we know how precious it is and how much we need it.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-lam We value the light within the world

Hanukka is the feast of light. Not only the light without. But also the light within. Not only the light of the sun. But also the light of life which shines through every living being and which warms the darkness.

Light is power. Human light is human power. It is the power to love life, to nurture it and to make it grow. It is the power to resist evil. It is the power to be a Maccabee and to defend what is good and beautiful.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam We value the light within every human being

Hanukka is the feast of light. Light is radiance. It is the radiance of whatever we do to make our world a better place to live.

It is the light of reason, which helps us see the difference between right and wrong.

It is the light of self-esteem which keeps us proud.

It is the light of courage which gives us the strength to stand up for what we believe in.

It is the light of freedom which reminds us to take responsibility for our own lives.

It is the light of love which enables us to care for those who suffer.

It is the light of loyalty which makes us keep our promises to those who trust us.

It is the light of generosity which encourages us to give even when we do not receive.

It is the light of hope which leads us to the vision of a better world.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nook-ka We value the light of Hanukka

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-o-Iam. Ba-rookh ha-or ba-a-dam.

Ba-rookh ha-or ba-ha-nook-ka.

(Light Candles and All Sing)

Maccabees of old did rise

To defy the wicked king

They fought hard to help all men

And through courage freedom bring.

They brought a message cheering

That the time is nearing

Which will see all men free

Tyrants disappearing.

National Liberation — The Hanukka Question

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

What is the ethical dimension of Hanukka?

For Humanistic Jews the question is not trivial. Touting the supernatural intervention of Yahveh to make holy oil last longer hardly seems a reason for a celebration. And dramatizing the darkness of winter and the rebirth of sunlight is less compelling than it used to be, now that we live in a world of artificial lighting.

In a secular age more and more Jews want to find a moral message —with a contemporary flavor — in the saga of the Maccabees. The old rabbinic evaluation which saw in Hanukka the rightful destruction of the enemies of Yahveh is a bit embarrassing in an age of religious toleration.

Most Jewish leaders in North America now present the Hanukka story as a struggle for religious freedom — a perfectly respectable enterprise in the contemporary world.

The Greeks sought to deprive the Jews of their religious liberty. The Jews fought back and regained their freedom. The events fit into a tale which would warm the heart of any American civil libertarian. But, of course, reality intrudes. Once you move from propaganda to history the claim for religious freedom is hard to maintain.

The Maccabees were devout authoritarians and theocrats. They had no conception of a Jewish state in which a wide variety of Jewish religious opinions would thrive and flourish side by side. They had no vision of the pluralistic state in which the individual conscience would reign supreme.

The Maccabees were the children of the priests and the prophets. They believed with absolute sincerity that they were the agents of the one true God, the defenders of truth against falsehood and the enforcers of the divinely ordained way of life for all Jews. While they might be willing to tolerate the arguments between Pharisees and Sadducees, they were certainly not willing to extend any living space to Jewish pagans, skeptics or Hellenists. As devotees of the Torah, they were committed to a theocratic state run by Yahveh and his designated deputies.

In many respects the Maccabees were no different from Antiochus. Each adversary was committed to the absolute validity of his position and to the necessity of destroying all opposition. The Hellenists fared no better under the Maccabees than the pious did under Antiochus. ‘Toleration’ was not one of the bywords of that struggle. Ultimately, John Maccabee, through his conquest of Samaria and Galilee, sought to impose Jewish identity on the newly conquered. As a Jewish Antiochus he combined imperialism with religious conformity.

Interestingly, the Greek period before Antiochus was a far more liberal time than the era of Maccabean rule. Sadducees, Pharisees and Hellenists lived together in mutual hostility, but without the means to destroy each other. The government of the Greek Ptolemies was certainly committed to the spread of Greek culture. But it was less ambitious and more pragmatic than that of Antiochus.

The Hanukka story, quite obviously, does not realistically yield the ethical message of religious freedom and mutual toleration. At best it yields the moral value of national liberation.

National liberation is distinct from personal liberation and personal freedom. It is a struggle for what many perceive to be dignity — the right of ethnic groups to be governed by members of their own race. What the Maccabees achieved for the Jews was not religious freedom or personal independence. What they conferred upon the Jews was a government of Jews who were not the puppets of outside powers. The high priests in the Persian period were the agents of the Persians. But the Maccabees were their own agents. In so far as they were independent, the nation was independent.

Confusing national liberation and personal freedom is a modern problem. During the past forty years, many Third World nations have experienced the departure of their colonial masters and the establishment of native government. But national liberation has not been accompanied by civil liberties. Military dictatorships, one-party states, theocratic tyrants and self-righteous ideologues have replaced the foreign rulers. They are native born. But they are no kinder.

Gaddafi and Khomeini talk a lot about ‘liberation’. Yet they offer no personal freedom, although they may enjoy popular support. The liberty of minorities is denied, and the tyranny of public opinion and mob intimidation prevails. The people may feel that they have more dignity now that the Italians and the Americans are gone. But they are not free in any meaningful sense.

Jews generally have suffered from regimes of national liberation that deny individual liberties. Oppressed nations that win their independence usually are in no mood to tolerate differences. Poland, the Ukraine, Romania and the Arab countries did not deal kindly with non-conformist minorities. As historic aliens, Jews find it difficult to fit in when nationalism is new and aggressive.

Movements of national liberation are familiar events in human history. They are much older than liberal democracy and strike more powerful emotional chords. In modern times, they frequently use the propaganda of ‘freedom’ to camouflage despicable dictatorships.

It is, therefore, very important to point out what political freedom (which includes religious freedom) really is.

On the simplest level, freedom is the ability to do what you want to do. On a more profound political level, it is associated with certain key words and concepts.

Freedom refers to individuals. Groups cannot be free, since they do not have a single will or a single set of desires. Groups are collections of individuals. The opportunity to be governed by a member of your own group may enhance your dignity, but not necessarily your freedom.

Freedom means personal autonomy. The willingness to assume responsibility for your life and to resist the dictation of others is essential to liberty.

Freedom means diversity. In a social setting where everyone voluntarily thinks and does the same things, liberty is vacuous. Only an environment of diverse groups and diverse beliefs stimulates the individual to be free.

Freedom means creativity. A society where individuals choose only to imitate the past is no better than a mild tyranny. A significant liberty produces challenge to existing ideas and institutions. It thrives on new ideas.

Freedom means liberal democracy.

Perhaps the most insidious assault on freedom lies in the concept of democracy which many radical conservatives now use in their defense of censorship and moral conformity. If democracy means simply majority rule, then the will of the majority has the right to prevail whenever it is expressed. If a majority of the people want school prayer, book censorship and no abortion, their will should be respected. If they want to ban premarital sex, put Christian missionaries into the state schools and determine the style of local dress, their decision ought to be binding.

Majoritarian democracy gives freedom only to the majority. It claims the right to regulate all human behavior through the decision of the majority. If most of the citizens follow a single religion, then all citizens may be compelled to follow it.

The alternative democracy is called liberal democracy. The word liberal is used in the classic sense of commitment to freedom, not in the current sense of leftist views. Most moderate conservatives endorse liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy is the democracy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who feared the tyranny of public opinion and democratic majorities. If individual freedom is to prevail, the individual must be protected from intrusive majorities. Neither science nor lifestyle creativity are possible in a society where conformity intimidates.

In a liberal democracy, there is a constitution, written or unwritten, which restricts the power of ambitious majorities. They may govern the lives of others in order to provide for community survival and for public law and order. Unpopular ideas and unpopular behavior deserve the protection of the authorities if they do not harm society. Where there is widespread disagreement about the moral value of certain behavior, it is wise for majorities to abstain from imposing their views and to allow each individual to decide his or her own action in accordance with his or her own conscience. In a liberal democracy, majority rule is a procedural regulation, not a sacred law. It is far less important than individual freedom and dignity.

Now it would be naive to expect the Maccabees to have been precursors of Jefferson and Madison or devotees of liberal democracy. The social and cultural development of the Near East in the second century B.C. had hardly produced the conditions which enable people to even think about such political possibilities, A world in which people strongly believe that the goodwill of the gods is indispensable to the survival of society is not a place in which full religious freedom can prevail.

Nevertheless, there were contemporary political models that were “freer” than the Maccabean regime. In many of the imperial cities of the Greek world — especially Alexandria — populations of diverse ethnic groups made it pragmatically necessary to tolerate religious diversity. Even discreet philosophers of atheism, like the disciples of Epicurus, could preach their word in Athens.

Pious peasant cultures are not the stuff out of which toleration and variety are made. Conformity is appropriate to the world of villages. It is a hindrance to urban development. Openness to different people from different places is essential to urban growth.

Religious freedom, as an expression of individual freedom, did not emerge in any meaningful way until the Enlightenment brought a new secular perspective. God had to become less terrifying before government would relegate religion to the marketplace of private choice.

As a vulnerable minority, the Jews of the Enlightenment embraced the concept of religious toleration, even though their traditional wing never took it very seriously. For the orthodox, religious liberty was a pragmatic strategy for Jews living in a

Gentile country. It had no relevance to a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. The modern state of Israel suffers from this old fanaticism.

National liberation is important. But, without personal freedom, it is not very significant for the contemporary Western Jew. A Jewish state governed by a fanatically religious Jewish majority would have very little real liberty, even though the government was Jewish and independent.

Strangely enough, in the modern world, many colonial people had more freedom when they had less dignity. The individual Pakistani spoke much more freely in British India than in Zia’s military dictatorship. And even French Vietnam spawned a wider diversity than what Ho Chi Minh allowed.

Hanukka is about the fight for ethnic dignity, not the fight for personal freedom. We should not confuse the issue. National liberation deserves a celebration. But freedom needs more.

Hanukka: How It Happened

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

I. The Jews and The Greeks

When the Hebrew tribes invaded Phoenician Canaan some thirty-five hundred years ago, another invasion took place across the sea. A barbaric people who had called themselves the Hellenes (and whom their Roman enemies and admirers would call the Greeks) poured out of central Europe onto the rocky Aegean lands, establishing numberless city-states. These principalities evolved into urban centers of grace and sophistication.

Condemned to a rocky soil unsuited to farming, and urbanized by necessity, the Hellenes became international traders and adventurers. Long before the armies of Alexander crossed the Hellespont to conquer Asia, Hellenic merchants, sailors, and soldiers were scattered over the middle East, in Egypt, Persia, Sicily, Scythia and Judea.

Of all the peoples the Jews came into contact with, the Greeks were the most formidable. The power of the Hellenes did not lie in their armies, it lay in their culture. The freedom, wealth, and beauty of the Greek urban style were compelling alternatives to the dull, repetitive routines of a Semitic theocracy.

However, the Greek “danger” lay in more than attractive novelty. The urban Hellenes regarded their culture as superior to all other national lifestyles. The English word barbarian, derived from the Greek word foreigner, still carries all the contempt they bore for outsiders. Against such ego strength, the Jewish ego was less effective than against the more modest self-esteem of their Semitic and Aryan neighbors.

The Greek conquest of Judea was part of the general collapse of the Persian Empire. For two hundred years the Jews had accepted the domination of Persian kings and governors — and the control of their Jewish Zadokite collaborators. As a

minor province of the Empire, Judea had endured the predictable and picayune government of a pretentious priestly aristocracy, which earned its right to power by discouraging rebellion. When the Macedonian Alexander united the Greek cities by military force and led the Hellenic armies into Asia, the Jews did not expect his arrival. The fall of mighty Persia was inconceivable to the popular mind. The ignominious flight of the Persian king from the field of Issus was greeted by public disbelief.

By 325 B.C.E., the Persian Empire had become the Greek Empire. Alexander reigned in triumph over all the great nations of the Western world.

Jerusalem and the Jews woke up one morning to discover that their king now spoke Greek instead of Persian. Such a minor change would have meant nothing to the tranquility of their political existence if Alexander had lived. However, he inconsiderately died young and left the spoils of his conquest to no established heir. Three of his generals vied for his power and his property.

Trained to passive dependence by their priestly guides, the Jews watched the struggle of General Ptolemy and General Seleucus for Judea with the involvement of spectators at a football game.

In the end they found themselves the personal possession of General Ptolemy. This enterprising general had seized Egypt and had made new Alexandria the capital of his kingdom. Needing Judea to protect his Asiatic flank he persisted in holding her against the military power of his rival Seleucus.

For the first time in their history, the Jews were attached to Egypt. Of course, the Egypt of the Ptolemies was no Egyptian Egypt. It was a Greek Egypt. Alexandria was a sophisticated island of the Greek lifestyle in a sea of Egyptian peasants.

In this situation the incorporation of Judea into Egypt did not make the Jews more Egyptian. It simply made them more Greek, more occidental.

Greek Judea underwent the trauma of urbanization. Jerusalem was transformed from a palace storehouse for priestly treasures (as well as a walled Temple shrine) into an emporium for the goods of many nations. Stimulated by the government initiative, many Jews invested the meager surplus of their near marginal farming in trade speculation. Although the priestly authors of the

Torah had viewed the merchant profession with disdain and had condemned moneylending, the lure of profit outweighed religious considerations. Even the cautious Zadokites were too greedy to avoid dabbling.

Greek Judea promoted the rise of a new social class and a new political power. A Jewish bourgeoisie emerged in Jerusalem. The nouveaux riches Jewish merchants of this ancient city resented the snobbish standoffishness of the old priestly and landowning aristocracy. They demanded social recognition and access to positions of prestige.

Judea of the Ptolemies underwent, as a result of this new social development, what can best be described as partial secularization. Since the Zadokite priests and rulers had found their strength in a stable agricultural society, they viewed

with dismay the face of the new Jerusalem. Their Torah was ill-suited to the needs of a merchant city, and their vested interest made them fear the competition of the ambitious bourgeoisie. Although they enjoyed the monetary results of trade speculation, they feared the political and social implications. Ultimately, the Greek governor forced them to yield some of their control. Theocracy yielded to plutocracy (the rule of the rich). A boule or council, with the high priest as its president, was established to govern Jerusalem and Judea. The council featured not only Zadokites and landowners, but the leaders of the new merchant

aristocracy. The priest-dominated Judea of the Persian period was now finding room for secular machers.

Ptolemaic Judea, in particular Jerusalem, experienced a massive cultural change. Neither Zadokite nor Persian lifestyles seemed appropriate to the new urban setting of a trade emporium. The desire to become as Greek as possible pervaded the middle and upper classes. Hellenization was the inevitable result of economic change.

Secular schools were opened where the children of the bourgeoisie could study the skills they would require for both business and leisure. These schools provided a secular alternative to the Zadokite school in the Temple. The Greek admiration for the human body inspired more public exposure. Athletic games became a frequent spectacle and shocked the country peasants who

found public nudity blasphemous.

The consequence of urbanization was the emergence of Jewish intellectuals who sought to deal with their tradition and their religion in a rational way. Their overwhelming desire was to find respectable reasons for the performance of old rituals and scientific justification for the telling of old myths. In their eyes the Zadokite priests were boorish and illiterate clergymen incapable of rescuing the Torah for “modern” times.

The ambivalence of the Zadokites was the main source of their weakness. After two hundred years of strong and effective rule, they collapsed under the strains of Hellenization. Too snobbish to unite with the believing masses against the skeptical bourgeoisie, and too attracted to the material benefits of urbanization to strongly resist the encroachment of the merchants, they surrendered their power in the most humiliating fashion — with no resistance.

II. The Maccabees

Every society is dominated by those who succeed in achieving power. They are the ruling elite.

Jewish history, like the history of all nations, is the story of one power elite replacing another. Each ruling group creates laws and institutions to maintain its control. It also invents stories and ideologies to justify its domination. The royal house of David commissioned the Book of Kings and proclaimed the divine right of its family monarchy. The Zadokite priests authored the Torah and announced the divine right of their priestly dictatorship.

In the Greek period, there emerged a new competitor for power in the Jewish state. It was a family of destitute Levites from a backwater village called Modeen. Like most non-Zadokite Levites they were unemployed as priests. For generations, they had been reconciled to powerlessness and insignificance. In the year 180 B.C. they were nonentities. In the year 140 B.C. they were the masters of Judea.

The name of this family varies. They were officially called the Hasmoneans because they were descended from an obscure ancestor Hasmonai. They were popularly called the Maccabees because their most famous leader bore this surname. Consumed by ambition, they destroyed Zadokite power, drove the Greeks from Judea, established an independent Jewish state, conquered neighboring lands, and became absolute masters. of all they surveyed. In the process of achieving the ultimate power, they made many enemies. These enemies hated the Maccabees with such intensity that their anger still burned two centuries after the Hasmoneans disappeared.

What was the secret of their success? How was it possible for an obscure peasant family to reach the heights of political power within forty years?

The Maccabees succeeded because of their personal charisma. There were five Hasmonean brothers, the sons of a man called Mattathias. Three of them were men of strong ambition, courage and charm. Judah shone as a military leader, Jonathan as a political manipulator and Simon as a ruthless administrator. Without the chemistry of their personalities, power would have eluded them.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Zadokites ‘committed suicide’. Torn between their upper-class desire to be chic and Greek and their vested interest in being pious and traditional, these Jerusalem priests opted for the first alternative. Their decision was fatal. Becoming Hellenized made them more fashionable. It also made them less convincing as promoters of the Torah. Since it was the Torah that justified their power, to undermine the authority of the Torah by repudiating its lifestyle was to undermine their own authority.

The Maccabees succeeded because a new class of ‘successful people’ had emerged who found priestly rule insufferable. The wealthy merchants who made their fortunes during the budding affluence of the Greek period found the concentration of political power in priestly hands humiliating. The Zadokites were landholders and were unsympathetic to the needs of the merchant class. They resisted organizing Jerusalem as a Greek city with a municipal council of its own. They wanted to keep the upstart merchants in their own place and to prevent them from securing any position of authority. Like most feudal aristocracies, the Zadokites believed that pedigree was more important than money. The merchants disagreed with them and sought to replace them with more pliable rulers.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Zadokite rulers had alienated the peasants. The Greek habits of the upper classes made them appear as foreigners unworthy of respect and obedience. In response to this change, a lower-class rebellion emerged. The nature of this rebellion was pietistic. It was reflected in a fanatic attachment to the lifestyle of the Torah. This attachment was ironic. The Torah was originally a document of the Zadokites, by the Zadokites and for the Zadokites which they had created to impose their control upon the Jewish masses. Now the very masses who had initially resisted the demands of the Torah became its most ardent defenders, while the authors of the book betrayed their own self-interest.

The Maccabees succeeded because one set of Greek rulers were replaced by another set of Greek rulers. Judea belonged for 125 years to the Greek king of Egypt who lived in Alexandria. When his rival, the Greek king of Syria, invaded his territory and defeated him in battle, Judea passed from Egyptian control to Syrian control. The change of government was profoundly disturbing to many Jews. They had strong connections with Alexandria, to which thousands of Jews had emigrated because of overpopulation in Judea. The Syrian Greeks had severed a natural bond.

The Maccabees succeeded because of the poverty of the Greek king of Syria. Anxious to prosecute his war against Egypt, Antiochus required immense sums of money. Informed by Jews eager to curry his favor that the Jerusalem temple was very rich and that the religious tribute of several centuries lay stored up in its treasury, Antiochus decided to plunder it. This act of sacrilege enhanced his war budget but alienated him from the Jewish people. It was a shortsighted action which, in the long run, cost him more than he received. Even the Greek sympathizers among the Jews found his behavior offensive and became either apathetic or hostile.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Syrian Greeks were aggressive Hellenizers. The Egyptian Greeks were the masters of a compact territory which was easily controlled. Antiochus, on the other hand, was the ruler of a vast kingdom, most of whose people were not Greek. The Syrian empire was a conglomeration of Syrians, Chaldeans, Armenians, Persians, Arabs and Jews. Hellenic rule could only be maintained if Greek urban colonies could be established in every province as islands of safety, surveillance and loyalty. Antiochus chose the Jewish city of Jerusalem, among many other imperial urban centers, to be a Greek base of operation. The routine sign of the Hellenization of a city was the identification of the traditional city god with a Greek god. Assisted by a garrison of Greek mercenaries and a small band of Jewish sympathizers, the king declared Jerusalem to be fully Greek and Yahveh to be none other than Zeus Olympius. For fanatic pietists and religious patriots, Yahveh was a Jewish name and Zeus was a Greek name. Moreover, even if Zeus were the most exalted, noble and ethereal of all gods, a god who liked pork and uncircumcised males could not be a Jewish god. The argument was not theological; it was ethnic. For Jews who had been reared on large doses of Zadokite paranoia, the loss of Jerusalem was a national humiliation. The Jews were no more universal than the Greeks.

The Maccabees succeeded because Antiochus was diverted. When a small group of peasant fanatics, under Hasmonean leadership, rose up in rebellion against the Syrian Greeks and sought to seize Jerusalem, the king was unable to suppress them. Under normal circumstances, the overwhelming might of the royal armies would have successfully crushed the Jewish guerrillas. But Antiochus had no time for the Jews. A powerful enemy, the Parthians, emerged on his vulnerable eastern frontier. All the resources of the royal government had to be directed to the battle against the Parthians. The Jewish guerrillas were spared destruction. They had only a few military leftovers to contend with. Since the Parthian invasion persisted until half the empire was lost, the Jewish rebels benefited from allies they had never met.

The Maccabees succeeded because they found a strong ‘friend.’ At the time of the Hasmonean rebellion, a new power was arising in the West. The Romans swept eastward, conquering the Balkans and dominating Greece. In the East, they confronted two rivals — the Greeks of Egypt and the Greeks of Syria. The Romans cleverly decided to play one against the other. They offered themselves as the Protectors of Egypt against Syria. When the Maccabees began their rebellion, they turned to Rome for help. The threat of Roman retaliation was an effective deterrent to Syrian action.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Syrian throne itself was in perpetual turmoil. While the Syrian kingdom was threatened by Parthian invaders in the east, Jewish guerrillas in the south and Roman hostility in the west, every Syrian king had to defend himself against armed rivals. Antiochus Epiphanes, the man who had plundered the Jerusalem Temple, had himself seized the kingdom from his younger nephew. His children, in turn, were challenged by their cousins. The Jews benefited from this dynastic infighting. The Maccabees offered their assistance and support — now to one side, then to another. Skillful Jonathan Maccabee changed sides several times, taking full advantage of Syrian disunity.

The Maccabean success was no miracle. It was the result of Jewish talent and Syrian bad luck.

A Sukkot Family Service

Sukkot, Summer 1990

OPENING SONG

Hinnay Ma Tov

How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to celebrate together.

S ’TAV

Autumn is here. The days and nights are colder. The leaves are turning brown and gold and red. The sun spends less time with us and darkness arrives earlier than before.

Autumn is here. Everything is changing. Nothing lasts forever. What is born must also die. What is new must also grow old. Nature never stays the same. All the world is moving.

Autumn is here. Everything is beginning. School starts again. Work is renewed. Activity increases. While the life of nature ebbs, human energy grows stronger.

S ’tav is the Hebrew word for “autumn.”

SONG

Seesoo Vseem’hoo

Rejoice and be happy on this joyous holiday.

KATSEER

Autumn is harvest time. The seeds of spring have turned into the food of winter. The work of summer has brought forth the bread of life. We live with nature. It gives us grain and fruit. It yields up fish and fowl. It sends us survival.

But nature needs more than nature. Farming is far more than finding food. It takes human ingenuity to turn the earth into a field of corn. It requires human caring to change the sapling into the successful tree. The harvest does not happen all by itself.  Nature and people work together. We need each other.

Katseer is the Hebrew word for “harvest.”

SONG

Artsa Aleenoo

We have gone up to our land.

SUKKA

Autumn is harvest time in Israel. The fruit on the trees is ready for picking. The grain in the field is ready for cutting. The land is filled with joy. The winter will be secure.

In olden times, Jewish farmers stayed all day in the fields at harvest time. They were very busy and had no time to return home. In the heat of the day, they stopped work for a while and rested in special huts nearby. The huts were frail structures, decorated with the special fruits of the harvest and open to the sky. Our ancestors sang songs, they danced, they ate their midday meal and returned to work.

Sukka is the Hebrew word for “hut.”

SONG

Hava Nageela

Come and rejoice.

SUKKOT

Autumn is a special time for celebration. Like all the seasons of the year, it brings its own unique joy. Holidays are times of celebration. They make us aware of what is important in our lives. They make us notice the beauty of things and places and people.

As far back as we can remember, the Jewish people have always enjoyed a fall festival. They have taken the time to honor the autumn, to pay tribute to the harvest, to sing and to dance. There was so much to do, one day was never enough. Eight days were better. The autumn holiday needed eight days.

Sukkot is the Hebrew name for the fall festival.

SONG

Zoom Galee

Rejoice.

LULAV

Holidays need parades. Parades need special things for people to hold and wave.

Sukkot needs a parade —not an ordinary one with flags and floats but a special one with harvest grain and harvest fruit.

In the land of Israel, the date palm grows tall and straight. At harvest time its dates are sweet and nourishing, its branches are long and graceful.

The palm branch is a beautiful Sukkot banner. For many years, Jews have marched with it to celebrate the harvest and to honor the autumn season. They decorate it with the leaves of myrtle and willow. They wave it to the sound of flutes and drums. They march with it in long processions.

Lulav is the Hebrew word for “palm branch.”

SONG

Hoshana

Let us save ourselves.

ETROG

The lulav did not stand alone. Tradition found it a partner, not long and thin and green but short, round, and yellow.

There is a special fruit that grows in the land of Israel. It grows nowhere else. It looks like a wrinkled lemon, but it does not taste like a lemon. Nor does it smell like a lemon. It has a special taste all its own. It has a special fragrance that is unique. People like to smell it because it smells like perfume.

The special fruit is the partner of the lulav. They always go together. They remind us of life: Some people are tall. Some of us are short. But all of us are important.

Etrog is the Hebrew name for this fragrant fruit.

SONG

Hoshana

Let us save ourselves.

SIMHA

When holidays come we think of all the good things in life. We think of the beauties of nature, the love of family, the importance of friendship, the power of roots.

The good things in life bring us happiness. They give meaning to our existence. They offer us strength and hope.

Sukkot is a time of happiness. It is a time of joy. Just as in ages past our ancestors marched and sang and danced, so do we. We stamp our feet. We clap our hands. We proclaim our joy.

Simha is the Hebrew word for “joy.”

CLOSING SONG

Seesoo Vseem’hoo

Rejoice and be happy on this joyous holiday.

Our Dietary Laws

Sukkot, Summer 1990

Sukkot, like most Jewish holidays, is about food. The celebration of the fall harvest is marked by Sukkot, as the celebration of the spring harvest is marked by Pesakh and Shavuot. The fertility of the earth and of animals is where it all began.

Now, food is not trivial (despite the fact that highbrows deplore gastronomic Judaism). Food is even more important than sex; without nutrition, reproduction fails. Food is survival. All religions began with rituals to regulate the eating of food, whether the food was given to humans or to gods.

It is by no mere coincidence that our deepest and most profound religious attachments are to celebrations that center on eating. The seder remains the most popular Jewish event in North America. Sharing food goes back to the earliest memories of family and community.

All cultures regulate eating. Some, like the Anglo-Saxon, do so informally, without explicit legislation; Anglo-Saxons simply do not eat dogs, cats, or horses. Others, like Jews, do it formally with much fanfare and with very specific laws in sacred documents.

But why these prohibitions?

All cultures view certain foods as dangerous. The dangers may come from a variety of circumstances. The food may belong to the gods and not to humans. It may be prepared in the wrong way. It may be eaten at the wrong time. It may be restricted to social groups other than your own.

In Jewish culture, which was a meat-eating culture, the danger lay in blood. Blood was a food that belonged to Yahveh alone. To drink blood was to steal the food of God and to risk the punishment that would almost certainly ensue. Blood-eating carnivorous animals were not considered proper (kosher) for eating. Kosher vegetarian animals, like cows, sheep, and goats, had to be killed in a kosher way allowing for the maximum bleeding of the slain animal. And, as an extra precaution, the meat had to be salted to draw out the last vestiges of the blood. (Ironically, humans could eat meat or fowl, while the beasts or birds they chose to eat could not. Even pigs, which are on the edge of vegetarianism, were excluded because of their piggish habit of eating any blood-soaked refuse in sight.)

In time these dietary restrictions became an intimate part of Jewish identity. Long after most Jews had ceased to believe that blood was the food of God, long after they had stopped believing that eating blood was dangerous, they continued to obey the laws and observe the prohibitions. Eating habits begin in childhood and are reinforced by community approval and disapproval. As long as Jews lived in closed, tight-knit communities, the dietary laws retained their power. Jews obeyed them because they were Jews, and because there was some vague unconscious fear that if they failed to obey something terrible would happen.

Modern times have subverted this obedience. Political emancipation and an open society, combined with individualism and secular education, have weakened the hold of the dietary prohibitions. Most Conservative Jews and virtually all Reform and secular Jews no longer observe the traditional food laws, regarding them as alienating, inconvenient, or meaningless. Some Jews feel guilty about discarding them. Others create their own personal revisions: kosher food in the home but not outside, shrimp but not pork. Still others go on kosher binges once or twice a year, especially around Pesakh or Rosh Hashana. But, on the whole, the old discipline is confined to a small minority.

“I don’t keep kosher” is the refrain of most secular Jews. The tone implies that the speaker is now liberated from dietary laws. But is that true, or even desirable?

My observation is that many liberal Jews have substituted one set of dietary restrictions for another. And, in many cases, the new laws are more demanding than the ones they have replaced.

For many of my secular Jewish friends, dangerous foods dominate their conscious thought. Cholesterol has replaced blood as the enemy, and fat is a foe as vicious as pork. Calories are like bacon, insidious intruders into the health of the community.

In this age of scientific nutrition, laissez-faire food consumption has become about as rational as diving from an airplane without a parachute. Every day modern medicine warns us of more and more dangers to our bodies and to our survival. The most delicious pleasures of life are diminished as we surrender to the discipline of health and fitness. Giving up hot fudge for celery may be far more traumatic then giving up pork for mutton.

Recently, I was on a panel with an Orthodox rabbi who was overweight and a chain smoker. He spent most of his time

praising the dietary laws and how they instill a sense of discipline into the daily life of the Jew. Each statement about discipline was punctuated by a long puff of his cigarette, leading up to the finale: a racking cough.

I told him that, from my point of view, tobacco was more dangerous than shrimp and fried schmaltz was more devastating than lean pork. I also pointed out to him that, when it comes to dietary discipline, no generation of Jews since the Exodus has been more disciplined than the health-craving, weight-watching, pleasure-curtailing secular Jews of modern America.

But we refuse to give ourselves credit for what we do. We are always falling into the Orthodox trap of complaining how

discipline has fallen out of Jewish life, of how hedonism with its short-run pleasures and absence of long-run goals has

subverted the solid values of traditional Judaism. We fail to see our own stern regimen simply because nobody has bothered to turn it into a divine decree.

Of course Humanistic Jews have dietary laws. They are not the same as the Orthodox. They are not absolute: new evidence constantly forces us to review them. They are not universal; there are different formulas for different physiques. They are not cruel; excommunication or execution seems a harsh penalty for refusing to take care of one’s own health. They are not relentless; lapses are only human and moderation makes sense. But they are more than suggestions. They flow from the collective wisdom of the scientific community.

When I teach young children, I have no reluctance to tell them not to smoke tobacco. I believe the evidence is pretty

overwhelming that smoking can give them cancer. I do not threaten communal punishment or advocate that their right to smoke in private be taken away. But my responsibility is to encourage them to exercise the discipline that is necessary to their health.

Health is a Jewish value (though not an exclusively Jewish one). It is as important a value as Jewish identity. It needs both information and discipline to make it real.

We Humanistic Jews have a new and very different set of dietary laws that are an important part of our lives. As I munch on lettuce and dream of brownies, I recognize that the fates are sometimes cruel. We are designed to love what may not be good for us.

The harvest gave us blueberries and potatoes. Human ingenuity gave us blueberry pie and potato latkes. Fighting human ingenuity is not always easy.

A Humanistic View of Sukkot

Sukkot, Summer 1990

The Jewish calendar features three seasonal holidays, which are grand celebrations stretching over a week or eight days.

The autumn gives us Sukkot. The winter presents Hanukka. And the spring delivers Pesakh. Tied to the agricultural year, these are the splendid old festivals of our Hebrew roots.

Sukkot was the major celebration during the era of the royal House of David. Rosh Hashana was its climactic last day and Yom Kippur was a preceding day of preparation. Lying between the summer harvest and the rainy season, Sukkot featured both satisfaction with the past and anxiety over the future. The parade with the palm branches and citrons —with its passionate cry of “Hoshana” (“save us”) — provided the pageantry and the magic. Hopefully, Yahveh (or whatever god was in fashion) would respond to this appeal with the gift of rain.

In the priestly period — when the Torah was completed — Sukkot was transformed. Yielding to Pesakh as the chief holiday, Sukkot also developed an Exodus theme. Although it was essentially an agricultural festival, Sukkot was now tied to the legendary forty years of Jewish wandering in the desert. The decorative harvest booths (sukkot) that gave the holiday its name and that were initially used by harvesters for rest during the midday sun — were now bizarrely described as the housing of the Hebrew nomads wending their way from Egypt to Canaan.

This distortion fit into the demands of priestly theology. The Exodus story in the Torah was the ultimate tribute to Yahvistic power and divine providence. All holidays were ripped from their original contexts by the priestly editors and given an Exodus setting. If they did not commemorate any events, at least their place of origin became Mt. Sinai.

In rabbinic Judaism, Sukkot suffered from two problems. The first was the proximity of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,

which overshadowed it. The second was the urbanization of the Jew, which diminished the importance of a rain festival.

While Sukkot remained a major holiday, it lacked its former emotional clout. Ultimately, it was rescued by tying it to the

Torah. The last day of the festival was chosen for the end and the beginning of the annual cycle of Torah readings. Renamed Simhat Torah, the celebration provided attachments more relevant than agricultural memories.

With the coming of the secular age and the Industrial Revolution, Sukkot fell on hard times. Metropolitan Jews found an

agricultural celebration to be slightly quaint. And there was no grand idea or striking historical event to give it dramatic

shape. Ultimately, only the Zionists in their new agricultural settlements in Israel were able to rescue it.

From a humanistic point of view, Sukkot has special significance. Agriculture was the beginning of human civilization,

a quantum jump in the human mastery of the environment. The emergence of farming some ten thousand years ago revolutionized human existence. Territorial settlements, cities, population growth, surplus wealth, and written language followed quite naturally from this technological success. It lay the foundation for the human self-confidence that led to the secular age.

Farming is not, as many misguided urban nature lovers imagine, a manifestation of being close to nature and loving

its generosity. It began as the painful struggle against the hostility of swampy river valleys and waterless plateaus. Human ingenuity transformed the inhospitable wilderness into the tailored countryside that we find so pleasing and that we so often call “nature.” Parks and farmland and wilderness trails are human creations that shield us from the brutal reality of our evolutionary past.

But farming is only one of many steps in the cultural unfolding of human talent. The taming of wild animals and the breeding of “meat” is another. The invention of the crafts and the manufacture of technological assistants is still another.

And the transformation of fortresses into cities of trade and production is yet another.

Theology may seek to turn Sukkot into a tribute to divine providence. But experience teaches us that if tributes are to be

paid, they should be paid to the millions of unsung experimenters and inventors who struggled to make the earth yield a

decent living.

Jewish history is a living testimony to human ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds. The same intelligence that made agriculture possible made cities and urban living possible. City existence is not the “artificial” antithesis of “close to nature” farm life. Villages and farms are just as artificial. Neither context, fortunately, resembles the primeval muck that our hunting ancestors struggled to endure.

An imaginative and humanistic use of Sukkot would avoid making invidious comparisons between the pure and divine

harvests of agricultural life and the sullied “harvests” of manufactured goods and services that modern urban existence provides. Both farming and industrial technology are expressions of the human will to change and to improve what is

not satisfactory. The breeding of juicy oranges is no less scientific and intrusive than the invention of computers.

A humanistic Sukkot is a tribute to human culture, agricultural, pastoral, and urban. There are many “harvests,” all

human, all “artificial,” all significant. The spaceship is the natural brother of the plow.

The early entry of the Jew into urban life, as part of the Jewish survival saga, is not alien to the mood of Sukkot. It is an expression of the same human ingenuity that cultivates the lulav and the etrog.

Meditations for Sukkot

CREATIVITY

Nature has two feces. Like an indulgent mother, it may smile protectively while caressing us with warmth and light. Or, like some cruel tyrant, it may laugh at our suffering, devouring our life in devilish upheavals and tempests. Human survival is no product of a benign world. It is the perpetual struggle of humanity with a universe that is often less than friendly. If autumn, as the season of harvest, suggests the scenic beauty of the rural countryside, it also announces the triumph of human ingenuity over die rocks and swamps and the unkempt wildness of empty fields. Farming is no passive art in which pastoral angels effortlessly pluck the fruits of life. History has made it a hard and taxing profession, by which human intelligence turns disaster into hope. Without the creative planning of human decision, there would be no harvest. As the frail sukka booth defies the winds of autumn and stands firm, so do creative farmers resist nature’s hostility and, by their wits, survive.

LIFE

The spirit of Sukkot goes beyond the harvest. Wherever human beings have tamed the primitive landscape of nature’s face and turned it to the useful business of human pleasure, this holiday finds a congenial home. Wherever the creative talent of human thought has rescued the natural elements from moral indifference and put them to work to make people less afraid, this festival can be comfortably celebrated. The technical marvel of the modem city is no emotional stranger to the harvest season. It shares with the ancient farmer a persistent wish. In the golden barley fields of biblical Israel, as well as in the concrete vertical thrust of the new Manhattan, the human determination to live finds its expression.

LOVE

Thanksgiving and gratitude are natural to this season. No person alone can subdue nature to human needs. Without the bonds of human love and cooperation, intelligence is useless. Our need for other people, our leaning on the efforts of other men and women, makes the claim of total self-sufficiency a pretense. Where people will not work together, there are no harvests. Where the ordered ties of human society are absent, there are no cities. Mutual dependence demands mutual gratitude. If we know that we need each other, thankful feelings arise.

PROCESSION

Our ancestors matched the splendor of the harvest with the magnificence of their celebration. They seized the luscious fruits of their labor and paraded them in song-filled processions. Branches of the stately date palm and the fragrant citrons of perfumed orchards filled their hands. They did not hide the joy of their success behind solemn prayers but danced out the pleasure of their victory for life.

— Sherwin T. Wine

(adapted from Celebrations)

The Irony of Jewish Survival

Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998

When Alan Dershowitz spoke at the Bir­mingham Temple, he announced that he was a secular Jew and that Humanistic Judaism was the closest to what he felt and believed. He volunteered to help us.

The reason for his coming was a book he wrote about the future of American Judaism. He gave the book the disturbing title The Van­ishing American Jew. Dershowitz maintains that assimilation, personal freedom, and de­clining anti-Semitism have created a situation in which Jewish group survival is in danger. Jews are so fully integrated into American culture that their Jewish identity has become an adjunct to their American identity. The lib­erty and toleration of American society have made Jewishness a personal choice. Neither laws nor bigotry compel Jews to remain Jews.

But Dershowitz, unlike many Jewish com­mentators on the American Jewish future, does not recommend a return to tradition and Or­thodoxy as a counterbalance to the forces of assimilation. He does not call for a return to community segregation and a primary focus on the issue of Jewish survival. He is afraid that such a return will destroy the Jew he admires and resurrect the Jew he does not admire.

The most interesting observation in Dershowitz’s book is his contention that the greatest achievement of Jewish history is the modern secular Jew. The incredible intellec­tual and artistic achievements of Jews during the past two centuries were produced, not by traditional Jews, but by secular Jews. They are Einstein, Freud, and Durkheim. They are the Nobel Prize winners. They are the movers and shakers of social action and political revolu­tion. They are the voices for universal justice and human rights. In the eighteen centuries of Orthodox Jewish domination, none of this spirit prevailed. The parochial agenda of Orthodoxy kept Jews focused only on the Jewish world.

The implication is clear. A return to Ortho­doxy and tradition is a return to Jewish parochialism. It is a negation of everything at­tractive about Jews in the past two centuries. It is the resurrection of a narrow and fearful vi­sion that saw the Gentile world as the enemy and conformity to tradition as the only guaran­tee of Jewish salvation. Out of such a theologi­cal field, the passion for intellectual, artistic, and ethical adventure cannot grow. If you reject freedom and persuade all Jews to return to Or­thodoxy, you will “guarantee” Jewish survival; but you will have a Jew you neither want nor admire. The irony of the Jewish future is that the Jew we want to preserve cannot be separated from the personal freedom and assimilation that seem to threaten Jewish group survival.

This marvelous irony raises the question of what is necessary to create, maintain, and preserve the modern secular Jew. It is clear that Jewish tradition alone cannot produce this phenomenon. It needs a catalyst. The catalyst is the power of modern Western secular cul­ture, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and the Greco-Roman culture of the classical world. Hellenism and Orthodoxy produced a “child” that was identical to neither of its parents.

The modem Jew is like a good salad dress­ing. The vinegar is Orthodoxy. By itself it is harsh and uninviting. The oil is Hellenism. By itself it lacks the intensity of Jewish pas­sion. Together, they are a pleasing and attractive experience. The oil of Hellenism provides the reason and openness, the love of humanness and beauty, which the life of intellectual and artistic adventure requires. Orthodoxy provides the intensity and anger that have fueled Jewish ambition and have provoked Jewish thinkers and artists to defy established norms. Reason without intensity is weak. Intensity without reason is blind. But the combination is powerful and benign.

The implications of this reality are clear.

The flowering of Jewish identity was not in the biblical and talmudic past. Neither the cult of Yahveh nor Pharisaic Judaism pro­duced the free spirit that the pursuit of truth and beauty requires. On the contrary, in many cases, it suppressed that spirit in the name of dogmatic conformity. The intensity, passion, and militancy of traditional Judaism could be attractive and productive of universal good only when they could be separated from the theology of the rabbis. In the context of rabbinic Judaism they fostered a narrow fa­naticism — a passion that ultra-Orthodox Jews all over the world still exhibit.

Returning to the traditions of the past is like returning to the vinegar without the oil. Repu­diating the open society of the modern world does not produce a wise Jew. It produces a pa­rochial Jew, whose only concern is Jewish group survival and whose chief pleasure is making invidious comparisons between Judaism and “inferior” alternatives. The resegregation of Jew­ish life is the setting for turning the modern Jew into a nostalgic sectarian.

The culture of the Greeks and the Romans, from which so much of our modern secular culture flows, is not the enemy, as traditional rabbis proposed. It is the catalyst that takes Jewish intensity and ambition and transforms it into a vehicle for intellectual achievement and moral improvement. There was a brief time in the ancient world when this combi­nation was attempted. But the wars with the Romans and the triumph of rabbinic Judaism drove Hellenistic Jews into the underground of Jewish life. From time to time a Jewish philosopher would be brave enough to resur­rect a pale reflection of that mixture, but the tyranny of the halakha ultimately prevailed.

The greatest period of Jewish history is the modern era, the time in which the “vinegar” and the “oil” came together to produce the secular Jew of the past two centuries. Within a short time, this combination produced the creative intellectual power to transform our views of people and the universe, and the en­trepreneurial power to remake the economics of the world. Never before has Jewish talent and creativity been able to reach so many so widely. As Dershowitz points out, to lose the secular Jew is to lose the Jew we admire. It is not the Jewish past we seek to preserve. It is the wonders of the Jewish present.

After the Colloquium

Colloquium ’97: Reclaiming Jewish History, Spring 1998

Colloquium ’97 was a stunning success. Eleven Jewish historians dealt with one of the most difficult issues in Jewish life with great skill. The audience was mesmerized by the information, dialogue, and confrontation.

The issue had never been dealt with be­fore in any public Jewish symposium. It had too much potential to upset the Jewish com­munity. Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust scholar, noted the uniqueness of the event.

The issue was provocative because it dealt with the credibility of the story of the Jewish people as it has been presented by the biblical and rabbinic traditions. This familiar story, dominated by patriarchs, prophets, miracles, and divine revelations, has entered into the core literature of Jewish and Western society. It in­cludes familiar names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and Solomon. It has familiar dialogue between God and man. West­ern poetry, painting, and sculpture are infused with this story. The message is clear: the Jew­ish story is different from the story of any other nation, and the greatest discovery of the Jew­ish people is the discovery of the one God.

Jews are attached to this story for obvi­ous reasons. It glorifies the Jewish people and places them at the center of world history. It is wonderfully old and traditional, sur­rounded by the aura of ancestral reverence. It is shared by the Christian world and gives prestige to the Jewish people in Christian eyes. Most Jews are unwilling to give up this story for a more realistic, less flattering alternative.

In the narrow sense, mythology is the story of the gods. In that sense, traditional Jew­ish history is mythology, since tradition makes the story of the Jewish people inseparable from the story of Yahveh.

In the broad sense, mythology is legend rather than truth. In the last century, histori­ans and biblical scholars began to question the truth of the ancient story. An alternative story, without miracles and supernatural interven­tion, emerged. This story differed greatly from the traditional one. Scientific biblical criticism and archaeology challenged the reality of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, and the firmly held belief that monotheism goes back to Abraham. These conclusions would have been very disturbing to the lay public. The consequence was a shameful dichotomy. In the outside world, the traditional story continued to be taught, even by liberal clergy. In the inside world of schol­ars and academicians, the alternative story was circulated. But the alternative story never pen­etrated into the consciousness of the broader world. It was confined, in cowardly fashion, to a small circle of experts.

Legend and myth dominated not only ancient Jewish history, but also the history of the rabbinic and medieval periods. Pharisaic Judaism, which achieved the status of Ortho­doxy, was determined to demonstrate that its doctrines and practices could be traced all the way back to Moses. The origins of the Mishnah and the Talmud were distorted to fit the ideology of the rabbis.

The distortion is present in the emphasis placed on medieval rabbinic texts. The most important development in Jewish history in the early Middle Ages in both the Christian and Muslim worlds was the important economic role of the Jew as a mediator between two cul­tures; yet the significance of that role is lost in the pious Orthodox reflection on the commen­taries on the Bible and Talmud that were created at this time. Tradition loves the texts, but reality prefers economics. We lose perspec­tive because ideology distorts our vision.

Even in modern times, with the ready availability of scientific historiography, ideol­ogy gives us a false vision. It is hard for us to be objective about the causes of anti-Semitism because, paradoxically, we feel safe only when we see ourselves as victims. The Jew as provo­cateur is emotionally unacceptable. Nor is the Zionist enterprise any easier to deal with. We are so defensive about our relationship to the Palestinians, so needy to demonstrate our right to the land, that we cannot distinguish between history and apologetics. Mythology dominates our approach to contemporary events.

Is it possible to identify the real history of the Jews? Is it possible to penetrate the defensive cloud of ideology and encounter events as they really happened? That was the ambition of Colloquium ’97. A broad perspective on Jewish history was chosen to demonstrate that all of Jewish history is vul­nerable to mythology. Nine important periods in Jewish history in which ideology distorts the truth were identified. They provided the structure of the program. The origins of Israel, the authorship of the Bible, the diver­sity of Hellenistic Judaism, the origins of halakha, the realities of the medieval Jew, the emergence of Hasidism, the role of the En­lightenment, the causes of anti-Semitism, and the development of Zionism provided the is­sues that engaged our participating historians.

We discovered that the ancestors of Israel were most likely Canaanite hillbillies, that the authors of the Bible lived many centuries after the events they described, that “ortho­doxy” was only one of many options in the Hellenistic period, that the story of the medi­eval Jew is not only one of humiliation but also one of power, and that the causes of mod­ern anti-Semitism are still unknown.

The dialogue and confrontation among the speakers were as exciting as the presenta­tions. It was clear that the attempt to discuss the history of the Jews in this secular context was as novel for most of our speakers as it was for most of our audience.

A book called Reclaiming Jewish History is emerging out of this experience. It will be a first attempt to introduce the important issues of Jewish historical mythology to a lay public.

For us as Humanistic Jews, there is no task more important than to retrieve our history from the ideological chains of the past. But we must be cautious. We must be careful not to re-enslave it with the chains of our own ideology. We must be willing to listen to the evidence even when the evidence is not friendly to our vested interests. We must strive to avoid the pitfall of all Jewish historians who have strong Jewish commitments — turning the Jewish past into a convenient reflection of their own convictions.

The Real Story of Passover

A Passover Manual

Passover and the Exodus go together.

Tradition tells us that Pesakh is the commemoration of the departure of two million Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage. Led by Moses, an adopted prince of the Egyptian royal household, the Hebrews left Egypt with the help of Yahveh, their ancestral god, and began their 40-year trek back to their ancestral home in Canaan. On the way they stopped at a mountain called Sinai where Yahveh gave them the laws of the Torah, including the regulations for Passover. In these regulations Pesakh becomes

the annual official reminder of what Yahveh did for the Jews when he rescued them from Egyptian slavery.

The embellished story of the Exodus really has eight parts.

1. The patriarch Jacob, the ancestor of the Jews, comes down to Egypt with his family to avoid the famine in Canaan.

2. For a period of time the Hebrews prosper and one of Jacob’s sons becomes the prime minister to Pharaoh, king of Egypt.

3. A new king comes to power, turns against the Jews and enslaves them. The slavery lasts for 400 years.

4. Moses, who is a Hebrew and also a prince of Egypt, is commissioned by Yahveh to rescue his people. Assisted by supernatural intervention, Moses intimidates Pharaoh into releasing the Jews from bondage.

5. At the full moon of the. Month of Nissan, the Hebrews, two million strong, leave Egypt for Canaan by

way of the Red Sea and the Sinai Desert.

6. Within 50 days, they arrive at Sinai, the mountain of Yahveh, where they receive the laws of the Torah.

7. After one year, the Jews depart Sinai and wander for 40 years in the wilderness before arriving on the east bank of the river Jordan across from Canaan.

8. Moses dies and is succeeded by Joshua. Joshua leads the Hebrews across the Jordan, invades Canaan and conquers it.

For most of Jewish history this saga was assumed to be absolutely true. Confirmed by faith and tradition, it remained unchallenged. The miraculous rescue of the Jews from their Egyptian oppressors became part of Jewish piety and Jewish patriotism.

But, in modern times, the story became less credible. Historical research, the scientific critique of the Bible, archeology, anthropology and the declining belief in the supernatural — all of these together offered a serious challenge to the tale

of the Haggadah.

Many problems emerged:

• There is no corroborating testimony from any historical document or inscription contemporary to this momentous event. Certainly, the extraordinary nature of this Exodus would have aroused the notice of neighboring nations.

• Even if we discount supernatural intervention, the possibility of two million densely packed nomads surviving in the wilderness for 40 years defies imagination.

• The idea that all the Hebrew slaves were descended from a single man called Jacob (Israel) seems as probable as the assertion that all Americans are descended from Uncle Sam.

• Passover has two names in the Torah, each name referring to a distinct holiday. Pesakh seems to be a shepherd holiday, with the sacrifice of lambs. Matsot seems to be a farmers’ holiday, with the eating of unleavened bread. It appears that one

holiday was made out of two.

• The exodus of the Jews from Egypt most likely occurred during the reign of Raamses II around 1200 B.C. but the Hebrew invasion of Canaan (dated from the fall of Jericho) occurred 300 years earlier. Joshua seems to have preceded

Moses.

In the face of these problems, scientifically-minded experts have revised the traditional story to make it conform to the facts as we now see them. Each of the eight parts of the saga has been radically changed.

Patriarchs

Neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob were real people. Each of them is a personification, a symbol of a group of Semitic tribes who lived in the Palestine area and who became the ancestors of the Jewish people. The Abraham group is associated

with Hebron, the Isaac group with Beersheba, the Jacob group with Bethel. Each of these groups went down into Egypt as conquerors, as part of a continuous Semitic invasion of that country (2000 – 1700 B.C.). The Egyptians called the invaders

the Hyksos and viewed them with fear and detestation. For several centuries the rulers of Egypt were Semites (witness the Joseph story).

The Semitic invaders belonged to the Western or Amorite branch of the Semitic people. The Amorite language

became the source of both Canaanite and Hebrew.

Egypt

The Semitic shepherd rulers of Egypt were a small minority in a sea of conquered Egyptians. Most of

them remained in northern Egypt while Egyptian patriots fled south to organize rebellion. The Semitic life style was very different from that of the Egyptians. Hairy, meat-eating and wool-wearing, the Semites rubbed against the sensibilities of the

conquered nation. A Semitic Pharaoh seemed an affront to the traditionalists among the masses.

Enslavement

Around 1500 B.C. Egyptian rebels from the south invaded the north and decisively defeated their Semitic overlords. The military leaders of this rebellion established the famous Eighteenth Dynasty, under whose guidance Egypt reached the height of

its power and glory. Four Amenhoteps and a female Pharaoh called Hatshepsut added luster to the dynastic saga. During this time most of the Semites were driven from Egypt. Some were enslaved. Many of the expelled Semites returned to Palestine and the east bank of the river Jordan, where they were reunited with their brother tribes who had never gone down to Egypt. Their

Canaanite neighbors called them Hebrews (people who live across the river).

In time the new overcrowding of the east bank, combined with drought and famine, forced the Hebrews to take drastic action. Combining the tribes into a single nation for military purposes, they prepared to invade the more fertile west bank of

the Jordan. Having called this new federation Israel (champions of the god El) they crossed the river under the leadership of Joshua, the chosen commander-in-chief of the operation. The conquest of the west bank was slow and often ineffective.

Hebrews and Canaanites lived side by side.

The Amorites (Hebrews) who remained in Egypt as slaves remained in the northern areas, where they worked on the construction of border fortifications. One of their tribes, the tribe of Levi, worshipped a snake god called Nahash and became famous for their supernatural powers.

Exodus

The Nineteenth Dynasty (which obviously followed the Eighteenth) continued the enslavement of the Amorites. Its most famous king, Raamses II, used them to construct fortified cities in northern Egypt as protection from eastern invaders.

At the end of his reign a slave revolt (of which there were many) enabled many of these Amorites to flee into the nearby Sinai wilderness beyond the frontier. The leader of this rebellion was Moses, a member of the tribe of Levi, who, like many of the Semitic slaves, bore an Egyptianized name. (Given the abhorrence of the Egyptians for the Semites it is highly unlikely that he was raised as an Egyptian prince. Nor was he, as Freud speculated, an Egyptian monotheist. He was most likely a Levitical priest — a devotee of the tribal snake god, whose symbol he carried around with him.)

The number of future Hebrews who departed Egypt at this time could not have exceeded ten thousand. The very nature of the Sinai wilderness would preclude the horde of slaves the Torah describes. In an almost waterless desert, survival for such a mass of people would have been impossible.

The escape from Egypt of a few thousand Semitic slaves required no miraculous intervention. It was a common occurrence.

Flight

The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is equally mythical. Only a priestly scribe interested in propagandizing the power of the Jewish god Yahveh, would have imagined such a tale. Given all the alternative routes available to the fleeing slaves,

heading for the Red Sea would have been an act of insanity.

Sinai

The Semitic refugees headed for a volcanic mountain in the territory of the Kenites, among whom Moses had once stayed and with whom he had contracted a marriage alliance. In the Torah, the mountain bears two names: Horeb and Sinai. At this mountain a federation of tribes was established under the leadership of Moses. The new nation was called Judah, after its largest tribe. Yahveh, the god of the mountain, was chosen to be the protector god of the new confederation.

Given the illiteracy of the Jews, it is highly unlikely that written laws were given to them at Sinai. Most of the legislation of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, comes from later centuries.

Wilderness

For many decades the Jews lingered on the edges of the southern borders of Canaan. Population pressures from other Semitic groups coming from the south — Amalekites, Midranites and Edomites — made a comfortable stay around the oasis of Kadeshbarnea impossible. They had to move. And the only direction in which they could move was north into Canaan.

Invasion

Under the leadership of the Levites, the tribe of Moses, the Jews invaded southern Canaan around 1150 B.C. (some 350 years after the northern Hebrew invasion under Joshua). They conquered Hebron and Beersheba, the old shrine centers of the Abraham and Isaac groups, and gave their name (Judah) to the land which they had taken.

For many years Israelis and Jews remained distinct peoples — with different dialects of the same Amorite language — until they were united into one kingdom under the leadership of Saul a century later.

The Egyptian memories of both peoples were also distinct. The Israelis remembered conquest of Egypt. The Jews remembered slavery in Egypt.

In the long run, the Jews alone survived as an independent self-aware nation. Around the year 620

B.C. one of their kings named Josiah, having completed the conquest of northern Israel, commissioned a

“constitution” for his new “empire.” This document was the original Torah.

Seeking to unite Jews and Israelis with a common epic, Josiah’s priests attached the Exodus story to the great spring farmers’ festival of Matsot, a seven-day celebration of the harvest characterized by the eating of unleavened bread made from unfermented new grain. Seeking to affirm the patriotic roots of the Hebrew people in the nostalgia of shepherd simplicity, the priests also attached the spring fertility festival of Pesakh to Matsot. Pesakh was a shepherd holiday which celebrated the fertility of the flocks and the arrival of new lambs and kids. It featured the killing and eating of young lambs and the marking of tentposts with blood to ward off the dangerous intrusion of evil spirits.

In time the Exodus, Pesakh , and Matsot were molded into a unity. Stories evolved to explain the connection and to provide a rationale for the combined celebration. The real saga found no comfortable place in this political development.

When we, as Humanistic Jews, celebrate Passover, the traditional myths that developed over the centuries provide us with ideological problems. The real story enables the festival to become an understandable part of our life. The traditional story may be more dramatic, with its miracles and divine pizzazz. But the real adventure, being a human struggle, offers greater dignity.

THE MOSCOW CONFERENCE: A Gamble That Paid Off

What Does It Mean to be Jewish, Winter 1995

Moscow was our destination. The Fifth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was to be held there on the weekend of Sept­ember 23-25.

Eighty of us departed North America for this Russian rendezvous. Some of us were apprehensive. We had been bombarded with media propaganda on the dangers of or­ganized crime, mugging, and murder. Twenty people already had succumbed to this warn­ing and had withdrawn from the group. They were convinced that we were flying into a Mafia trap and would be destroyed. Not even the onion domes of St. Basil’s could convince them to relent.

But, for most of us, excitement overcame fear. It was not only that we would experience the wonders of the Hermitage and the Bolshoi, that we would walk the banks of the Neva and promenade under the towers of the Kremlin. It was also that Humanistic Judaism had ar­rived in Russia. A new Eurasian Association for Humanistic Judaism had been formed some two years before, and we were coming to ex­press our support for this fledgling organiza­tion and for the future of a Jewish community in all the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The holding of a conference in Moscow was a gamble. Russia was in economic turmoil. The amenities in public institutions did not meet Western standards. The new leadership of our communities had not yet been tested.

But the experience we had turned out to be far more wonderful than anything we could have anticipated. It was not only that Moscow and St. Petersburg are filled with cultural mar­vels, or that the new capitalist energies of these two cities provided a dynamic setting of change and hope, or that all our fears of Mafia rape proved to be groundless. It was also that the experience of meeting Russian Jews who shared our aspirations and convictions and who were eager to bond with their brothers and sisters from Europe, Israel, and North America was deeply moving.

The conference was held in the original building of the University of Moscow, right across from Red Square and the imposing tow­ers of the Kremlin. The building had been quite magnificent in tsarist times. But it was now a shabby relic of its former glory, a victim of Communist mismanagement and neglect.

Holding the meeting there was important. It was the most prestigious educational insti­tution in Russia. It also had been one of the chief bastions of anti-Semitism in tsarist and Bolshevik days. Ironically, it now housed the new Jewish University. Our board meetings were held in the new Jewish library.

Two hundred fifty delegates attended the meeting. Besides the 80 of us from North America, there were 30 from France and En­gland, 10 from Israel, 2 from Latin America, and more than 125 from seven republics of the former Soviet Union. The Eurasian delegates, in many cases, traveled several days and nights by train to reach Moscow. They came, not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The Eurasian Association is a coali­tion of thirty-five small communities scattered over eight million square miles, some of them closer to China and India than Moscow.

The theme of the conference was “What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?” The question was directly related to the needs of Russian Jews. It also flowed directly from the decision made at our Brussels conference in 1988, when we had dealt with the question “Who Is A Jew?” Having declared that Jewish identity is not only an inheritance but also a choice, we were now confronted by the more important issue of Jewish living. If one is a Jew, how does one lead a Jewish life? If one is a Humanistic Jew, how does one lead a Humanistic Jewish life? Determining Jewish identity is only the pre­lude to arranging for Jewish commitment. For Russian Jews who are searching for ways to express their Jewish identity for the first time, this question is crucial, especially since they are being assaulted by aggressive Lubavitcher missionaries who claim that their way is the only true way to be Jewish.

Addressing this question was a panel of distinguished speakers. There was Yehuda Bauer, world-famous Holocaust scholar and co­chair of the International Federation. There was Yaakov Malkin, founder of the community center movement in Israel and dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel. There was Albert Memmi, an intellectual darling of the French literary world, a professor at the Sorbonne, and the leader of our French communities. There was Egon Friedler, well-known journalist and writer from Latin America and leader of our Uruguayan organization. There were many Russian speakers, including Semyon Avgustevich, the organizing genius of the Eura­sian Association.

There were two stellar moments at the conference. The first was the Saturday evening banquet. The Eurasian delegates sat at twenty-six tables, each of which bore the name of a city where one of our Humanistic Jewish com­munities existed. Delegates from outside Rus­sia could choose the community they wanted to connect with by simply sitting down at the appropriate table. The experiment worked wonderfully. The bonding was intense. Out of that communication came sister communities. We of the Birmingham Temple in Detroit have adopted Vitebsk in Belarus as our sister con­gregation. We will offer support, establish an ongoing dialogue, and learn from each other. By the end of the evening there was fervent conversation and spontaneous singing. The presence of distinguished guests from the Rus­sian Jewish leadership and the Russian par­liament seemed less important.

The second moment was at the end of the conference on Sunday morning. The declara­tion on how to lead a Jewish life had just been read. Delegates were standing up to articulate their response to the weekend. One of them, a representative from Kazan, whom we called Olga from the Volga but whose real name was Olga Apollonova, stood up and declared with great fervor, “We thank you for coming to Rus­sia. We have been waiting for the message of Humanistic Judaism. You do not have to break down the door. The door is open.”

What did we learn from our experience?

We learned that Russia, with all its eco­nomic and political problems, is bumbling down the capitalist road. No one has a better alternative. Even the opposition does not want to go back to the old communism. They want the freedom of capitalism with a wel­fare system.

We learned that the new free environment allows fascists and anti-Semites to sell their wares and to peddle their hate. Right outside the former Lenin Museum in Moscow, the anti- Semitic bible, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was being openly sold.

We learned that the Jewish community in Russia is struggling with the issue of whether there is any future for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The Israelis predict catastro­phe and want them to come to Israel. But many want to remain. Despite anti-Semitism, Russia is their home and Russian culture is their culture.

We learned that there is a real opening for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia. The ag­gressive message of Orthodoxy has limited appeal to a community molded by secularism and intermarriage. Our success will be deter­mined by our ability to train educators and leaders for new communities as well as by our power to produce a Humanistic Jewish litera­ture in Russian. The task is formidable. But we cannot betray this historic opportunity.