Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Light, Darkness and other Religions: Thoughts on the 8th Night of Hanukkah

Driving down the streets of Manhattan after Shabbat, I was struck by the sight of hundreds of Protestants walking towards the Cathedral for Midnight Mass. I returned home to discover Catholics had lined the sidewalks outside my house waiting to enter a local church. There’s something very moving about seeing people go to shul.
With Chanukah candles in some windows, and Christmas trees in others, December in America lends itself to mushy ecumenical statements of “hey, we’re not so different after all”. I believe the differences between religions and identities are critical, but pointing out the shared moments is just as important.
This week, as the pope bemoaned the fact that “the superficial glitter” hides the real meaning of the religion and its values, I too was nodding: "Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God's humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity." The Pope was calling it the way it is: out of the legitimate desire to turn Christmas into a less religious day and more of a “one size fits all” December holiday, the deeper meanings of the day are often lost. It’s good to have a day to celebrate family, and exchanging gifts is a great way to strengthen relationships. I also find value in families of diverse religious backgrounds finding creative ways to showcase their complex identities in their homes. But rituals and holidays have deeper meanings and statements that can easily be lost if there is nothing but glitter and gift wrapping, and it is up to us to infuse our rituals with the deeper meaning, values and narratives we wish to give as a gift to ourselves this year.
Agreeing with the pope and being inspired by people of other religions as they pray, reminded me that while as a Jew I have a strong coalition with Jews of all practices and beliefs, Jews are not my only coalition. As a religious person in the modern world, I have a coalition with religious people of other faiths, as we claim together that living a spiritual life of humility and observance is a value in this secular age we live in. Watching the news from Beit Shemesh this week, where extremist Ultra-Orthodox men have pushed all boundaries in their misogynistic ways, I was reminded that religious extremists have their own coalition, with communities of various religions reacting to modernity in similar fundamentalist ways. In response to them I belong to a third coalition, of people who promote liberal and humanistic values, beyond and within categories of religiosity or faith. But that deserves its own post…
So how do I hold a complex identity that shares values across political and religious boundaries, and yet retains its unique authenticity? Hanukkah offers us the ability to celebrate both within our Jewish identity, alongside celebrating a deeper human phenomenon that is shared across cultures. People love to point out the “ancient pagan” origins of certain holidays, but for the non-historicists among us this is just another word for “ancient human” origins. Hannukah, like many other winter holidays, is a festival of lights which arrives around the darkest night of the year. The Talmud itself retells the Hanukkah story as a humanistic holiday. In this version, from Tractate Avodah Zara (as part of a discussion of what distinguishes Jewish from pagan!) Hanukkah is described as having been enstated by Adam, the first human being. The language of the Adam Hanukkah myth mimics, almost parodies, the story of the Maccabees’ Hannukah:
Our Rabbis taught:
When Adam [the first human] noticed
that the days were getting shorter, he said:
"Shame on me,
the world is perhaps becoming darker because of my sins,
and will soon return to chaos! Is this what the heavens meant when they punished me with mortality?"
For eight days he prayed and fasted.
When the period of Tevet [the month after Kislev] arrived
and he saw that the days were now growing longer,
he realized: "This is the way of the world." 
Adam then made eight days of celebration.
The following year he instated these and those as holidays.
Talmud Bavli Avodah Zara 8b
תנו רבנן  [שנו רבותינו]:
לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך,
אמר: "אוי לי, שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו,
וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים",
עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית [ובתפלה],
כיון שראה תקופת טבת
וראה יום שמאריך והולך,
אמר: "מנהגו של עולם הוא",
הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים,
לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים
(תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף ח עמוד ב)
The admittance of the Talmud that Hanukkah did not start with the Maccabees holds a critical lesson for living in a world of multiple narratives. It allows me to celebrate my story, the Maccabean Hanukkah, alongside recognizing the universal elements of the holiday, and rejoicing in those as well. We could rewind all the holidays into a humanitrian unitarian mush, or fast forward them into a bland commercial festivus, but I personally am invested in each group celebrating their own narrative, while recognizing and rejoicing those other narratives as well. It bears the danger of becoming hyper-particularistic, but it also retains the rich authenticity of unique traditions, that each hold their own recipe for a better world.
Before leaving Hanukkah and this Talmudic passage, on this night of 8 candles it is worth pointing out that this story also makes a very moving statement about the human reaction to darkness. When Adam first realizes that sunlight is diminishing and the nights are getting longer, he immediately turns to blame himself for this suffering. But once he realizes that this darkness is not about him, his guilt or even his repentance, but rather that this is “the way of the world”, he then CELEBRATES it.
In this story, Hanukkah is a celebration of the fact that there are times in which darkness happens, and yet it is followed by times of increased light. Human beings lighting candles during the darkest nights is perhaps part of a divine-human covenant: when God’s world (tragically?) provides more darkness, we human beings promise to step up and provide more light. Mortality is not a “fall of man”, it is “the way of the world”, and it requires a certain response from us – lighting candles. I was reminded of this story last week when the father of an alumnus told me how he left in the middle of a pivotal conference attended by the President, in order to sit at the deathbed of his best friend. The suffering of death is unfortunately the way of the world. The candles we light through our own acts of compassion are what will help us get through the darkness and the cold, until spring arrives again.
Hanukkah Sameach and have a warm winter,

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