Heirs to Hasmoneans, Sons of Kishinev
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Because it focused not on the acts of the rioters, but on the perceived passivity and cowardice of his own people, Bialik’s “City of Slaughter” was a watershed literary event for the relationship of Jews to self-defense and power. No longer, would Jews cower in fear. No longer would our heroes be pitiable bookworms of piety. We must become the Maccabees of this holiday of Hanukkah, the figures of Jewish history who stood up to power, the few overcoming the many, doing right for the wronged. According to the historian Anita Shapira, Bialik’s poem became part of the compulsory reading list of the Labor Zionist youth movement in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Never again would Jews be without power, never again would the “New Israeli” accept old Judaism’s supine position of exile and powerlessness.
Hanukkah forces us to consider the ever-changing and ever-uncomfortable relationship that Jews have with power. It is, after all, our one holiday celebrating a military achievement. We have other stories of deliverance – from Pharaoh or Haman – but only on Hanukkah do we celebrate a Jewish military victory, when the Hasmoneans recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks. Judah Maccabee and his followers overcame Antiochus and asserted Jewish hegemony over Jerusalem and beyond. And yet, more often than not, when we tell the tale, the military achievement is passed over in silence. The Talmud tells us with the story of the cruse of oil that had only enough oil for one day, but somehow burned brightly for eight days. And on this Shabbat of Hanukkah, when you might expect the Haftarah to describe Joshua’s conquest of the land, or Samson’s defeat of the Philistines, what do we read? Zechariah the prophet who reminds us: “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone.” (Zech 4:6) It is strange, to say the least, that this holiday about Jewish power, sovereignty, and self-determination, has for thousands of years played down these very themes.
If I had to designate periods of Jewish history on the basis of Jewish power, there would be three sections, possibly four. The first, the period of the Maccabees, was a brief time of strength, courage and vitality. It isn’t quite so black and white, we were still relative small fry amongst the big boys of the ancient world, but we were scrappy -and for at least a period of time, sovereign. The second, and longest period, lasted for two thousand years, beginning roughly with the fall of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jews and ending perhaps with the publication of Bialik’s poem. We were heirs to the Hasmoneans, but in name only. Dispersed and the object of discrimination, we were powerless. There may have been periods of tranquility and maybe even a Golden Age or two along the way, but these moments always came at the cost of serving another, never on our own terms. As our visiting scholar Ken Stein said earlier in the fall, Jews were, for thousands of years, the object of someone else’s sentences – never the subject of our own.
The third stage (which we may or may not still be in now), as reflected by Bialik, broke with this past and demanded that a new chapter of Jewish power be written. Neither Bialik’s poem nor the rise of modern Zionism brought with it an end to persecution – well over six million murdered Jews bear witness to that fact. But in this new epoch, if a Jew died, there was at least the possibility that the death followed an act of assertion. Think of Joseph Trumpeldor, killed in 1920 defending the settlement at Tel Hai. His famous last words: “It is good to die for our country.” For the emergent Jewish ethos, these deaths were different in that they might embody an act of heroism, the difference between a worthy death and a meaningless one. Tel Hai, Hanita, and for that matter, the Ghetto uprisings in Europe – all linked back to a Masada-like heroism. As the great Zionist Yitzhak Tabenkin once wrote in a eulogy for the fallen: “If we are destined to die prematurely, by the hand of man- this is the way to die.” (Cited in Shapira, Land and Power, p.337) Tragedy still persisted, but somehow it was bearable if it came by way of courage.
The problem is that I am not quite sure where we are right now. With the emergence of a sovereign state of Israel in 1948 and the coming of age of American Jewry, Jews have arrived at the table of power in ways that we could have never imagined. Of course anti-Semitism exists, but in a world with three Jews on the Supreme Court, disproportionate representation in politics, among Nobel prize laureates and by any other marker of societal acceptance, it is hard to dispute that Jews are a minority with majority rights and status. We are not dying the death of the powerless, nor the death of martyrs. In fact, we are not dying at all – we are thriving. Yes, Israel faces an ongoing and existential threat from Iran, Israel is a tiny minority surrounded by Arabs, but try telling that to the Palestinian living in Ramallah, or the family in East Jerusalem who was just evicted from their home. Jews of today are contending with the awkward paradox of being the heirs to both the Hasmoneans and the sons of Kishinev. It is an awkward and potentially new stage of Jewish history.
Think about it, think about every good Jewish joke you know. So many of them play exactly to this paradox of power and powerlessness. Goldstein sees an ad in the paper for a cruise to Miami for $25 dollars. He picks up the phone, calls the number and asks the guy if the deal is for real. The guys says yes, and instructs Goldstein to show up in front of his building the next day and he will be picked up and on his way. Goldstein packs his bag, stands at the curb the next day and sure enough, a van pulls up. Two big guys grab him, throw him in the van, schlep him to a Hudson River pier, put Goldstein on a ship and tie him to an oar. A big guy comes out, starts whipping everybody and yells at them to row. This goes on for three days, whipping and rowing, and finally they arrive in the port of Miami. Goldstein turns to the guy next to him and asks “You ever do this before?” The guy says, “I do it every year.” Goldstein says, “Well maybe you can tell me something.” “What’s that?” the man replies. “Well,” Goldstein asks, “how much do you tip the whipper?”
There is something quintessentially Jewish about this joke. We know the” whip,” but we also give the tip. It is awkward, so we make a joke about it. We know powerlessness, but we also know power. We are, if you will, exactly where Joseph is in our parasha. Thrown into the pit and then into prison, brought out into the royal court and now, with Pharaoh’s ring on our finger and our brothers before us, dusting ourselves off and contemplating our next move. The dilemmas facing the Jewish world can be traced to our inability to unpack the complexity of our present status. We are deeply proud of our achievements, but protest when that claim emerges from the wrong quarters. We live in a neighborhood where Hanukkah Menorahs literally adorn our streets, and yet we ourselves are not quite sure just how visibly to display our Jewishness. Nobody will tear the cloak off our shoulders other than ourselves, and yet how many of us can claim to be wearing our inheritance in its full color.
In the State of Israel it is only more complex. The decisions Israel faces can all be traced to this same question of power and powerlessness. For the first time in a long time, we have a Jewish state asserting its right to self determination, a right that must be defended repeatedly in the face of ongoing threats and a hypocrisy-filled world of double standards. And yet that very right to self-determination, through some perverse twist of history, seems to stand in conflict with another people’s right to self-determination. We have woken up, in our eyes and the eyes of the world, not as David and not as Goliath. but as David and Goliath. Israel is undergoing an identity crisis and rightfully so – a powerful country that correctly senses its own vulnerability.
These are tough questions and I don’t have the answers. I do know, at the very least, on this festival of Hanukkah, that I would much rather be dealing with these questions, questions of Jewish power, than questions of powerlessness. Our problems are, as I said before, high-class problems and I thank God and the people in the generations that preceded me for having been born into this remarkable chapter of Jewish history.
There were times when the simple Hanukkah refrain Ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z’man ha-zeh, “in our time just as yesteryear,” was simple. We were either persecuted and wanted the strength of the Maccabees, or we were in battle and wanted the strength of the Maccabees. This year, I am not so sure what “our time” is: We are heirs to the Hasmoneans, we are the sons of Kishinev. This is the paradox of Jewish identity, it is our strength, it is our blessing, it is our challenge. This Hanukkah, may we also see it as our opportunity, for only by speaking honestly about who we are, may we begin to approach the questions and concerns most in need of our attention.