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Editorial Board
Rabbi Wayne Allen
Rabbi Leonard S. Berkowitz
Rabbi Paul Drazen
Dr Rela Mintz Geffen
Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi
Rabbi Stephan Parnes

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Randall Smith


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November 27, 2010

Hanukkah, the Maccabees and Me
A Response to Rabbi Scolnic

By Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen

I love Hanukkah but have often felt that it is the most misinterpreted of Jewish holidays. On the one hand, for Diaspora Jewish communities, it's proximity to Christmas in the Gregorian calendar has aggrandized it's importance and led to an overshadowing of its values by the trappings of the general holiday season. On the other hand, the Festival's celebration of Jewish warriors who lived and died re-establishing a Jewish commonwealth, has led to it's magnification in Israel. Ironically, both within Israel and in the Diaspora, many of the institutions and customs linked to the Maccabees epitomize the Hellenistic influences they so despised. That sports teams and twenty-first century pseudo olympiads where sacred fires are lit by torches, are called respectively Maccabi (Tel Aviv/Haifa - you name it) or Maccabiah reflect an irony that is difficult to overlook.

Another source of misinterpretation comes from the portraits of Mattityahu and his sons so often purveyed through contemporary curricula. Forgetting that Mattityahu killed a fellow Jew who was bowing down to an idol and that the Maccabees were zealots for their cause, they become unadulterated heroes to our youth.The reaction of the Maccabees to assimilation was draconian repression of their fellow Jews. If the Maccabees were alive today we would see them as right-wing radicals who were anti democracy and anti pluralism. We wouldn't agree with that everything Hellenistic was evil and would corrupt Judaism.

In a commencement address, delivered forty four years ago at the (Boston) Hebrew College, Professor Gershon D. Cohen, one of the great Jewish historians of the twentieth century, whose specialty was the Hellenistic period, spoke about “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History”. It was just two years after the May 1964 issue of Look Magazine had generated a furor with a cover story entitled “The Vanishing American Jew”. The glass half-full/glass half-empty debate about the status and future of the American Jewish community that was to become a staple of Jewish life had been “kicked off”. Professor Cohen differed with the very premise of the discussion. ”The great, and to a considerable extent, salutary transformations that overtook Jews during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have (likewise) been in large measure products of assimilation. The rebirth of Hebrew, the growth of Juedische Wissenschaft, the liberalization of Jewish religion, the acceptance of Yiddish as a respectable vehicle of Jewish literary expression, the growth of Jewish nationalism - the State of Israel itself - in short, all those great changes and developments which characterize modern Jewish history .. . . are the effects of assimilation. . . . Assimilation properly channeled and exploited can (thus) become a kind of blessing, for assimilation bears within it a certain seminal power which serves as a challenge and a goad to renewed creativity.”

In December of 1981, as Chancellor of JTS, Cohen published a Hanukkah message in the Seminary Progress bulletin expanding upon this earlier theme. He wrote: “Among the thoughts stimulated by the event of Hanukkah, it is encouraging to recall that apostasy is not a new phenomenon, nor is the extreme pietistic reaction to it. We, as a people, have always had our Hellenists and our Asideans (Hassidim), because the problem is perennial, because the Talmud itself distinguishes between anusim, forced converts, mumarim l'hahis, apostates out of spite, or those l'tayavon, for social advancement, it is imperative that we examine more fully the phenomenon of apostasy and radical assimilation and that we place both in proper perspective.”

Echoing the 1966 address, he notes that “Assimilation and acculturation are not acts of apostasy. Indeed our very own survival as a people has been dependent on our ability to interact creatively with those societies and cultures within which we have found ourselves. . . .We, as Jews, have survived because we have been able to integrate responsively with those societies in which we have lived. We have always responded to their challenges. We have interacted with them with an authenticity and flexibility that has been characteristic of Judaism throughout the ages.”

To me, this is the lesson of Hanukkah and it should also be the credo of Masorti Judaism - authenticity and flexibility. Professor Cohen noted that “ours is a society preoccupied with the status of the individual and that as a result, we have forgotten how to function and interact as a community. Therefore, more than ever before, we must be able to recite the Hanukkah Hallel together; as a community we must be able to say; “I will recount Your wonders” as well as “In the midst of the community, I will bless the Lord.” (Psalm 9:2;26:12)."

He closes with a clarion call “perhaps at no other time in our history has it been so imperative that we see in our shared vocabulary the sense of mission that is ours. . . At this season of rededication, we must broaden our sense of mission and act upon it.” I couldn't have said it better my self.

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen.
Rela Mintz Geffen is the co-author (with Daniel Elazar) of The Conservative Movement in Judaism (SUNY Press) She is a sociologist of religion who studies the American Jewish community. Currently an Adjunct Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, she is an alumna of the Teachers Institute of JTS and the daughter of Rabbi Joel S. Geffen z"l, who was Spiritual Advisor to the FJMC for more than four decades. 

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.


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