Parshat Vayeshev – Erev Hanukkah
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Vayeshev – Erev Hanukkah

Shabbat Shalom


(Last week I told you that I had a lovely story to share and then was taken off track…and so I spoke about the meaning of being a peacemaker in the Jewish tradition. I’m going to save the story another week…Perhaps it’ll work better on the last night of Hanukkah).

In certain ways we think we are wiser as we get older. Experience is the greatest of teachers. And yet, when one is young, one can look at the universe and seemingly gain a perception or understanding that makes sense. As one ages, one often realizes there is great complications in the very things that seemed so simple.

The difference between a simple thinker and a more sophisticated thinker may be in the capacity to view the shades of gray or nuance in any issue or a problem.
Simple perspectives are usually associated with black and white answers. But when we know more and when we see further we often are prone to think…maybe there are other ways to look at things. This can often be a challenge to the faithful.

But true people of faith, I posit, are interested in truth. Sometimes situations have multiple truths. We learn that what might be true for you is not necessarily true for the other. It takes a great deal of emotional maturity to reside in that space, to give credibility to that idea. You may be right and I may be right too, and we don’t agree! Life need not be a zero sum game. In fact, we should try to win and create winners in the other.

I think Hanukkah might be a great example of what I am speaking about. The story has become much more complicated as I have gotten older. As a child, like you, I first learned about the miracle of lights. And that story was mesmerizing like the candles themselves. They found enough oil we were taught, to burn for one day. But lo and behold, the oil burned for eight days and nights.

As I got a little older the story expanded. I learned about the ancient Assyrian Greeks and their oppression of our ancestors. Under Antiochus, there was no place for a people of a different faith, a different system of belief.
(Such is the nature of those who claim superiority)
And so the Judeans were forbidden to observe their religious traditions; sacrifice to our God was denied, kashrut was forbidden and even the essential act of covenantal commitment, brit milah, was denied. And so a small band of fighters, led by Mattathias’ sons, Judah and his brothers revolted. And they established the second commonwealth. We learned this story from the Roman historian Josephus and an apocryphal account, the Book of Maccabees. But this wasn’t the story told by the rabbis in the Talmud.

And so we wonder…why didn’t the rabbis teach about the Maccabees? And there are a few answers to this question.
In their own time they feared that the story would inspire their compatriots to rebel, this time against Rome, and they feared it would be futile and strip them of their ability to continue their expression of Judaism.

There are other reasons given. It was also known that they entered the Temple to do religious service and they weren’t appropriately Cohanim. The Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabees took religious and political power, and this deeply disturbed the rabbis later. For this was an abuse of leadership and power. And so the story becomes more complicated than that of dreidels and latkes and channukiyot.

I think that’s okay. I think we can participate in ritual and feel a deep attachment to holiness and to essential religious values which are expressed…hope and light, freedom and determination, survival…and, the presence of God.

We know that for a variety of reasons, light and candles, presents and the influence of Christmas, there is a very strong attachment to this relatively minor festival. Certainly, the sense of the present day Maccabees, the heroes, be they the early settlers of Israel, the men and women who have served to establish and defend the Land of Israel…this all created a new Maccabee and the story becomes real again with 20th and 21st century. And somehow, we have to admit that the confluence with Christmas works well for us, if for no other reason than that the kids are home.

Amongst the meanings placed on the holiday was an idea from two great twentieth century historians. Tcherikover and Elias Bickerman of Columbia University. They pointed out that there were essentially three categories of Jewish response to the oppression of the Assyrians.

One response, a response primarily amongst the societal elites was a response of assimilation. They embodied in Greek culture, in the arts, in the theater and in sports…life was good! Why upset the balance they asked? We will survive if we don’t push back against Greek culture.
On the other side were the Chasidim. These are not linked to today’s Chasidim historically, but rather these were the zealots. No compromise at all.

The Jewish way of life was to be preserved at all costs.
The historians tell us that in fact they were the leaders of the first rebellion. What happened to them?
They refused to fight on Shabbat…there was no compromise with Torah. And this is an inefficient way to fight a war.

In the middle, between the assimilationists and the zealots were the Maccabees. We are taught that Maccabee was a Greek name. We are told they and their followers accommodated to Greek culture. They would bend, but would not break.

And these historians tell us that they are the reason for the survival of the Jews. It’s in the capacity to bend, but not break that we survive. Its understanding where we are a part of a larger culture and where is our uniqueness. This is a big discussion.

For years the Conservative movement saw itself as the carriers of this notion. Our catch phrase “tradition and change” was all about learning to live in a rapidly changing world, without giving up that which is essential. We have our boundaries, a Halacha, and yet they were flexible.

Today, here in the United States there is a new challenge.
Whereas, and we’ve spoken about this before, has been a growing intermarriage rate over the last few decades, today amongst those who identify themselves as non-orthodox the number has sky rocketed. We’re talking about numbers like 75% of our kids getting married, are marrying out of their religion.

On the surface this sounds devastating. But below the surface we are seeing things happening that we didn’t see decades ago. Then, when Jewish kids married non-Jews, they essentially were saying farewell to Judaism. In fact, we know stories of intermarriage where families sat Shiva. It made no difference in their lives. Today, something else is happening. Jews are marrying non-Jews and saying; I still want to be Jewish. And the couple, gentile and Jew alike are committing themselves to living Jewish lives, belonging to synagogues, sending their kids to Jewish preschools and day schools and Hebrew schools. And synagogues, liberal synagogues are now challenged with how to, in the language of Elias Bickerman, accommodate.

In other words, there is an essential shift taking place. We could lose, the movement and the Jewish people a Jew, a potential Jew, and future Jews or we can embrace them, and yes, change, in some degree the demographics of our community. This is huge.

Just a few months ago a seminal study came out of a Brandeis University Center for modern Jewish studies which indicated the following:

Interfaith couples married by a rabbi are much more likely to affiliate with the Jewish community and send their kids to Hebrew schools then those couples where there is no rabbinic involvement.

Even more profound is a subjective observation. Throughout this country, away from the large urban areas the intermarriage rate is even larger. And in those places there is a growth in the membership at reform congregations where Rabbis are performing interfaith marriages and a tremendous decrease in Conservative congregations.

There is a lot here to unpack. There are many factors. I believe this issue and the statistics are just the tip of the iceberg of living Jewishly in contemporary America. Clearly, we know that if you shut out the outside world, send your kids only to Jewish schools, send them to gap year programs in Israel and hope they marry soon, you will preserve statistically the Judaism of the past.

The great leader, Rabbi Alexander Schindler wisely once said: With the honey of freedom comes the sting of intermarriage.

It is the reality because we are living in the world that your parents and grandparents dreamed about.
Free, open, places for higher learning, jobs for everyone…this is what we wanted. And in this context love remains a very powerful force. In America we have realized our dreams. But it has come with a cost.

Now, with the statistic reflecting the high rate of intermarriage, there are other statistics.
One is that affiliation with Jewish communal organizations is down.
With the exception of B’nai Torah and a very few other synagogues, liberal affiliation with synagogues and attendance is way down…

So what do we do?
A year ago, I addressed this here as I spoke about the interfaith families in our midst. And I spoke about how we embrace the. And the accommodations that need to be made. We need to do this to grow our community, but more importantly to grow Jews. But what about interfaith weddings? What about marriages?

The Rabbinical Assembly forbids its rabbis from performing intermarriages. Last week an esteemed colleague, a veteran of 44 years in the pulpit was dismissed from the RA for performing the intermarriage of his daughter. His response was not angry. Rather, confidently, he said, change is difficult. In five years this will be common and permissible.

At this time, I am a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. It anchors my rabbinate. But I too imagine there will be changes.

I want us to consider the couple who comes to us…a Jew and a non-Jew who want to create a Jewish home and a Jewish life and raise Jewish children. A couple that’s willing to study together and literally commit to raise Jewish children. I don’t want us to say to them: leave. I want us to consider alternative ceremonies and possibilities. I don’t see it as assimilation. I see it as accommodation; a necessary accommodation.

And there’s more.
I don’t believe, that history repeats itself. Every moment is a new moment. What is today is different than the past. We learn from the past and we can grow from the past. That past warns us and inspires us. I believe America is different than any previous experience for Jews in the diaspora. And, I know that America was founded and exists on so many of the same values that drive our tradition. And so I think new ideas, new forms, new ways of doing things need to combine with the old. And our job is to give this, this tradition, this community, this synagogue vitality by responding to our environment.

There are many ways that we identify ourselves as Jews; for some it is through a traditional halachic life style, for some it is through Israel, for some it is through belonging to community, for some it is through tzedakah, for some it is through family. Each is an authentic claim. In the Biblical tradition there was a category known as a “geir toshav”. This is described in the Bible multiple times. The category is about a person who resides amongst us, is integrated with us and yet, not a “full citizen.” It needs to be explores as we continue this conversation.

Can the person marrying a Jew, observing Jewish life, raising Jewish children…can that person be a geir toshav? And do we have the liturgical creativity to bring them under the chuppah? With innovative liturgies?

One option in America that seems to work now is that of the more traditional communities, but it may not be the only one. It is a strategy of retreat into closed neighborhoods, closed social groups and encounters, and keeping children separate. And so our children go to Day Schools and Yeshivot and Jewish High Schools and then go off to Israel for a gap year programs and hopefully meet lovely young Jewish partners and marry early. And that has worked. We see successful Orthodox communities all around.

That by the way is what Joseph did when the family went to Egypt. They ask for a separate piece of land. They wanted to live apart. They lived in Goshen. And this story ends with the new Pharaoh who did not know the Jews. The success of that strategy is debatable. Why? Because they remained fully apart, different and without ties to the larger society, without ties and making accommodations.

And if that’s our strategy, then there is a change to take place in our Movement. And that is, the demographic realities that we are facing will be ignored! We simply will not address. Rather we will prohibit the consideration of options. And…watch the liberal communities, as currently aligned will dissipate. But, be sure something will take place. Because these 80% who are not affiliating are still identifying as Jews!!

I posit we must do something. Is it assimilation? Is it accommodation?

How do we keep a vibrant Torah life and commitment to a Torah community alive?

This is a great challenge. But every challenge has within it opportunity. And I believe herein lies our opportunity.
The world is changing. Our people in this world have changed. And we have met incredible challenges in the past…We can meet this one too. And we need to grow a new narrative about Jewish life that accurately reflects our times and meets our challenges.

I’m up to it and I believe we have the will and the resources to face this challenge. And you never win, by retreating.

Next week I invite those interested to stay after Kiddush and we can continue this conversation. In the mean while…email me…and we will speak, as we do here at B’nai Torah with a commitment to learn from each other, respect each other and grow from our experiences.

So…What’s the miracle of Hanukkah?
I know. Look around.
We are here. We are strong. And we have survived.
We have survived because of the light of understanding, because of our faith, and our belief in the future.

Shabbat Shalom…and in advance Chag Urim Sameach!