Hanukka: The diaspora mindset

Our freedoms allow us to preserve our identity and to embrace it with pride.

December 18, 2014 16:05


 A Changed Perspective

It was several years ago, upon my return from a December trip to Israel, that I realized how deeply the diaspora had diasporized (to coin a new term) me. The seasonal decorations and music that pervade the public arena this time of year were completely absent in Israel. When I returned to Canada, I found myself accosted by the un-Jewish holiday spirit and for the first time it felt unwelcome. I cringed.
My immediate reaction was irritation. I entered the airport to come home, I thought, not to be assaulted by non-Jewish culture. It’s unfair, I thought: what gives them the right to push their religion in my face? Then I remembered that I am a minority in a non-Jewish country and that the majority has the right to express itself so long as they don’t overtly offend others. My heightened sensitivity resulted precisely from my ten days in Israel, where my faith is in the majority.

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At this, I realized with stark clarity that despite the freedoms and genuine welcome that we enjoy here, the diaspora isn’t home. I lived here all my life and never had this fact bothered me. I accepted my minority status; in a detached sort of way I even welcomed it. I felt at home away from home.
All at once I realized how dangerous this mindset is. This isn’t home. It might be my residence, but home is where Jewish people are, where we celebrate and embrace our faith. The day will come when the whole of the world will embrace the Jewish G-d and may that day come soon. On that day the entire world will be home, but meanwhile home, is where Jewishness thrives. I live here, but this country isn’t a Jewish home.

Easy Beginnings

It's easy to slip into the diaspora mindset. We are comfortable and free here. We flourish and thrive here. We practice our religion freely here. The people respect us and the government grants us rights. Many western values and laws are reflective of our traditions. We are befriended here and are welcome here. Why shouldn’t this become our home?
This is all true and we are incredibly grateful it. We are indebted to a people, government and constitution that welcomes immigrants with open arms and grants them kindness and freedom. But this shouldn’t lead us to dilute our identity. On the contrary, our freedoms allow us to preserve our identity and to embrace it with pride. We invest in this country, we give back to it willingly and generously, but we give it our loyalty, energy time and money, not our identity.

The Slippery Slope

A quick review of our annual freedom festivals, illustrates how easily we slip into the diaspora mindset.
At first, Jews were welcomed with open arms in Egypt and we flourished. Then the Egyptians suggested that we work alongside them and contribute to the national economy from which we benefitted. Unable to turn them down, most joined the effort. The Levites warned it would be calamitous and indeed it was. What began as a joint effort soon morphed into a subjugation of our people.
Egypt aimed to eradicate the Jewish culture and faith. They hoped to beat us into submission. They would have succeeded, but for the Jews’ peculiar determination to retain their names, language and mode of dress. They lived in Egypt, but refused to be absorbed by it. Sustained by the teachings of the Levites and the faith of Jewish women, our ancestors were eventually liberated.
The persecution of Jews by the Syrian Greeks also began rather innocently. At first the Greek overlords didn’t ask that we surrender our heritage. They asked that we give up our irrational submission to the super rational. They would allow us to study Torah, but with a secular approach, not to regard it as a holy Divine book. They invited us into their theaters and coliseums - to celebrate with them and to live alongside them. They enticed and cajoled with friendly smiles.

At first they allowed Jews to worship in the Temple, with the caveat that a Hellenist be installed as High Priest. It was objectionable of course, but not terrible. But it deteriorated quickly. Soon, the temple was ransacked and defiled and Jews were compelled to sacrifice to Greek idols.
Once again, it was the stubborn determination of a small band of Jews that rallied the nation and drove the Greeks away. Those Jews that clung to their faith in the beginning, saved the nation in the end.
The saga of Purim also began innocently. Persians invited Jews to a feast and offered to provide kosher food. We are neighbors, they said, co-citizens in a friendly land. Come and celebrate with us. It sounded cordial and innocent. When Mordechai warned against attending the party, most Jews scoffed. But shortly thereafter, Haman orchestrated a decree of annihilation against the Jews. Again, it was Mordechai, the very man that refused to capitulate in the beginning, who saved the Jews in the end.

The Message

History speaks to us clearly and bears a powerful message. Live in this country and give back to it. Invest in it and be grateful to it, but don’t give away your soul. Don’t be beguiled by the illusion that you can be a Jew and a non-Jew at the same time. Don’t buy into the notion that you can adopt western secular values without diluting your Jewish values. This fence cannot be straddled.
This country allows us to practice our religion openly and celebrate our values with pride. This country doesn’t demand that we surrender our identity and be absorbed by theirs. We must exercise the rights we are given and cling tenaciously to our identity. Even as we contribute to this country and participate in it fully, even as we concern itself with its safety and with the well-being of our fellow citizens, we remember that this country took us in, but it isn’t ours.

Don’t let down the guard of your identity and the barriers of your faith. It is precisely when things appear friendly and innocent that we must tread with caution. Heed the Passover, Hanukka and Purim lessons. When the invitations seem innocent and refusal seems unreasonable, be alert for pitfalls. 
When we are invited to draw moral equivalence between Israel and terrorists in the name of tolerance and equality, beware. When we are invited to adopt Christian Judean values as if they are a seamless continuum, beware. When our neighbors invite us to participate in religious ceremonies or celebrations that are foreign to our faith, beware. Above all, be loyal to our identity and committed to our creed.

History taught us that even the slightest slip can become a wholesale slide. The diaspora is a slippery surface. Hanukka tells us to beware, lest we slide.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected]

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