Reflections on Hanukkah 5781

It is a celebration of a miracle that was brought about by Jews refusing to be anything but Jews. Before meeting Greek culture, every theology and philosophy the Jews met was inferior to Judaism.

 (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
The preposterous claim of the Jews to have a special relationship with God seems like an exercise in narcissism.
There are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe and just our galaxy alone has over 100 thousand million stars. To think that out of all of these stars there would be just one star that would have but one planet for whom God would have a special interest in, is absurd.
And then, to break it down even further; from over eight million species of life on earth, to think that God would make a special covenant with just one group of naked apes roaming the planet making trouble?! And not all the apes of course, but just one small tribe of former Hebrew slaves living in the Levant 33 centuries ago, is insane.

I get it. Trust me, I get it. Most mornings I stand wrapping tefillin around my arm wondering how God could possibly care. I offer thousands of words of prayer a day and have to wonder if God is actually listening. I have seen too many good people get a raw deal in life to believe there is real justice in this world. No one says it, because they do not want to give expression to such a terrible notion, but the real way to get ahead in life is to be dishonest and harm others.
So why do I continue to wrap those tefillin? Why do I continue to believe in a God of Justice and inculcate Judaism into my children?
I think the answer has to begin with the idea that God did not choose us out of all of creation, as much as we chose Him. And it’s not like we chose him in a distant past and we are just stuck with Him, but we have constantly chosen Him time and time again. Every morning that I wrap those black leather boxes around my arm, I choose Him again!
After the Shoah, we had good reason to abandon Him and again we chose him. I am not even talking about Jews like me, three generations removed from the Holocaust, but there were Jews who spent years in the fiery pits of hell, came out the inferno proclaiming their belief in God and upheld the covenant.
I once heard of a Christian theologian who said that one of the greatest proofs against Christianity is that when Evil came to this world in the form of Nazism, it didn’t attack the church, but rather attacked the Jews.
And no, I do not do it for the survivors. While I may owe them my admiration, and respect, I do not think I owe the survivors to continue being Jewish. The so called 614th commandment “not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory” always rang hollow to me. There is no value in being stubborn for stubbornness sake.
I choose Judaism for the same reason they chose God. I truly believe that Judaism is the greatest idea in the history of the world. And if it has led me to be on the side of the oppressed, I happily choose it over being the oppressor. I see in Judaism a truth that goes beyond reason. It is a truth that is proven to me again and again in the little things. Things so small and so trite they scarcely make an argument. But put together they present strong evidence for Judaism’s bold claims.
I have spent too much time studying theology to think the truth I see and feel is unique to Judaism. I know that our Christian and Muslim friends feel it as well. I do not doubt the authenticity of their religious experience or feelings of “finding truth.” My belief in Judaism does not include a monopoly on the truth. I find much resonance in a quote attributed to 20th Century philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig who said, “Perhaps Jesus is the way to God, but we Jews have no need of him as we are already with God.” And while these ideas won’t win me any points at the Oxford Debating Club, it is enough for me and satisfies my soul. For me, Jewish particularism, along with Jewish exceptionalism, serves as the greatest evidence of Judaism’s bold claims.
One of two things must be right. Either there really was a God who made a covenant with his friend Abraham that He would be for us a God and we would be for Him a people; or there was no God who made an covenant at all. In which case the Jewish people are religious geniuses to have come up with a story and plan for immortality that has spent millennia enriching humanity with notions of equality, human rights, dignity, charity and morality.
Either way, I want to be on “Team Jew.” Throughout history “Team Jew” has been known as Hebrews, Israelites, Judahites, Jews, Maccabees, Israelis, etc. No matter the name, those are my people.
As we light the Hanukkah menorah, this week, we would do well to remember the real miracle that is being celebrated. It is not about the oil lasting eight days, but the light that has never been extinguished and continues to illuminate the world. It is a celebration of a miracle that was brought about by Jews refusing to be anything but Jews. Before meeting Greek culture, every theology and philosophy the Jews met was inferior to Judaism. Primitive even. The encounter of Judaism with Hellenism was the first time that Judaism met a real rival. The Odyssey, The Iliad, and Euclid offered real wisdom that rivaled the Hebrew Bible. And yet, the Jews still chose God. They read Homer and chose Moses. They read Plato’s The Republic, found it lacking and walked away to later compose the Talmud.
Hanukkah celebrates our choice of God and Judaism over 2,000 years ago and how we continue to choose him. So no, we do not suffer from an illusion of grandeur to think God chose us; but it is okay to congratulate ourselves that we chose Him and we celebrate that choice every year by lighting the candles. 
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem