Hanukka and the limits of pluralism

We cannot tolerate those who would change the basic rules of the game.

hanukkah mall 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
hanukkah mall 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Lenin must surely be turning in his tomb. The Communist patriarch's burial site is one of Russia's most sacred and venerable touchstones, as well as one of the five most-visited sites in the world. But despite the staid and solid honor guard that still stands watch over his monument, Lenin has become an anachronism. He now looks out over a massive and magnificent mall directly opposite his tomb, just one of the trendy and upscale developments springing up all over Moscow. And, as if to add insult to injury, what is the mega-store which stares Lenin straight in the face, as if to further turn the knife of post-Communism? None other than Christian Dior! Russia is not the only communist giant to have changed its stripes. Its erstwhile ally-turned-rival, China, is also a far cry from the isolationist and anti-Western Red state over which Mao once presided. The "C" in China now stands for capitalism, as the world's most populous nation has become a financial superpower that is fast gobbling up the world's natural resources. A visitor to Shanghai witnesses the feverish pace at which that city is expanding. Within four years, its downtown area alone will contain more than 11 million residents - twice the population of Israel. The situation in China is reminiscent of the old joke: What is the difference between communism and capitalism? Under communism, man exploits man; in capitalism, it's just the opposite. But the blurring of the lines between these once diametrically opposed ideologies is not a new phenomenon in history. Over the centuries, we have seen countless "isms" - from feudalism to socialism to Marxism - either radically transform or disappear altogether. When the times changed, when societal conditions demanded, new approaches to life and new philosophies of nation-building rose up to replace the previous ones. BUT JUDAISM is an exception to this rule. While we have indeed adapted to diverse conditions that impacted our people in various Diasporas at various times in history, we clung determinedly to a baseline framework and set of rules that were timeless and borderless. Our clothes, our customs and our style of synagogue may have varied widely from Jewish community to Jewish community, but the core of our faith remained the same. We believed in One God; we had a Torah and its commandments to guide us; we had a calendar of holidays and a life cycle of events to shape our days, and we believed that Israel was our eternal homeland. Despite the distance, a Jew from anywhere on the planet had an innate affinity with any other Jew he encountered. Which brings us to Hanukka. I have always been amazed at the popularity of this holiday, arguably the most beloved and widely celebrated on the calendar. The sheer joy of the night - the light, the gifts, the victory over a cruel enemy who would control our destiny - makes this an event you just have to love. Yet we often forget that there were not one, but two battles that took place on Hanukka. The more famous battle was against the Syrian-Greek forces of Antiochus, who had outlawed some of the basic tenets of Judaism and defiled the Temple. But the lesser-known, perhaps even more crucial struggle was against those Jews who had decided to abandon their allegiance to Judaism and adopt the mores of the foreign culture swirling around them. It was the threat presented by these Hellenists that spurred the Maccabees into action and convinced them that the situation called for drastic measures. In fact, the first "shot" fired in the war was when Matityahu the High Priest killed a fellow Jew who was offering a pig on the altar. This is also the significance of the miracle of the oil. While many jars of oil were actually found when the Temple was reclaimed, only one jar of oil was still pure and unsullied and still bore the seal of the High Priest. It was specifically that jar which miraculously lasted for eight days, thus sending the message that the element which remains pure - though it may be small and seemingly insignificant - is enough to fuel the continuity of the nation. JUDAISM TODAY - not for the first time in our history - is locked in a struggle to define our character and evaluate our essence. While a certain amount of "dilution" may be acceptable, at some point the purity level must be safeguarded if we are to maintain our unique identity. As a faith system, we can accept those who, for various reasons, choose not to follow certain aspects of ritual law; there have always been varying levels of observance among Jews, who often branch out like the menora itself. But we cannot tolerate those who would change the basic rules of the game. Thus observing the Sabbath on Sunday, believing in Jesus or redefining "Who is a Jew" evoke a call to arms by those who sincerely care about the future of Judaism. And it is in this context that we have to address issues like same-sex marriage or gay and lesbian "rabbis." While Jewish law has always been willing to bend, it is not prepared to break. If we go too far, we run the risk of becoming just another "ism." The writer, an Orthodox rabbi, is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. jocmtv@netvision.net.il