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The smallest miracle

In shul this morning, we spent a while reading and discussing a passage by the Sefat Emet, a late nineteenth-century Hasidic scholar (known, as is common, by the title of his best-known work; his given name was Rabbi Yehudah Alter Lieb of Ger). The passage we studied focused on Chanukah and miracles. 

Roughly speaking, here are the six points the Sefat Emet made in the five paragraphs we read and discussed:

- Chanukah was the last miracle God performed for us, so we must find special strength in it.

- Why do we need miracles, anyway? Couldn't God just make our lives perfect so we wouldn't need them? Well: no. Miracles happen in order to demonstrate that we exist only by virtue of divine light which comes from above. In fact, the whole reason for our subjugation is so that God can redeem us with miracles.

- When God performed miracles for our ancestors, they would be sustained by the miracles for a while, but then they'd lose sight of the miraculous and God would have to do another miracle again to keep them awake.

- Since God hasn't done any further big miracles, it therefore stands to reason that we're still being sustained by the light of the Chanukah miracle.

- When we say that the light of one miracle wanes, we're not saying that the miracle itself disappears. Each miracle is actually beyond time and shines forth forever. But miracles lose their renewal-force after a while, which is why God needs to perform more miracles, to keep us in tune with divine light.

- Chanukah, though, contains within it the power to keep renewing us until the messiah comes!

(Serious scholars of the Sefat Emet, please forgive my condensation of his work, which I will also admit to only having read in translation, because my Hebrew just isn't as good as I want it to be. The passage synopsized above comes from Sefat Emet, 1:208f.)

A few things strike me about this passage. First of all, there's this idea that we are subjugated in order that we be in need of miracles, so that God, in turn, can redeem us. This reminds me of the vaguely new-age notion that our lives contain imperfections in order that we might learn from them -- that we somehow bring ourselves to challenges in order to grow and become more enlightened.

[Tangent: The circular reasoning reminds me of the Joseph novella, which we're currently reading in shul. Joseph's brothers had to sell him into slavery (bad) so that he might wind up in Egypt (good), so that he could work for Potiphar (good) and then wind up in jail (bad), so that he could interpret dreams and wind up second-in-command of all Egypt (good), so that he could wind up back in contact with his brothers (a mixed bag, but ultimately good, because he was able to feed them in a time of famine), so that the Israelites could wind up in Egypt and not starve (good), then wind up enslaved (bad), and ultimately be redeemed by Moses working under God's command (good). See? Subjugation happens in order that we might be redeemed and thereby find awareness of, and faith in, God.]

Returning to the Sefat Emet: I like the circular reasoning of "Since God hasn't done any further big miracles, it therefore stands to reason that we're still being sustained by the light of the Chanukah miracle." If we needed another major miracle, God would give us one; since God hasn't given us one, we must not need one.

And then there's that fascinating ending. Why is it the Chanukah miracle which has the power to sustain us until the messiah comes (or, as I'd prefer to phrase it, until the messianic age when the work of healing the world will be complete)? Surely the burning bush, the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds were showier miracles. The Chanukah miracle was just a cruse of oil lasting longer than it should have, like those trick birthday candles that refuse to go out. (Actually, I'd argue that the Chanukah miracle was the leap of faith that it took to light the oil despite not having enough, but even so, that's a pretty small miracle.) Chanukah is a human-sized miracle. Why is that the one which will keep us going, awake and aware and believing, when the big ones won't?

I think the answer lies in the very manageability of the miracle. It's something we can almost re-enact, lighting our little candles against the darkness, increasing in light day by day as we move through the darkest time of year. The Chanukah miracle required humans in order to happen. The parting of the Sea of Reeds was all God; the burning bush was all God; but the leap of faith it took to rekindle the ner tamid was a human leap of faith. It had to be. Only humans can make that leap; God can't do that.

And that, I think, is why the Sefat Emet says Chanukah is the miracle that's going to keep us alight and alive: it's the miracle we created in the first place. There's something human about the Chanukah miracle...and something miraculous about being human.

At sundown (in about thirty minutes, here in New England at this time of year), Chanukah ends. Happy Festival of Lights to my readers, for the last time until next year. I hope your week has brought light of many kinds into your lives.

On Chanukah

We're on the verge of Chanukah, the Festival of Dedication. Chanukah is a holiday of the "they-tried-to-kill-us, they-failed, let's-eat" variety. The basic story goes: when the Syrians took over Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, and outlawed the practice of Judaism, a brave band of guerrillas (the Hammers, or Maccabees) fought back. Against all odds, they won. They found only one day's worth of sanctified oil left in the Temple, and knew it would take eight days to get more, but they lit the ner tamid (eternal light) anyway, and lo and behold, it burned for eight days. Ta-da! Miracle! Let's eat deep-fried foods and give gifts, as our ancestors did in days of old!

Okay, that's not exactly how the traditions happened. They're not Biblical in origin, nor even Rabbinic. Latkes (potato pancakes) and gelt (gifts of money; lit. "gold") both originated in Eastern Europe. The miracle of the oil came to be represented by frying foods in oil (potatoes were plentiful and cheap) and lighting wee oil lamps (or hollowed-out potatoes with wicks). While the latkes cooked and the oil burned, the traditional prohibition on gambling would be relaxed, and children would gamble their newfound gelt with a game of dreidl.

Sounds nice, eh? Of course, looking at this holiday with adult eyes, I see some interesting stuff we never focused on in Hebrew school. The Maccabees were fighting an occupying force which had illegalized Judaism, yes: but they were also fighting assimilation into the dominant (Hellenized) culture of their day. There's an amusing irony in this. Even for those of us who don't decorate "Chanukah bushes," in the last century we've turned a historically insignificant festival into a gift-giving bonanza not unlike a secular Christmas. Can we reconcile Christmas-style Chanukah observance with Chanukah's tale of resistance to assimilation?  On another note, if this holiday celebrates the Maccabees' zeal in driving an occupying force out of their land, should it impel us to consider the zealots who today fight against occupying forces: should the holiday have a political-consciousness component?

The story's two parts are an odd match. The miracle of the oil is sweet (and makes for some excellent food traditions, from latkes to sufganiyot, Israeli jelly donuts), but it's an odd ending to the holiday's military story. Then again, some lovely drashes (exegeses) spring from the miracle of the oil: some say that the real miracle is not that the oil burned for eight days, but is rather the leap of faith of the person who decided to light it even though there wasn't enough.

Some might argue that this blog post is more intellectual consideration than this minor holiday deserves. The Days of Awe come closer to being a Jewish "holiday season" than December does. As big holidays go, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot are the original pilgrimage festivals, the ones with the deepest layers of tradition (and, arguably, the widest range of cool stuff to mine in creating contemporary observance). Chanukah's a minor festival, like Purim only without the costumes, noisemakers, and drinking.

That said, it's still a fun time to exchange gifts. There's nothing inherently gifty about Chanukah (nor about Christmas, for that matter), but it's fun to trade gifts in midwinter. And it feels good to light candles when the days are short and dark. If you're inclined towards contemplative practice, it's easy to link the lighting of the chanukiyyah  with prayers or intentions to bring holiness and light into the world. If the military/anti-assimilationist narrative turns you off, focus on the allegorical part of the story, on rededicating yourself to holiness as the Maccabees rededicated the Temple. And eat latkes, regardless, because they're tasty.

As a Chanukah gift to you all, I present Hilchos Xmas, an exploration of what the Halakhah of Christmas might be if it were a Jewish holiday. Chag sameach: happy holiday!

What our travels teach us

In general, I don't expect to post often about Israel here; it's not my focus. I'm more interested in questions of ritual and liturgy. And soon the round of holidays picks up again, with the relatively minor (but still interesting) festival of Chanukah, which I hope to post about next week. Meanwhile, though, I've had this Israel-travel-related post on my mind for a while, and I decided it was time to dust it off and send it out into the world.

When my siblings were teenagers, they each spent a summer in Israel with a Jewish youth group. They visited places of religious and historical import, and had the experience of immersing in Hebrew and in a place where Jews are the majority (which I realize is true in some limited enclaves in the States, but certainly wasn't true where we grew up). I knew a lot of kids who did the same thing.

For a variety of reasons, I didn't visit Israel until I was in my mid-twenties. I went with my mother and fifteen or so other folks from my hometown, on a UJA/Federation "Community Mission." (I never could get the trip-leader to explain that name to me. We had no explicit "mission" there -- we weren't going to do any kind of volunteer work, and we certainly weren't missionaries -- so why not just call it a trip?)

I'm being a little disingenuous, because I do know what our "mission" was: to build and strengthen our ties to Israel. It's a "mission" many American Jews undertake. Many American Jews travel to Israel at least once in their lifetimes. Often more than once, if they're lucky or wealthy or make it a priority.

Travel expands the horizons; visiting a faraway place makes it feel real (and, if your eyes are open, more multifaceted than it might appear from a distance or in the news); so it stands to reason that travel to Israel is a good way for American Jews (adults and teens alike) to build connections with Israel, and to get a realistic picture of what's happening there. That's the theory, anyway. In reality...well, given my experience, I'm pretty sure that the trips do a good job of building connections between American Jews and Israel, but I'm not at all sure that the standard trips provide anything like a realistic or multifaceted picture.

My "community mission" itinerary didn't include a single non-Jewish site. Our tour guide explained, apologetically, that this was official UJA trip policy. (He was willing to take us to non-Jewish places, but they were extra-curricular, not an official part of the trip.) The implicit one-sidedness didn't stop there: although we had a fascinating visit to an IDF (army) base near the Lebanese border, there was no interaction with groups working towards peace. I suspect that the teen trips have similar biases.

Travel can be broadening, but it isn't automatically so. If one's trip is orchestrated in a way that doesn't facilitate eye-opening, and one doesn't have the time or the inclination or the wherewithal to step outside the tour bus, one could easily visit Israel without ever having one's assumptions challenged or leaving one's comfort zone. As it turned out, my mother and I opted to spend Shabbat, our day off, visiting non-Jewish sites in Jerusalem. Our tour guide took us to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and we went on our own to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque...but our fellow travelers who didn't join us that day missed out.

I like the theory that American Jews (adults and teens alike) can come away from their Israel trips with a nuanced picture of the Middle East -- with a sense of real human connection with the people on both sides of the story -- but I'm not convinced that that's what happens. My cynical side believes that the standard trips foster an over-sentimentalized sense of connection that can only flourish if the grey areas are ignored in favor of simple black and white. I believe that oversimplifying our view of Israel does a disservice to Israel, which deserves to be seen in all its real and complicated glory -- and it does a disservice to the American Jews who travel there, too.

In my more radical moments, I wonder whether the tradition of sending American Jewish teens to Israel (often their first, or only, overseas venture) fosters an overly Israel-centric view of the world. I understand that the purpose of the trips is to create and strengthen connections, but it's possible that the tradition encourages American Jewish teens to see the world in terms only of America and Israel: arguably a limited perspective. Also, the connections may arise anyway; many American Jewish kids develop a connection with Israel automatically. Many of us grow up in households and congregations and communities where support for Israel, and connection with Israel, is taken-for-granted. Given that, why not send our teenagers somewhere else -- someplace they wouldn't necessarily connect with otherwise?

Imagine a global teen exchange program in which all teenagers spend a month living somewhere completely foreign. The summer each kid turned eighteen, they'd get paired up: one kid would spend a month with a host family somewhere, and then the host family's kid would do a month-long homestay back with the first kid's family. American kids would develop understanding of, and empathy for, kids in Uzbekistan and Mali and Vietnam! Iraqi kids would identify with their Australian counterparts! Oh, the places we'd go...

...but even if this idea gathers steam and becomes an international phenomenon, I suspect it's unlikely to displace the coming-of-age Israel trip most American Jewish families plan for their kids. I know that most families can't afford to send, or take, their teenagers on multiple trips overseas. And that, in light of limited budget, Israel will likely win out for American Jewish families. (If parents had formative experiences on teen trips to Israel, it makes sense that they want to give their kids that same kind of experience. The tradition reinforces itself.)

Given that, I wonder how to ensure that American teenagers (and adults) get a multifaceted experience in Israel. Can we lobby the organizations who create the trips, and ask them to include non-Jewish sites on their itineraries? Can we encourage them to match visits to IDF bases with visits to organizations (like Bat Shalom) which work to foster dialogue and common ground between Israelis and Palestinians? In addition to planting trees in Israel, can we also plant olive trees for peace? Can we pair Israel trips with Jordan trips -- and if not, can we at least make sure that American kids spend time with a variety of other teenagers there: Israeli Jewish kids, Israeli Arab kids, Palestinian kids?

When we send teens to Israel, we're implicitly teaching them lessons about Israel and the relationship they should have with it. We can't afford to ignore those lessons: they're shaping the next generation of American Jews. Indeed, when we travel there as adults, we're internalizing lessons about the place and our relationship to it, too. If our trips exclude non-Jewish sites, what does that teach us? If our trips valorize soldiers but not peace workers, what does that teach us? Many Americans who visit Israel in this way probably don't realize that their Israel experiences are constructed and constrained. Why don't we question the organized Israel-trip-machine which decides what people do and don't see?

I loved my visit to Israel, and I'd like to return some day. But I was frustrated by the limitations of the UJA trip, and when I return, I won't go that route. I know that not everyone would be comfortable designing their own trip to Israel, though. So how can we create organized trips which are designed to be eye-opening, instead of designed to reinforce what we think we already know?

A first trip to Israel can have a lot of impact, on a kid or on an adult. What can we do to make that first trip as complicated, difficult, and beautiful as the land and its peoples deserve? How can we ensure that American Jews visiting Israel come away with as full a picture as possible? How can we learn, as a culture, to trade the easy comfort zone of black-and-white for the difficult and rewarding perspective that encompasses grey areas?

The Zen Rabbi, reviewed

"In all the major religions today, there are battles being fought between the dogmatists, who are old, tired, dull, encased in their forms, and those advocating renewal and seeking to enliven the tradition at all costs, even to the point of embracing the latest spiritualist fads and leaving tradition in the dust altogether. Both sides lack what the other has. Those who reject tradition suffer because they have no standard outside themselves, and those who see God's words as frozen end up worshipping a dead God."--Alan Lew, One God Clapping

Alan Lew's One God Clapping (Jewish Lights, 2001) is an engaging, personable spiritual memoir, which charts his journey from Jewish childhood through a long love affair with Zen Buddhism to Conservative Rabbinical school and, ultimately, a rabbinic vocation deeply colored by contemplative practice. At times it made me chuckle out loud; once I caught myself almost crying. Often, reading it, I nodded my head in recognition.

The above quote was the first to make me whip out my notebook and pen to copy. Several notebook pages later, I was merely making notes for myself, cryptic jottings of page number and phrase to remind myself of what I had found noteworthy. Lew tells wonderful anecdotes that capture the spirit of the times they chronicle: hitchhiking cross-country with his seven-year-old son, listening to some of the earliest (and arguably greatest) roshis and swamis to teach on American soil, and eventually navigating the complicated waters of rabbinical school, hospital chaplaincy, and finding his spiritual path in the world.

Towards the end of the book, Lew argues convincingly that Judaism's survival cannot be fostered by Renewal-type retreats alone. He cites Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi as saying "We have built a Holiday Inn, but what we need is a home." Lew's larger point is that spiritual retreats and celebrations can mark high points, but that religious life requires regular practice in order to be sustained and sustaining.

As it happens, I agree with him, although I do not have a daily spiritual practice of my own. Every taste I've had of regular davvening and meditation suggests that, as Lew argues, both my life and the ongoing tapestry of tradition would be enriched by my choosing a regular, practice-oriented path like the one he outlines.

But I think it's possible he knocks the Renewal phenomenon too quickly. Yes, daily practice is what sustains--but I would never have developed a yearning for that practice without the experience of the "high points," the retreats filled with accessible teaching and prayer.

I do like his point that, in the endless and inevitable tug-of-war between traditionalists and renewalists, each side lacks what the other has. From there I take a further leap, one that I think his book implies: the personal and communal ideal is a balance between these two sides, a careful yin-yang which is at once stable and dynamic.

In sum: interesting experiences and ideas chronicled in a well-written book. I recommend it.


Many thanks to Carl Kinbar, who e-mailed me with the source of the Abraham Joshua Heschel quote which I referenced in my last post:

"Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.... The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision. We pray because the disproportion of human misery and human compassion is so enormous." (From "On Prayer," in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel, Farrar Straus Giroux 1996, pp 262-263.)

Thanks, Carl, for the citation. I've added the book to my Amazon wishlist, and look forward to reading it soon, to see the quote in its context.