An Open Letter to a Reconstructionist Brother
This column is different than all my others. But I couldn’t help it. Could you ignore a New York Times article published on Erev Chanukah (December 2, 2018) titled “The Hypocrisy of Hannukah”? Perhaps you could. Sorry, I could not.
The author, Michael David Lukas, a Reconstructionist admittedly “mostly assimilated Jew,” who eats “pork every so often,” nevertheless decided not to let his 3-year -old daughter celebrate X-mas. Although he concludes that “at the end of the day, it’s all about beating Santa,” he believes that Chanukah “at its heart is an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.” He makes fun of the neis of the neiros as “one of G-d’s least impressive miracles” and feels that there is a “darker story” to this beautiful Yom Tov.
After extensive reading and research, he asks, “Why should I light candles and sing songs to celebrate a group of violent fundamentalists?”
Interestingly, while he admits that “there’s a part of me that wants to skip out on Hanukkah altogether,” he opts not to bow to the prevailing culture and allow his daughter to put up a tree. The following is the letter I sent to this brother in turmoil in this season of conflicting lights:
Dear Mr. Lukas:
Thank you for sharing your mostly negative feelings about Chanukah in the New York Times. I would like to commend you for your courage and steadfastness in not yielding to the lure of popular culture despite having little emotional, religious or intellectual attachment to Chanukah. Surely, just “beating Santa” is indeed a poor motivation for celebrating a holiday with which you do not identify and in fact you appear to abhor. Yet, since you did side with Jewish history and your people, despite your self-admitted level of assimilation, Chanukah seems nevertheless to have struck a deep chord in your soul.
Although I am impressed with your resolve, I must notify you that you have been robbed. You have been robbed of the truth, of the richness of your heritage and the depth of your religion. You have been deprived of the beauty of your birthright and the spiritual legacy that awaits your daughter.
Please allow me to share with you just a kernel of the truth. For the rest, you will have to become familiar with the centuries and millennia of unbroken tradition that define our people.
First of all, you seem to have been taught that our forefathers “practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare” and we now celebrate their military triumph. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the single place where there the Talmud mentions Chanukah (Shabbos 21b), there is only a tiny fleeting reference to the war with the Syrian Greeks. The rest of the extensive discussion is about the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. Even in our daily prayers, when the miracle of Chanukah is mentioned for eight days, we thank the Creator for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak.” There is never any reference to violence, “guerrilla warfare,” or any victory. Our only emotion is profound gratitude to G-d for His salvation.
As for what you derisively call “one of G-d’s least impressive miracles,” that of the oil lasting for eight days, please listen for a moment to the words of one of the great sages of the 16th century, known as the Maharal. He teaches that the miracle of a tiny bit of oil serving for eight days sheds light upon (pun fully intended) what appears to be a merely military triumph. It demonstrates to Jews – and by extension the rest of the world – that what we often think of as our own brilliance, power or expertise is actually the hidden hand of the L-rd. Thus, as every Jew stares at the flickering lights of the menorah, he does not revel in egotistical accomplishments. He reflects humbly upon man’s limitations and frailties.
Unfortunately, like so many of our brethren, these insights have been withheld from you. But as an obviously sensitive and thinking person, you owe it to yourself to rediscover your lost roots and legacy. Your disinclination to expose your daughter to Christian icons, despite your lack of grounding in the beauty and depth of our ancient traditions, demonstrates eloquently that your soul is yearning to learn more. Sadly, even within contemporary secular Jewish circles, there is an ignorance or antipathy toward giving recognition to these ancient values.
A proof from the very newspaper where you chose to share your Chanukah message may be noted in the recent (November 18, 2018) edition of the Times Book Review. The cover story, by Gal Beckerman, quoted from five books about contemporary Judaism. As delineated in the letters to the editor in this past edition of the Book Review (December 9, 2018), not one book referenced the thriving world of Orthodoxy. In fact, as one of the letter writers noted, “fifteen percent of American Jews aged 28 to 45 identify as Orthodox, certainly a number worth some credence when searching for meaning in one’s religion.” As Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, wrote in his response, “The conclusion of the review article that ‘Judaism must be meaningful in order for Jews to survive’ is built on the mistaken premise that Jewish survival is an end in itself. Survival is significant if it has a purpose; meaning it is not a strategy, it is our calling.” Even if the Times chose to ignore the segment of Judaism most connected to our traditions, I urge you not to repeat the error.
I would humbly suggest that you read any one of the following works (Permission To Believe and To Kindle a Soul by Lawrence Kelemen; Worldmask by Dr. Akiva Tatz), visit Torah.org, Aish.com, or TorahAnytime.com, or contact me for a larger list.
You have already made a courageous commitment to avoid exposing your daughter to foreign cultures and religions. Now is the time to discover the wealth of mystery, wisdom, interpretation and inspiration in our Torah available to anyone who is truly searching for the truth.
Wishing you well in your quest and success in all your endeavors, I am
Rabbi Yaakov Feitman
As we take leave of Chanukah for this year, I would like to suggest a parting thought for our readers in light of this letter. The writer quoted above actually articulated an amazing thought, which I did not quote earlier. He asked, somewhat rhetorically, “What am I if not a Hellenized Jew? (O.K. an Americanized Jew, but what’s the difference really?).” The next sentence was the one about his eating “pork every so often.” Undoubtedly, we all know such people, many being our neighbors, co-workers and perhaps even family. They may be Hellenized, but many don’t even know enough to realize what that means, let alone its ramifications. Many of them, like Mr. Lukas, have taken out “stacks of books” from the library and consulted with so-called experts, but have never encountered true emes.
An article like this should be a wake-call that many of our brothers and sisters are struggling not to be overwhelmed by the alien forces around us, be they other religions or just anti-religious in general. They are so far from us that they are aino yodeia lishol; they don’t know whom to ask or even what to ask. We must be proactive. As the Haggadah states in the same section, “At pesach lo” – literally, open up the conversation. There may be some antagonism at first, even hostility, but, as the Ponovezher Rov zt”l once told me, “We are living at a time when neshamos are floating in the very air around us. They are begging to land the body they occupy on the solid ground of Torah. You must simply give them the opportunity.”
I write these words on the last day of Chanukah. The Bobover Rebbe zt”l taught that it is called Zos Chanukah because of the posuk which states (Tehillim 118:23), “Zos (this) emanated from Hashem; it is wondrous in our eyes.” If we are doing Hashem’s work (mei’eis Hashem), the results are always wondrous, because they are not limited by the wisdom of mere finite mortals. They derive from the Infinite and are therefore always amazing.
May we always be guided by the light of the menorah, which, according the Rokeiach, carries the primordial Ohr Haganuz, allowing us to help others see the light.