- Chanukah is a story of Jewish rededication, the Maccabees reclaiming contaminated sacred space, marking God's miraculous intervention in the military and ritual lives of our ancestors.
- Thanksgiving is an American story of bounty, gratitude expressed by formerly persecuted minorities, blessed to find home again through miraculous arrival.
But both these also narratives require of us, as American Jews, deeper and clearer thinking. Both holy days contain more within their stories than meets the eye, more than their ritualized re-tellings readily offer. The commonalities of these hidden, darker strata are also striking, perhaps even shocking:
- Chanukah is a serious challenge to the modern Jew, as comfortable (if not more) living as a global citizen than being seen as a Jew. Chanukah's notion of the "contamination of Jewish sacred space" is a code-phrase for Jewish assimilation, the natural dynamic of a Jew engaged in society, where the politics of identity easily make particularism uncomfortable. Only through the fanatic zealotry of the Maccabees, including the murder of fellow Jews who identified strongly with Greek custom, did the Chanukah story occur.
- Thanksgiving marks the Pilgrims taking of a land from its native inhabitants, one formerly marginalized group marginalizing another. Thanksgiving's celebration of "bounty and gratitude" forgets the Puritan's zealotry and their slaughter of those who already inhabited the "new" world. Only through the Pilgrim's fundamentalist world-view did the original Thanksgiving story take place.
The Maccabbees and the Puritans were zealots. Their violent thoughts and actions left a muddied legacy for Jews and for Americans. And, gevalt, my friends. We're both. How befuddling our sacred narratives can be!
What, then, are we to make of these days, these cold, dark days with contested, twisted narratives? How are we, as complicated modern Jews, to light our lights? What illumination pours through our windows into the world?
A popular Chanukah song goes as follows:
"We have come to banish the darkness. / In our hands is light and fire. / Every one is a small light. / But together we are a mighty fire. / Out, darkness! / Run away before the power of light!"
Are we called, in the name of our cherished heritages, to shine brightly? Without a doubt.
Being a Jew is a beautiful gift in the world. Being an American is a blessing. Both come with weighty obligations, which are their very best parts.
Must we learn from our troubled pasts to never again deny others the brightest light of all: their dignity? Without a doubt.
Being a modern Jew requires the ethical use of necessary and hard-earned power, constant vigilance to stand in solidarity with the world's most vulnerable, remembering the oppressed stranger we've frequently been in history. Being a modern American means bearing responsibility -- doing Teshuvah -- for enduring American social policies and processes that have much in common with Puritans. An American wields the most noble of our nation's sacred ideals at no one's expense.
Can we be Jews in the world, proud and particular, and at the same time Global Citizens, pluralist and present? Let's see if we can.
I think we've got that kind of Jewish power just waiting to be harnessed for the common good.
May this Chanukah and Thanksgiving truly banish darkness, bring bounty, cultivate gratitude, and challenge us to see the light in others' eyes.
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