Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Rabbi Speaks: Chanukah and Nonviolent Resistance?

This was the transcript from this past Sunday's "The Rabbi Speaks" on WDEL, inspired by the work I've done with Rabbi Amy Eilberg and Rabbi Daniel Roth. Enjoy! 

This Chanukah I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about conflict and how to transform it.
Conflict is part of the human condition; there’s no way to avoid it. As human beings,  at some point we’re going to have a difference of opinion or experience that’s going to cause us to be in conflict with one another.

But can conflict be productive? Can there be learning that emerges from it? And Can it be transformational for all the parties involved, moving enemies to friends, and conflict to peace?
This may seem like a strange topic for Chanukah, which we’re in the midst of right now. Mistaken as the Jewish Christmas because it takes place in the winter and is celebrated with lights, Chanukah commemorates the victory of a group of Jews, the Hasmoneans, sometimes called the Maccabees, over the Assyrian Greeks more than 2000 years ago. The Greeks banned ritual circumcision, the observance of the Sabbath, the study of Torah and tried to turn the Jewish people to idolators. Mattathias, Judah Maccabee and others fought back and were able to rededicate the temple (the word Chanukah means ‘to dedicate’) on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which we observed this past Tuesday. Mission accomplished, right?

Chanukah is a very American holiday, and I don’t just mean about the presents. It commemorates the fight for religious freedom and liberty over tyranny. Sound familiar? I often describe Chanukah as Jewish Thanksgiving plus July 4th rolled into one, and when you know the story, that makes sense. You can see why everyone wants to get a selfie lighting the lights of the Menorah.

But Chanukah is also a strange holiday. It is not commemorated in any biblical book the Jews preserved—while the Catholics kept the books of the Maccabees, they are apocryphal and weren’t read by Jews. It commemorates human beings triumphing over other human beings without divine intervention. And it celebrates a 25 year long war where the casualties were innumerable. For this reason you can see why the rabbis of old emphasized  the story of the cruze of oil lasting 8 days instead of Judah Maccabee’s exploits on the battlefield.

But is there really an alternative? As I said earlier, conflict is inevitable. It seems all the time that it’s easier to go to war than to broker a peace deal. And economists are increasingly arguing that the only way to achieve any kind of equity among people is for there to be a mass calamity.

But I would suggest there may be another way. In the Talmud, in tractate Rosh Hashanah (19a if you want to look it up), we have this report: On the 28th of the month of Adar came glad tidings to the Jews hat they should not abandon the practice of the Law. For the Roman government had issued a decree that they should not study the Torah and that they should not circumcise their sons and that they should profane the Sabbath. What did they do? They went and consulted a certain Roman noblewoman whom all the Roman notables used to visit. She said to them: “Come and demonstrate at nighttime. Scream out in the marketplaces and in the streets in order that the ministers should hear and have compassion on you.” They went and demonstrated at night, saying, “In heaven’s name, are we not your brothers and sisters? Are we not the children of one parent? Why are we different from every nation and tongue that you issue such decrees upon us?” The decrees were thereupon cancelled.”

My teacher Rabbi Daniel Roth asks the question based on this story whether or not the Maccabees could have achieved their goals through nonviolent demonstrations instead of a bloody war? It’s a good and important question, especially now in a time of deep conflict and sometimes animosity between people. For the Jews to say: “are we not your brothers and sisters”, and remind their oppressors with what was in common, for them to find an ally who could help de-escalate the situation, and take to the streets, is just as brave, if not braver, than sallying forth to war. So what does that mean for Chanukah? I’m still lighting the lights tonight, but as I do, I’ll be thinking not just of Judah and his army fighting for freedom, but each of us who strives to transform conflict into connection and enemy to friend.