October 17, 2021 |

God and the Big City

In our MJE Fellowship class this week, we had a discussion about whether it is easier to love the Jews to death or hate the Jews to death. Certainly, many have tried the direct route of obliterating our bodies, buildings and books. None have succeeded. In the eternal words of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon (as he was burned alive wrapped in a Torah scroll) "The parchment burns, but the letters fly off into the air." In other words, physically destroying us will never work.

Seducing the Jews has always been a better option for the anti-semite. Amalek would not take this approach, for the struggle in their eyes was existential.[1] The Nazis would not take this approach, as they were obsessed with the "racial" defects of the Jew. But if one only desired the destruction of Judaism and not the Jews, then seduction is a more potent idea. Beruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir and a renowned scholar in her own right, once said: do not read the verse to say that the sinners "will perish from the land" (Psalms 104:35), but only the sins; when there are no sins, then "the wicked will be no more." Similarly, if the Jews are no longer Jews, but Frenchmen et. al.; if the Jews are no longer Jews but part of the great melting pot of humanity; if the Jews are no longer Jews, because their Judaism is an ethnic affinity, window-dressing without content, then indeed the Jews will have been loved to death. People that hate Jews, hate Jewish ideals or are self-hating enough that they no longer believe the Jews have a contribution to make to the world, celebrate this immolation.

This was really the agenda of the Seleucid kings and the assimilated Hellenist Jews in the Chanuka story. In the al ha-Nisim prayer, we describe the Greek plan as "to make them forget Your Torah and to take them away from the laws of Your will." In large measure, it was actually quite successful. Just as Jews today dress as other Americans (in all their variety), think like other Americans, go to movies, shows and entertainments like other Americans, etc, so the Jews of that day began to resemble the cosmopolitan Greek ideal. Of course, there always were (and always will be!) some stubborn Jews who refused assimilation and others who accepted elements of the society around them to some degree but maintained their Jewish practices and values. Had they been a little more patient, perhaps the Greeks could have triumphed over the vast majority of the Jews and seduced them into submission. But when they outlawed the practice of Judaism - which all anti-semites inevitably do - and showed their true colors and cruelty, they woke up the slumbering, smoldering soul of the Jewish people.

I have to confess that the idea of being "assimilated" has always sounded rather horrifying to me, as if I was a sugar being digested by some massive stomach, or a mental patient undergoing treatment. "Assimilated" is how the Borg describe their intentions in destroying all independent thought in the universe (Star Trek reference). Who would want to be "assimilated?" Only someone who didn't want to be who they are. Assimilation is not about mutual respect (though it may sometimes masquerade that way) but about annihilation.

Jews - especially the more traditional ones - tend to highlight the similarities between the Hellenist Jews of the 2nd century BCE (during the Chanuka story) and our current status as modern American Jews. I agree that there are similarities, though many differences as well. Since our country zealously protects our religious freedoms, there are not many murderous villains in the US (although it's not too hard to find them elsewhere) who will wake the sleeping Jew within. In a country where anti-semitism exists but is not such a potent force in our lives as Jews, it will be up to us to decide, to choose, whether or not we will retain our distinct Jewishness or not and it will be a choice made from an option menu, not from a choice between life or death. We can choose to be loved to death and assimilated by the digestive juices of secular culture or, in the words of the Sh'ma, to "love Hashem, our God", to love our Judaism , to make our heritage the object of our affections.

In this way, our role model of the moment should be Yosef, whose story is not coincidentally being read in synagogue this week. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his essays on Chanuka ("Days of Deliverance") describes it this way:

"Joseph's mission was to demonstrate that enormous success, unlimited riches, admiration, prominence, and power are not in conflict with a saintly covenantal life...Historically, the Jew has proven his ability to remain loyal and devoted to his tradition in poverty, in oppression, in distress. However, he failed miserably to prove his loyalty when his destiny was one of success, and glorious achievements. We met the challenge of poverty and oppression and persecution with courage and determination. And we emerged victorious. However, with few exceptions, we have failed the challenge of affluence, of prominence in society. Jews have never lived as comfortably as we do now; never in Jewish history have we been as free as we are now, particularly in the United States...But many have not met with the required quality of heroism the challenge to commitment to observance and the ancient lifestyle that we have defended with our blood and tears and sweat." (p.164)

You see, Joseph (Yosef) was a seemingly assimilated Jew with a seemingly assimilated family. A fast-rising star in the Egyptian bureaucracy, he was forced to conceal his Jewishness for many years. His children grew up among the trappings of Amun and Ra, with all the glory and royalty that Egypt could provide. Egypt was the star of the ancient world: cosmopolitan, sophisticated and urbane. But it was Yosef who never abandoned his relationship to the God of his family, to our God and our values. Yosef never accepted the henotheism and self-deification of the Egyptians. When he names his children, he gives thanks to Elohim. When called upon to interpret dreams, he says that only God has interpretations, not him. When it comes time to rescue his family and bring them down to Egypt, he proudly stands up and declares who he is and what he stands for. He talks about God all the time, keeping him in front of his eyes so as not to be seduces away from his true values by the love, awe and respect heaped upon him by Egypt.

Rabbi David Aaron depicts Yosef as the most atypical tzaddik, or righteous man:

"The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the archetypical biblical personality who epitomizes the Tzaddik is Joseph. And yet when we picture Joseph we rarely think of him as an old man. He was a young dreamer. He was dynamic, colorfully dressed, charismatic, and quite handsome. He was a sage and yet also a statesman. And yet, even though he became the powerful viceroy of Egypt, he always humbly had the name of G-d on his lips. Funny. He didn't look religious. But he was."

For the urban, upwardly-mobile Jew of the 21st century. Yosef can be a model and an inspiration for fusing spirituality and material success, for living a prosperous and successful life while keeping the God of our forefathers on our lips, for merging our successes in our careers with the prayer, study and kindness that must always be the hallmarks of a Jewish life. May we find the inspiration to embrace these things in our lives this Chanuka. Shabbat shalom!

[1] However, Jewish law allows an Amalekhite to convert; it is only the destruction of the national identity of Amalek that is a Biblical imperative.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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