A Hasidic Teaching About Hanukkah For This Divisive Holiday Season

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The notion that Hanukkah conveys an urgent message about diminishing one’s anger, being compassionate to the lost, wicked, and alienated, and abandoning judgementalism might seem surprising. After all, isn’t this the holiday that celebrates the triumph of the righteous and a military victory against the oppressive other? A holiday that celebrates lines drawn in the sand and a vivid sense of black and white? Well, that fails to take into consideration the Rabbinic transformation of the holiday- first at the hands of the Talmudic Rabbis, and then at the hands of Chasidic mystics like Reb Nosson of Nemirov (R’ Nathan Sternhartz, 1780-1844).

 

Reb Nosson was the amenuensis of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), his closest disciple and secretary, and single handedly responsible for the preservation of Rebbe Nachman’s mystical writings and famed stories. Reb Nosson was also a brilliant teacher and writer in his own right, and his letters and commentaries are studied to this day by Hasidim. Among the works he left behind is a massive, ingenious commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. This commentary, called “Likutey Halachot” (Collected Writings on Jewish Laws) is a penetrating, kaleidoscopic meditation on the spiritual and psychological implications of Jewish legal rulings, using his master Rebbe Nachman’s teachings as the theological lodestone.  It is here that we see Reb Nosson’s perennially relevant insights into Hanukkah.

 

Light

When the Seleucid Greek Empire attempted to suppress Jewish religious practices, the Maccabees, led by Matityahu and his son Yehuda, defeated the Greeks. The Temple, which had been intentionally profaned by the Greek army, was restored and rededicated. This was established as a holiday early on, and the rededication of the Temple was celebrated by no less of a Jewish celebrity than Jesus less than than two hundred years later, according to the book of John.

Some time later the Rabbis canonized a story about a tiny amount of pure oil in the Temple burning miraculously for eight days (in Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 21b). The Rabbis chose to put the miracle of burning oil and the imagery of light at the centre of Hanukkah. To quote Malka Simkovitch, a Jewish scholar:

From a historical vantage point, there is no doubt that the origin of the holiday lies in the Hasmonean military victory. However, the rabbis effectively rebranded the holiday so that instead of glorifying Hasmonean military prowess, the holiday instead glorifies the unconditional and miraculous divine light that Jews can depend on, even in the gloomiest of darkness.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) Hillel and Shammai, eternal sparring partners in the transcendent realm of Jewish archetypes, have an argument about the way the Hanukkah lights should be kindled. Shammai says the light should be reduced every day (from 8 to 1) and Hillel says they should be increased every day (from 1 to 8). In Likutey Halakhot 4.11, Reb Nosson writes that this debate highlights Shammai’s strictness and Hillel’s kindness. Both agree that the spiritual light of the holiday increases day by day. Hillel thus argues that we should add another candle each day. Yet this is very reason Shammai thinks we should reduce the candles- if we make so much spiritual light accessible, the “wicked and the distant (from Torah)” may make use of it!

 

This debate reflects a deeper rift between the houses of Shammai and the houses of Hillel, Reb Nosson writes. Hillel generally believes, as is shown in the famous Torah story about his patient response to the potential convert who impertinently asked him to explain the whole Torah on one foot, that spiritual light should be given out freely without fear or judgementalism. Shammai disagrees, as shown by his chasing that same convert out of his house angrily brandishing a tool he had been using. Though Jewish tradition historically and officially favoured Hillel, it is sad to see how much contemporary Ultra-Orthodoxy has defected to the school of Shammai, both with regards to converts and much else. The house of Hillel, Reb Nosson explains, believed that the more light was available, the more “we need to shine this light into the world, to illuminate the entire world, to being closer even the most distant people, to enlighten the smallest and lowest, to heal the most spiritually ill.”

 

“How could anyone think we should decrease holiness?”, Reb Nosson asks, and then answers: “There are tzaddikim (righteous ones) who are truly great….due to the intensity of their holiness, they distance people and decrease holiness, for people become angry with them for being unable to accept their behaviour. But this is not what God desires. God always desires lovingkindness, and that the tzaddikim should always have compassion….even when God himself is in great anger with them on account of their conduct, He wants the tzaddikim to pray for them and elevate them. As our sages said on the verse, “Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp” (Exodus 33:56): Rashi’s commentary adds that God says, ‘If I am angry and you are angry, who will bring them close?’.

 

Reb Nosson goes on to enumerate other examples from the books of the Prophets showing God’s desire that tzaddikim take the side of the people, not the side of God’s holiness and judgement. He then goes on to assert that the greater the holiness one attains, the more careful on should be not to be angry or judgemental to those “lesser” than yourself, but rather the more you should exert yourself to “cleverly come up with new strategies and “constrictions” (tzimtzumim, which here means bringing things down to their level) to bring more and more souls closer and to heal even the worst and the sickest.”

The point here is not to be a clever salesman, but rather something more akin to Vygotsky’s “zones of proximity”- one needs to empathetically understand where these others are and then modify one’s message in whatever way needed to reach them and bring them authentic healing.

 

“All this is represented by the Chanukkah candles”, finishes Reb Nosson brilliantly, “which are lit below ten handbreadths, and this is why they must be lit in an increasing number.” In other words, the ritual of the menorah teaches us that unbounded light must be freely given, restricted and shaped so it can reach who it needs to be reached; that it must be at our level; and that it should slowly increase. Hanukkah, says Reb Nosson, is a lesson in generosity and pedagogy. It is also important to recognize that what makes the light shareable in the first place is the righteous one’s abandonment of anger, judgement and fear. This lesson couldn’t be more needed as we go into our Hanukkah festival in a world of divisions with vast gulfs of mis-understanding, anger, judgement and fear.

 

I am not suggesting that those reading (or writing) this article are tzaddikim, but Rebbe Nachman taught that everyone has a good point- a point of messianic light, or tzaddik-ness, that might shine towards a friend in a certain situation when the friend needs it (Likutey Moharan 34). We may find ourselves in that situation this holiday season in any number of ways. If we regard the impure other, rendered so by any number of things, perhaps by pro-Trump (or anti-Trump) comments, with fear, anger or judgement, then we miss what Reb Nosson says is a fundamental lesson of Hanukkah.

 

Reb Nosson’s lesson would first suggest that we need to abandon anger, fear and holier-than-thou judgement before we engage with our challenging friend or relative. We need to think about where they are at and why, and try to share what light we can. We should not go for broke. Maybe we can win a small victory, a little “a-ha” or a tiny concession and be happy with that. Maybe not- maybe all we can accomplish is to draw that person close and keep them in relationship to us. That might be the smallest reali light we can manage, but it might be something we can build on in the future, step by step, light by light.

 

 

The Book of Esther As A Manual of The Resistance

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In the Book of Esther, the Persian empire is ruled by a foolish, narcissistic King with neither principle nor empathy. While drunk at a party he summons his Queen, Vashti, to dance naked before the guests, and when she refuses he has her banished and makes plans to replace her (“You’re fired”, he might have said). Ahasuerus searches among all the young girls of the empire like pastries in a display case and chooses a Jewish virgin, Hadassah- Esther (Ishtar) in Persian, the story explains, the adopted daughter of Mordecai. Ahasuerus has an advisor named Haman who becomes enraged one day when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, or, one might say, refuses to put obeisance to the state above his own conscience and his own minority identity within the Empire. Mordecai is a loyal Persian citizen, something he has proven by reporting traitorous activity and possibly saving Ahasuerus’ life. Nevertheless, Haman convinces Ahasuerus to eliminate Persia’s Jews, presenting them as a dangerous fifth column within the glorious nation.

The parallels should be all too obvious. Trump fits the model of Ahasuerus all too closely, consistently showing a marked lack of empathy for others and concern for no principles outside of his own self-aggrandizement. Like Ahasuerus, his commitments are fickle and turn with the wind. Yesterday Trump announced who his chief strategist and senior counsellor would be: Stephen Bannon,  the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, previously the senior editor of Breitbart, the alt-right mouthpiece that under his tutelage became the nest for the iron birds of nationalism, white supremacism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. What will Bannon-Haman be whispering in the ears of King Trump?

What policy Trump will take towards Jews is unclear, and so far he seems far more dangerous as an enabler of anti-Semites. I am not suggesting that the Trump-Bannon team is chiefly a concern for Jews, however, not by a longshot. They are clearly a threat to every vulnerable group in the US- Muslims, LGBQT, women, African-Americans, refugees, immigrants, and more. What can we learn from the book of Esther about how to resist the insane malice and ignorance of Trump’s white house?

    1. Don’t bow. Mordecai does not sacrifice his conscience before the demands of the Persian government. At this time we must not budge and inch in demanding decency, rational discourse, ethical probity, and protection for the vulnerable whether we are American or, like me, we are a close neighbour concerned about the global spread of the “emotional plague” of Trumpism.
    2. Mourn Publically. When Mordecai heard of the Kings decree, he put on sack cloth and ashes and walked the streets of the city wailing loudly. Jews all throughout the provinces joined him (Esther 4:1-3). So far in the week since Trump’s election, Jews have joined protests, sat shiva in synagogues, and penned group letters expressing solidarity with vulnerable minorities. Major Jewish publications like Tablet and The Forward have been aggressively watchful and critical of Trump. This is all good, and it must continue relentlessly, especially when the Trump government begins making actual law and policy.But what of the Jewish Republicans? We turn to that next.
    3. The Lessons of Esther. I’m sure the association of Esther with Jewish Republicans will make some people very unhappy, and understandingly so. A more natural choice might be Ivanka. Whether she will play a role in standing up to Trump behind the scenes remains to be seen, and one can always hope. Ivanka aside, the Jewish Republicans are the Jews in Esther’s seat, sitting in the house of power. The Book of Esther has prophetic words for them: “Mordecai has this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (Esther 4:13-14).”
    4. The Lesson of The Happy/Unhappy Ending of Esther Ultimately Esther and Mordecai together turn the tables on Haman, and he is humiliated and defeated. Fickle Ahasuerus is turned again to favour the Jews, and he allows them to arm themselves and fight the hordes who descend on them on their appointed Kristallnacht. The Jews route their attackers and kill thousands of them. This is in one sense a happy ending- the Jews live, and after all the ones they kill are genocidal maniacs bent on the murder of innocent men, women and children.  On the other hand, the fact that the crisis wrought by Ahasuerus and Haman is solved by a bloody civil war between different people groups is hardly something for unalloyed joy. This is exactly the danger America, and countries throughout the world, are in danger of. If White America rises up to vent its frustrations on Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, etc., then the “minor” violence of the anti-Trump protests and the post-election hate crimes may escalate into more serious, and more bloody conflict. Now is the time for us to forge inter-communal ties, and advocate for fierce non-violence. May the Compassionate One have mercy on us all and inspire us with endurance, discernment, and love.

Memories of The Flood

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“Forty days and forty nights I held my head and cried….”

-Muddy Waters ( American blues musician, 1913-1983)

We know the story, but here’s a quick review. God brings a flood on the earth, warning and saving only Noah and his family. The world is destroyed, in Hebrew, because of  hamas:  violence,  thievery, injustice.  Noah, his family, and seed pairs of all the creatures of the earth are saved to repopulate the earth. Noah and the other survivors are aboard the ark for for forty days and forty nights. The Talmud points out that this echoes the time it takes to grow a human child in the womb (40 weeks) and the time Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the Torah; it is a time of death, transformation and rebirth. God makes a covenant with Noah that He will not again destroy the earth- a fortunate thing for us since the earth has been filled with hamas for much of the time between Noah and now.

Yoram Hazony, in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, argues that the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) has to be understood as a form of reasoning through narrative. The Tanakh is not less philosophical than The Republic or The Nicomachean Ethics. Unlike those seminal texts of the Graeco-roman world, however, the Tanakh presents its arguments and reasonings by way of narratives.  We can extend Yoram Hazony’s argument to the mythologies of the ancient world. By examining different constructions of the primordial flood, for instance, we can perceive arguments about what is important in life, about the structure of the cosmos, and about what we should value and how we should act. Arguably Flood narratives have a particular relevance for us today as we face the threat of ecological chaos.

What is truly incredible is the ubiquitous nature of flood myths in the ancient world- a search online finds  stories from ancient Europe, Asia, Africa, the Near East, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and Australia, ie, everywhere. Aside from the suggestion that human mythology remembers a primordial flood, reading these stories as history seems to miss the point. The narratives are educational tales. Here I will look at those of India and of Indigenous Western Canada (where I live), as these flood narratives form interesting and enlightening contrasts to the Biblical one.

India

Flood myths from India are manifold and intriguing. The hero of the flood myths is Manu, who in some versions is simply an ancient man, and in some versions is more of a demi-god, a quasi-divine being born of the gods or the primordial sages. Manu is asked by a small fish to protect him against the bigger fishes and he does. He moves the fish to bigger and bigger bodies of water until the fish is very large. The fish then tells Manu that a flood is coming to destroy the earth. In what are apparently the oldest versions no reason is given for the flood- it is a natural occurrence or it is connected to the end of the yuga, the cosmic age. In later versions, possibly dating from after exposure to Islam and its Koranic version of the Genesis story, it is said that the earth has become corrupted because a demon has stolen the holy books which guide humankind or simply because humans are behaving badly. Manu either builds a boat or ties himself to the fish and survives the flood with its protection until he can be deposited on a mountain. Later stories identify the fish as an incarnation of Brahma or Vishnu. Manu offers a sacrifice (as does the surviving hero in Genesis and the MIddle Eastern narratives of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis). In one version a woman rises magically from the fire and her and Manu repopulate the Earth. In another Manu had taken a woman and all the animals onto a boat (this is probably post-Islamic) and in another Manu and his sister were on the boat and God (here Rama) allows them to marry and repopulate the Earth. Interestingly, here a surprising addition has Rama/God angry at the fish for having told Manu of the flood and cuts out its tongue, thus explaining why fishes have been tongueless since then.

The narrative contains interesting and unique details. In all versions Manu is saved by his compassion for the fish, by his wish to save it from the violent cycle of nature in which the strong prey on the weak. This element reflects the preoccupation in Indian spiritual culture with the virtue of ahimsa, or nonviolence. In older versions the flood is a natural occurrence, not brought on by God or a god- this is a detail shared with many other flood narratives all over the world. In most versions Manu is saved by divine intervention, although in some versions it seems to be a natural result of his compassionate piety alone (ie., his good karma). It is also interesting to note that in at least one version the flood is brought by God/Rama who resents Manu’s survival. The idea here seems to be that it is the divinely ordered way of things that humans perish at the end of the yuga, ie. that they be subject to nature including death. Manu’s survival overcomes the natural, as does his saving of the fish: neither is here envisioned as the will of Rama/God. In the Indian version the evil that threatens is the violent structure of the cosmos itself, an idea consonant with Jain, Buddhist and Yogic worldviews. The lesson is that compassionate nonviolence overcomes the natural order, and even God Himself.

British Columbia, Canada

In the haunting version of the Haida, a strange woman in an unusual fur cape one day comes to their Island. The children notice that along her spine she has strange protuberances like growing plants and jeer at her, despite the censure of their Elders. She sits by the water and it comes up to her feet, and she gradually moves back further and further. Each time the water follows her until the Island is inundated. The people build canoes and the survivors are scattered all over, which gives rise different tribes. In this story the sin of the people seems to be to jeer at a stranger, or perhaps to disrespect a spirit woman. The people survive purely by their own efforts.

The Tsimshian story says the flood was born by a god who was annoyed by the noise of boys at play. The people again survive by their own efforts, and again are scattered into various tribes. An echo here of the Haida story is that again the flood is caused by children. This may suggest a theme: that of the importance of disciplining children and teaching them virtues whose absence brings chaos (the flood) to the world.

The Kwakiutl myth simply states that a flood came and submerged all but three mountains. A man, woman and dog were the only survivors, and the Bella-bella (presumably another tribe they didn’t like much?) are descended from the woman and the dog. The Kootenay version is notably different. In this myth a woman is seized and raped by a monster. The woman’s husband shoots the monster with an arrow and either the monster’s blood causes the flood or the woman pulls out the arrow and unleashes a flood. Here it seems like crimes of passion bring on the flood- it is the disrespect of the woman’s sexuality, the husband, and the marital bond which causes the eruption of chaos.

In a Squamish tale the elders of the tribe discern that a flood is coming and decide to build a giant canoe, which they do. They then put in all of the babies and their mothers, along with the bravest young men of the tribe. The survivors are stoic and “do not cry as everyone else drowns”. Eventually they come aground on Mt Baker in Washington State. This tale seems remarkable for its celebration of self-sufficiency and stoic detachment.

A Bella Coola myth is interesting for its unique positing of a god as playing a purely salvific role. In their story a god who is the creator of human beings sees the flood coming and ties the earth to the sun so it will not drown, thus saving some human beings (those able to survive the ensuing storm in boats). The survivors are scattered and this scattering gives rise to the diversity of languages. The flood here is again a result of natural causes, but God acts as a compassionate saviour figure.

The Indian and Canadian narratives shows the protean nature of the flood story. Is there a hero or just a general struggle for survival? Is the hero a human or a demi-god? Are the survivors warned by God, by a god, or by a magical or semi-divine creature? Do they survive by climbing to a high place or by building a boat? Is there one survivor, one family who survives, or scattered members of a community? If the flood is brought by God or a god, does the Divine agent both bring the flood and cause it to cease, or just act as a saviour? Does the flood come because of natural causes or divine caprice? Does it come because of divine hostility? Or because of humanity’s sin? If it is sin, is the sin violence and injustice, lack of discipline, sexual passion, or disrespect for the spirit world?

The Canadian Indigenous tales often see the flood as a result of a breach in social or spiritual mores which unleashes chaos. This breach might be dishonouring a spirit, sexuality without boundaries, or failing to discipline children. In most of the tales human beings survive the flood through their own ingenuity, clearly teaching the great importance of cultivating ingenuity and skill.  The Bella Coola story stands out here for teaching a reliance on grace, on the divine being, as key. The Indian version argues that suffering and death are a natural part of the violent cycles of nature. Human beings can be saved from this by acts of compassion, and according to a majority view this receives God’s blessing.

In the Biblical story God destroys the earth through a flood due to human beings betraying the purpose of their creation, which was to embody the image of God on earth. The assumption of the story is that this entails acting with nonviolence and justice towards each other. When humans stray into mass ethical corruption God regrets their existence and wipes them out except for Noah who is saved not through ingenuity and skill but because of his righteousness, a position closest to the Indian tales who see Manu as saved because of his compassion. A new human race descends from Noah, carrying God’s hopes for a more righteous humanity with them. The lesson here is that social injustice and violence are extreme dangers, as they offend God. If human beings are not righteous, they betray their very being, and risk corrupting nature and courting destruction. Only a commitment to personal righteousness saves, and that righteousness will provoke a grace which will save and give one the honour of carrying forward the true mission and future of humanity.

All of these stories teach important human values, and chart a path away from chaos towards human survival, whether the means is righteousness, compassion, ingenuity, or cunning.  Today it doesn’t take prophecy to see the flood coming. Pope Francis spoke well to the ethical tradition of the Bible in his Encyclical on Climate Change (Laudato Sii), where he argues that climate change is inherently both a matter of our being truant to our purpose as stewards of the Earth and a matter of social injustice and violence. Means of production which are truly ecologically responsible also tend to be more economically just and to promote long term, healthy, empowered communities. The behaviour of the resource industry over the last few centuries has been brutal to both the earth and to people, especially the poor, and it continues to be so.

The Indian flood narratives teach us that we need to be more than mere consumers or passive spectators- we need to actively care for the earth and be compassionate actors. The Indigenous narratives speak to us about the need for human ingenuity. Innovators all over the earth, many of whom increasingly take their inspiration from studying the wisdom of nature herself, are coming up with creative solutions to the crisis we are in. These are the modern day canoe builders who will ferry us above the waters. The Indigenous tales also speak of the importance of discipline and boundaries, as well as a respect for the mysterious and strange. When we lumber into the natural world without a sense of caution and reverence we are much like the Haida children who jeered at the strange woman. The Indigenous tales also echo the Genesis narrative in seeing the need for grace, for a humble calling out to Creator for help and guidance.

One could argue that today we are experiencing a flood in slow motion. Species are going extinct by the dozens every day. The water is slowly rising. I’m sure many more ancient myths could counsel us on what we will need to get through. This small sample has pointed towards social justice, compassion towards all creatures, ingenuity, discipline and respect for the mysterious and the stranger as virtues our various ancestors would recommend.

Bibliography

Hazony, Yoram. The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Isaak, Mark. Flood Narratives From Around The World. 2002. (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html. Accessed Dec 1 2015)

 

Israel Disbands; Jews Going Back into Exile

Palestine Israel-Free Zone
Palestine Israel-Free Zone

Reuters- Aug 19, 2014. In a decision that has stunned the world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a public statement this morning that the state of Israel is “giving up.”

“We’ve had it”, declared the tired looking Prime Minister,” When our forefathers and mothers began returning to the land of Israel in the 19th century we were looking to escape pogroms and hatred. But since coming here it has been one continuous low scale pogrom. We have decided it’s time to go back into exile.”

Standing before a shocked international press gathering the Prime Minister said, “Really the people of Israel can no longer stand living in constant fear of rocket attacks, tractor attacks, knife attacks, suicide bombings, and constant calls from across the world to shun our products, our academics, and our artists.”

Rubbing his hand across his brow and rubbing his eyes the Prime Minister exhaled the words, “Enough.”

“It is not just the attacks against us”, the Prime Minister went on to say, “To quote Golda Meir, a former Israeli Prime Minister, ‘We can forgive you for killing our sons, but not for making our sons into killers.'”

“We simply cannot stand another dead Palestinian child or innocent civilian”, Netanyahu said,” I mean, come one. It’s horrible. It’s just horrible.”

Reports from Ramallah and Hebron showed Palestinians celebrating in the streets. Flags of a united Palestine with no Jewish state were being hoisted up on buildings. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Free Palestine!” could be heard echoing in the streets.

Meanwhile several world leaders have declared their support for Jewish emigration from the Holy Land and said that their nations will look into ways to help absorb the more than 8 million Israeli refugees needing new homes abroad. Netanyahu has declared that no Jews will be allowed to stay in Palestine. “Left to make their own decision most would choose not to leave and thus be an obstacle to peace in the region”, he explained.

Celebrities as diverse as Jon Stewart, Russel Brand and Roger Waters have celebrated the decision of the Israeli government, although Waters expressed some concern about the effect of the Jewish influx in their new home countries.

The declaration has not stopped rocket attacks, however. Two hours after the decision was announced Hamas again broke the ceasefire, firing rockets into several regions of southern Israel. Fighting between Hamas and Fatah in the West Bank has also been reported.

“This will be a hard transition for all of us”, said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. “We are hoping that the end of the unusual situation of Jewish statehood and the resumption of the previous status quo of wandering in exile amongst the Nations will restore peace.”