Many people think of the eight-day festival of Chanukah, which runs this year from the evening of December 10 – December 18, as “the Jewish answer to Christmas.”
Others have learned that Chanukah is about “a little cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days.” The truth is the cruse of oil is no more the reason Jews celebrate Chanukah than Santa Claus is the reason committed Christians celebrate Christmas.
Here then is a short summary of why Chanukah is important:
Long ago in Judaea (about 165 BCE), peace and prosperity reigned, but tension lurked beneath the surface. The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea, and they were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.
At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea. One group was Jews loyal to their religion and their ancient Covenant with God. They wanted to preserve and practice their ancient heritage.
There was another group of Jews at that time as well. Most of them were wealthy and thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.
So, this second group of Jews stopped practicing their religion. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business. Instead of studying the Torah, observing Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.
There was much tension between these two groups of Jews, and eventually they started fighting with each other. It was a Jewish civil war.
When he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea, Antiochus sent in his troops. He outlawed all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.
The Maccabees (the name adopted by the Jews who took up arms against Antiochus’ army) fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. They fought for the first time in history for the cause of religious liberty. And they won!
The Story of Chanukah teaches is an important lesson for all of us today. Religious freedom and the right to be different are precious rights that we should never take for granted.
My readers by now all know of the amazing German Pastor Ursula Sieg. She arranged all of the details and logistics of the wonderful ten weeks Vickie and I recently spent in Germany. She and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening hosted us in their home, saw to our schedule and made sure we got to every place we had to be. Ursula also conceived and curated an amazing exhibit about Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg, a 93-year old artist who fled Nazi Germany as a child, for the benefit of students in the Holstenschule in Neumünster. Vickie and I are more grateful than we can express for their friendship and everything they did for us.
In addition to her off-the-chart administrative and organizational skills, Pastor Sieg is also an ardent student of the Hebrew Bible and a person who thinks deeply and critically about issues of religious thought. Because she has been such a source of light to Vickie and me, it is a pleasure to welcome her as Guest Blogger as we prepare to welcome, the Feast of Chanukah, our Festival of Lights!
The Visiting God By Ursula Sieg
Although Stephen and Vickie’s visit was enriching for many in the German area of Holstein, Martin and I felt it was the most enriching for us since we had the privilege of hosting Vickie and Stephen in our home for ten weeks. I would like to share here some pieces of the treasure they left with us.
On one Sunday Martin and I, both Lutheran pastors, and Stephen had to give sermons in different churches on the same text from Exodus 34. So we decided to have a Torah study on Shabbat morning, as we loved to do when we visited Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford.
Verses 6 and 7 contain key words in the Bible, which remain a burden for many Christians after the Nazi era, World War II and the Shoah. It is all about God’s mercy until we read that God punishes sinners for three or four generations. That is the popular understanding of these verses. And it is true. What our parents, grandparents and grand grandparents did and experienced in that time is still haunting us, and it does not make a difference if our ancestors were victims suffering the cruelty of Nazi perpetrators or if they acted out Nazi policies. Both victims and perpetrators and the descendants of both continue to struggle. Many don’t really know why they struggle so. But we in Germany do know that we are still dealing with this heritage. And professionals in psychology confirm that the words in Exodus are valid: Yes, it lasts until the fourth generation.
Stephen contributed a very helpful and moving rabbinic teaching about 34:1: Moses is carrying two new tablets to the mountaintop that he, not God, had to hew from the rock. Please read it in his blog (www.rabbifuchs.com) posting “The Church of the Broken Cross” (www.rabbifuchs.com, click on Blog). I’ll trace another line.
In his famous German language Bible edition Martin Luther translated the Hebrew word, “pakad” as “heimsuchen,” which literally means, “visiting home”. It could be a comforting word that means, “visiting somebody to bring him or her home.” But in German it became a synonym for punishment in a very hard way. “Heimsuchung” is a catastrophe to which nobody can respond.
But Martin Luther’s translation is very close to the Hebrew word (For those who not know: Lutheran Pastors in Germany are mandated to learn Bible-Hebrew for their study) “pakad“. Looking at some of the 301 places in the Hebrew bible using “pakad” the basic meaning is “visiting to learn how one is doing”. The visitor is a person in charge, a father looking at his children, a businessperson looking at the work of the employees, a king looking around in his kingdom. It is not only a nice visit for a coffee. It is a visit with consequences. Punishment is only one possible consequence. Other consequences could be a praise for good work, encouragement for difficult tasks, instruction and teaching, comfort in affliction, appointing somebody for a position after finding him or her worth it, fulfillment of a former promise, help if needed. God decided to liberate the Israelite people from Egypt after visiting them and seeing how badly they are treated. The visit could also be like one an envoy makes. An example is how Jesse sends David to see how his brothers are doing as soldiers in Saul’s troops against the Philistines.
The popular understanding of verse 7 “God is punishing the children and grandchildren for the sins of the fathers” is wrong. It comes from a misunderstanding of Luther’s word “Heimsuchen“. The right understanding is “God pays attention to the children, grandchildren, to everybody in the first, second third or fourth line related to the person doing evil.” God is visiting them to see how they are doing; how they are dealing with the impact of the sin that important persons committed.
I found a very helpful commentary that explained: At that time four generations lived together in one house, in one place. A wrongdoing affected them all directly. They could become victims of it, suffering because of the sin of their parents or relatives or they could learn by their example … However, they have to deal with the sin of their ancestors. But when children become adults, it is up to them to either stop doing it or continue to practice it, fight against the wrongdoing or defend it, to mourn and offer compensation for it or increase it, seek to learn the lessons of the past or remain lost in cluelessness…
God is visiting to see how we are doing and what is needed. It is different for each person. It is comfort and support, it is teaching and fostering, it is charge and punishment, and it is praise and new tasks. These actions are determined by God’s character. The visiting God introduces him/herself in verse 6 as compassionate and friendly, slow to anger, full of mercy and faith. God’s intention is not striving for power and wealth and not revenge or hate. God’s intention is our understanding of “Shalom” — as Stephen would say -– “a just, caring and compassionate society.”
Stephen and Vickie’s visit was a visit like this. When Stephan Block, Propst in Neumünster, showed Stephen and Vickie the Anschar Church, he told the story of Pastor Ernst Szymanowski-Biberstein. He was pastor in Kaltenkirchen around 1930 and an avid Nazi. He moved to Neumünster and was Propst (a leading pastor) there, than moved as Propst to Bad Segeberg, than he left the church and participated in WWII committing mass murder. Most of his victims were Jews. He was tried and sentenced to death at Nuremberg, but the church asked for mercy and his sentence was changed to life in prison. After a few years he was set free and worked for a short time in a church office.
I knew the story, but in this moment I shuddered because each day I drove Stephen and Vickie between Bad Segeberg, Neumünster, Kiel and Kaltenkirchen, where this pastor who did such evil lived and worked and got support from leaders of the church. Stephen and Vickie encountered his successors and saw how they deal with this heritage.
Of course those who still harbor Nazi ideology or resentments towards Jews did not attend the events with Vickie and Stephen. Whether they felt it or not they are punished by not getting to know this amazing couple. For everybody else it was comforting, strengthening and encouraging to hear messages offering deeper knowledge, understanding and wisdom. They let us feel God’s compassion and mercy.
I also felt pain and repentance because I saw that Vickie and Stephen were suffering and mourning at the memorials of lost synagogues. I felt their sadness when they encountered the small and struggling Reform Jewish communities in the country that was the rich center of Reform Judaism until 1933. And I felt their pain when they told of their parents’ hardship and losses caused by our ancestors. It pained my conscience to feel that they are suffering because of the Holocaust. Vickie and Stephen’s visit was not just for a coffee. They did not avoid the horrors of the past, but they encouraged us through their presence to do better. Every thing that they did and said was hugged by compassion, love and forgiveness. Thinking back to Vickie and Stephen’s visit helps me to understand the visiting God.
For me the birth of Jesus, which we Christians celebrate these days, is also a visit reenacting Exodus 34:7. Looking at Jesus from God’s self-introduction in Exodus 34 might shed new light on the Gospel.
And we, are we visitors like God is, or like those God would send as envoys to those who have to deal with a burden from their ancestors? A comment from Stephen to verse 6 was: “We are encouraged to be like God, compassionate and friendly, slow to anger, full of mercy and faith.” A visitor like this is always a Messiah.
Happy Chanukah to my Jewish readers and Merry Christmas to those who celebrate with me.
Chanukah is coming soon, and it brings with it a vital message for today. I was fortunate to spend considerable time in Germany this past fall and in Italy in the fall of 2013. Because I observed and served small, struggling but determined-to-thrive Jewish communities in those places, I appreciate the real meaning of the Festival of Lights more than ever before. I dedicate this essay in particular to the fortitude of those two Jewish communities. The first is Beth Shalom Milano that strives to maintain a viable Reform Jewish presence amid a sea of assimilation on the one hand and a hostile Orthodox presence on the other. The second is the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel who offer a warm welcoming Jewish home to a diverse group of people seeking an authentic connection to Jewish life.
For all my years as a rabbi I have tried to teach in every venue at my disposal – pulpit, classroom, office, anywhere I can – that the Festival of Chanukah is not really about a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. Oh, it is a wonderful legend, but it is about as central to the real meaning of Chanukah as Santa Claus is the reason our Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas.
The real story of Chanukah is long and complex, but here is its essence, and the vital lesson it can teach us today. Long ago in Judaea (about 165 BCE), it was a time of peace and prosperity. The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea, but they were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.
At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea. There were Jews who were loyal to their religion and to our Covenant with God. They understood that God had called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants (who included them and us today) to
1. Be a blessing
2. Follow God’s teachings and live worthy lives
3. Use their talents to create a society built on justice and righteousness.
These Jews believed that if they did these things, then in return, God would:
1. Protect them
2. Give them children
3. Make them a permanent people
4. Keep them safe in their ancient land, the land then known as Judaea
But there was another group of Jews at that time as well. Most of them were wealthy and thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.
In order to accomplish this goal, this second group of Jews stopped practicing their religion and even mocked our sacred traditions. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city-state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business. So instead of studying Torah, observing Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.
To make a very long story shorter there was so much tension between these two groups of Jews that soon they started fighting with each other. Then and only then–when he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea–did Antiochus send in his troops. He outlawed all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods, and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.
The Maccabees fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. They fought for the first time in history for the cause of religious liberty. And they won!
The lesson, though, is an important one for today. Judaism is a use it or lose it commodity. When we take our Judaism for granted, when we neglect to study and practice it, we endanger its survival. That is the real lesson of Chanukah. May we celebrate the Festival of Lights with joy and pride in our precious heritage!