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Hanukkah Offers Israeli Jews a Concept of Jewish Survival in Modern History
Newly available essay on Hanukkah from David Hartman challenges us to build an identity that accepts philosophical awareness and a critical appreciation of outside cultures, but while maintaining loyalty to our own history and culture

Hanukkah Offers Israeli Jews a Concept of Jewish Survival in Modern History

We are pleased to bring you one in a series of classic lectures, essays, and articles by Rabbi Prof. David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This material, unseen for decades, is now available for the first time online and in digital formats. This essay on Hanukkah is one of several on the holiday. This and other articles have been brought to light by SHI Library Director Daniel Price.

Hanukkah is that unique Jewish festival which touches upon the serious question of how a small people with its own particular culture can survive in history. Many have argued that the instinct for survival found in Judaism and the Jewish people is a reaction to extreme hostility and persecution. There is nothing that cements a group as much as external enemies.

Nonetheless, the thesis that persecution created the stubborn refusal of the Jewish people to assimilate reflects a basic misunderstanding of the internal value system and way of life of Judaism.

If a traditional Christian theologian or a historian like Toynbee starts from the presupposition that Israel has ceased to be a vital spiritual people in history, then naturally the explanation for the survival of Judaism can be found not within the Jewish community, but rather only in the external pressures upon it. Were that true, the best way to destroy the Jews as a people would be to love them. Some cynics have suggested that if the Arabs ceased forcing war upon us and instead build bridges of peace, then eventually Israel would disappear through assimilation.

Implicit in this approach is the assumption that minority groups, but above all the Jewish people, survive through rejection and hostility. It supposes that the desire to be identified with the majority culture is an unalterable law of civilization. Hanukkah in its deepest sense is a repudiation of this thesis about history and culture.

Hanukkah commemorates a successful attempt of the Jewish community to draw its will to survive from a deeper appreciation of the value system of Judaism. Unlike Purim, it does not commemorate the defeat of a blind hatred that sought to destroy Jews physically, but the heroic struggle of our people against the imposition of assimilation and of values that are
alien to Jewish self-understanding.

The attraction of assimilation was always present throughout Jewish history and in fact many Jews have chosen and will choose that option. At the time of Hanukkah, accordingly, our attention is directed toward ways of strengthening the viability of a minority culture in history.

We are all familiar with the ghetto mentality as a means of Jewish survival. I use the term “ghetto mentality” not in a pejorative sense, but rather as a description of an attitude toward cultures different from one’s own. This attitude is characterized by the notion that validity and authenticity are found exclusively or predominantly within one’s own culture. Appreciating cultures different from one’s own would be a threat to the viability of a ghetto culture. A ghetto mind can function economically within a different larger culture, but it refuses to admit that the larger culture embodies any serious spiritual and ethical values. From that culture it picks out exclusively that which confirms the superiority of the ghetto.

One can live in Times Square with a ghetto mentality. The ghetto is not defined by physical boundaries, but by perceptions, by the way one appreciates and evaluates the world. A serious argument among Jewish thinkers today concerns the question: Can Judaism and the Jewish people solve the problem of the breakdown of the ghetto? Can we really maintain our minority status with dignity, while at the same time appreciating and living in close contact with cultures which have attractive features, yet are at variance with our own particular traditions?

In Israel, many ghetto communities refuse to allow their members to watch television, go to cinemas, or read alien books. Many ghetto minds are comfortable with mathematics, logic, and pure science, but are frightened by and opposed to the study of philosophy and world literature. The pure sciences do not make a claim on values. They are neutral regarding
how one should live. Mathematical symbols in no way clash with the wisdom of a Rashi or a Rabbi Akiva.

For the majority of Jews, however, the ghetto mentality is not any more a living option. I believe that it cannot be a method of Jewish survival in the modern world, since it will lead to the majority of Jews losing respect for Judaism. If Jews, in order to say “yes” to their own tradition, must be closed to whatever is different from themselves, many of them will feel forced into an unbearable situation.

Israel nonetheless offers a new approach toward Jewish survival. It is no accident that Hanukkah is one of the favorite festivals in Israel. It is not only the physical heroism of the Maccabees which lies behind Israel’s love for Hanukkah. It is rather the fact that Israel offers the Jewish people a concept of Jewish survival in modern history which does not demand a return to the ghetto as a mental and spiritual attitude.

Israel, although it is a reality which concentrates and localizes the Jewish people in one geographical area, is the very antithesis of the ghetto. Israel expresses the belief that the Jewish people can participate in the world and can establish economic, political, and social dialogues with the world, without at the same time abandoning its concern with perpetuating the particular quality of Jewish spiritual culture.

There is no doubt that Israel can become like all the other nations of the world. We often hear people remark that Tel Aviv reminds them of cities in Europe or that Haifa has the quality of San Francisco. There is no doubt that many Israelis are more involved with the television drama of Dallas than with the drama of Jewish history. That is the admitted risk posed by the openness of Israel to the world. But the essential meaning of our return was not merely to provide a physical center for Jewish survival, but also to build a society which is capable of producing its own culture that can live in dialogue with the best of Western and Eastern civilizations.

The light of the Hanukkah menorah, the placing of the Hanukkah menorah, where all passers-by can see it, can be seen to affirm that Jews can live their own unique culture without cutting themselves off from the world. Hanukkah is not a victory of ghettoization, but – as the
historian Bickerman claims – the ability of the Jewish people to integrate the best of human culture within its particular framework. We can be open to the world without being overwhelmed by it, if we bring to the world the weight and dignity of our historical experience.

A minority can survive if it has deep historical and intellectual roots. To assimilate to the majority is to make a choice which is not rooted in reflection and freedom. The majority offers the ability to live through unthinking habit. For a minority group to survive, there must be conviction and freedom of choice.

Hanukkah challenges us to build an identity that accepts philosophical awareness and a critical appreciation of outside cultures, but while maintaining loyalty to our own history and culture. It will be an identity founded upon love and understanding and not upon fear of a hostile world.

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