(JNS) Many of us know the themes of the Chanukah story: pride in being Jewish; the few against the many; the defeat of our enemy; and the rededication of the Jewish Temple. Or perhaps some have only learned of the miracle of the oil and how it burned continuously for eight days. While these are important themes, there is much more to the Chanukah story that is at the heart of why we celebrate the holiday and why it’s so relevant today.
Looking at the story of Chanukah, which happened in the second century BCE, we know that many Jews of that era were assimilated. They wanted it all; they identified as Jews but didn’t want to affiliate, and they were not studying Torah. Some were culturally Jewish—until that, too, was banned. They, like so many today, certainly would have declared themselves “Jews of a different or no religion.”
These Jews, known as Hellenists, emulated everything Greek culture had to offer. They thought that they had to dissociate themselves from their Jewish brothers.
But when the non-Jewish ruling government started to clamp down on religious freedom, life became decidedly uncomfortable for their brethren—observant Jews. Forced to do away with Jewish rituals, including brit milah (circumcision), Jewish names, Shabbat, festivals and Torah study, those who hadn’t assimilated were forced to choose between embracing Greek culture or punishment by death.
A minority within the religious community that chose to fight this oppression joined the Maccabees and became part of an uprising. They managed a miraculous military defeat, the part of the Chanukah story that is well known.
The other piece of the story, however, is that the pressure to stamp out “hard-line Judaism” came from the Hellenists—the assimilated Jews. They resented the fact that their lives were made more difficult by a minority of their own people who refused to “give up their old ways.”
Those who held fast to their Jewish heritage were “called out” and turned in to the authorities by other Jews.
As we near the Chanukah season, a time when we celebrate our own Jewish pride, we sadly find ourselves in the shadow of the Hellenists. Fast-forward a few thousand years, and here we are, reading about Jewish organizations and groups that are leading the charge of antisemitism.
If I am a Jew with no understanding of why that matters or how that makes me part of a family, then I can only distance myself from my own people and culture if I find an opportunity to call them out. This allows me to dissociate with the parts of where I come from that I don’t understand enough to value or know are sources of pride. And, the self-loathing as a Jew that translates into destructive anti-Semitism on this systemic level is more than frightening.
Make no mistake about who is responsible for this lack of understanding: We are.
The global Jewish community has known for some time that Jewish education has failed most of its own children. The experiment of passing along nice stories and abstract ideas without context, practice or community has simply failed.
Of the almost six million adult Jews in the United States, one and a half million—or just above twenty percent—identify as “Jews of no religion.” They have not had positive Jewish experiences. They don’t know what the Jewish religion is about or why it should be a source of pride.
They do not identify with other Jewish people as the one Jewish family that we are.
We have watched this problem grow. AISH founder Rabbi Noah Weinberg warned of the dangerous ramifications as far back as the 1970s. Because we have allowed Jews to grow into young adults without Jewish wisdom or understanding of Jewish values, focusing instead on talent, ambition and intelligence—as a way of making a mark on the world—we see the devastating rise of attacks on other Jews. Tragically, it is inevitable.
While I am sure that many of the young, misguided activists involved believe that they are innovative and trailblazing, they could sit down with the thousands of Jews that the Maccabees had to fight so many hundreds of years ago and hear the power of their hindsight. They might wring their heart upon learning just how dangerously wrong they are, but should this scenario actually be able to take place, they would rightfully turn to us and ask: “Why didn’t you teach us to know better?”
And they would be right.
Sadly, it may be too late to bring any kind of understanding to many of those who lead the vocal and rabid anti-semitic movements.
But it is never too late for those who will come next. And when they turn to us and ask why we didn’t teach them to know better, what will our answer be?
For those of you who still haven’t read, seen or heard, there have been many changes at Aish. We are laser-focused on standing up and taking responsibility for conveying and sharing Jewish wisdom, trying to reach a staggering number over the next decade so that they can “know better.”
Once we manage to break through the constant cacophony of too much digital information, where do we take those who are curious?
As a Jewish community, we have to wake up and deal with the situation as the emergency that it is. We must connect the attacks on Israel, the attacks on Jews, the embarrassment in public and in private, in admitting one is a Jew in America today as the urgent, threatening state that it is. We cannot continue to ignore the lack of Jewish literacy and the growing anti-Semitism coming at us, even and especially from our own brothers and sisters.
It’s not only that our own are turning on their Jewish family. It’s not only that the Jewish people’s homeland faces daily attacks from our own. All of this is true. But we are also failing those who are choosing to attack us, and we have the power to bring change.
Rabbi Steven Burg is the CEO of Aish and on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency.