This past Friday, I was overjoyed to see our students put on an incredible performance that both elucidated and satirized the Hanukkah story for all in attendance. It was an incredibly joyous and much needed gathering amidst the darkness of the last two months. Afterwards, many adults shared with me their perceived parallels between the Hanukkah story and the war in Israel. Indeed, our students did an excellent job portraying the revolt of the Maccabees, the pursuit of truth, and the dedication to one's moral principle. The parallels to both Israel and domestic discourse about the war and antisemitism were clear.
Historians teach us that the Maccabees were not the first or only group of Jews who rebelled against the Seleucid Greeks. There was a group of pious and strictly observant Jews known as the Hasidim. These Hasidim believed that G-d would save them from the decrees of the Greeks. They believed that the only way to fight the Greeks was to repent and strictly follow Jewish laws. They believed that we should not be concerned with the Temple that was being desecrated because a new Temple would emerge from the heavens. The Maccabees were a different group among the highly sectarian Jewish society that lived in Israel. You might say that the Maccabees were acculturated religious Jews. They were observant and principled, but were also Hellenized. They learned about Greek military strategies and techniques (it is what helped them eventually wear down the Greeks). Today we might call the Maccabees “modern religious” Jews, who are exposed to secular culture but retain their primary allegiance and loyalty to the Jewish community.
The book of Maccabees records a story highlighting the difference between the Hasidim and the Maccabees. Apparently, on one Shabbat, both groups were hiding in a cave when they were surrounded by a Greek army. They were called upon to Hellenize and abandon their religious principles or be killed. The Hasidim refused to pick up arms and fight because it was Shabbat. They accepted the decree of the Greeks and were martyred on Shabbat. The Maccabees on the other hand, understood the importance of Shabbat but also knew, as the Rabbis of the Talmud would decree hundreds of years later, that human life was more sacred than the observance of Shabbat. As a result, they chose to fight and rebel and they were not all killed by the Greeks. I would argue that their exposure to Hellenistic culture and the tenants of philosophy allowed them to create a hierarchy of religious values that would guide their lives and actions. Contrary to popular belief, the Maccabees were not religious zealots. They were intellectual, somewhat assimilated Jews who also understood deeply who they were and where they came from. It was their ability to think critically and create priorities that saved the Jewish people during the story of Hanukkah.
Just over two weeks ago, I traveled to Israel with a group of three Heads of School from local Bay Area Jewish Day Schools. We traveled to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who were victimized by the acts of terror on October 7th. We traveled to learn more about what educators and students were facing due to the widespread evacuations of the war. We traveled to understand more deeply what we can do to help Israel at this moment and to learn more about our purpose of Jewish Day Schools.
It’s taken me a little while to digest my trip and understand the meaning of what I heard and saw. During that time, I’ve watched my hometown of Oakland descend into a pit of antisemitism and ideological fanaticism. I’ve listened to the best and the brightest minds from our most prestigious institutions of higher learning struggle to answer the most basic and fundamental moral questions.
In reflecting on the distinction between the ideological fanaticism of the Hasidim and the pragmatism of the Maccabees, I want to offer some reflections on my time in Israel.
From a divided to unified society
Prior to October 7th, Israeli society was more divided than at any point in the country's history. Widespread dissatisfaction with the government led to unprecedented protests in the streets of Israel while reservists refused to serve in increasingly high numbers. Yet, immediately after October 7th, the entire country went through a process of unification. On my trip I visited “Ahim LaNeshek” (Brothers in Arms), which had been a civil protest movement that transformed into a civil war room supporting all of Israeli society after October 7th. No one wanted to discuss politics; no one wanted to discuss differences. The goal of the entire country was clear, returning the hostages, restoring peace and security in Israel and supporting an entire country that has been displaced, disrupted or impacted in one way or another. I visited another civil war room in Jerusalem where I watched students and retirees volunteer together along with ultra-orthodox Jews and secular Jews.
Times like these remind us that it is possible to overcome differences, that it is possible to work together in spite of our vast ideological gaps. I’ve seen this same spirit in America and know that we can continue to work together to overcome our differences. I’ve seen our local synagogues, JCC’s, Day Schools, and community organizations come together in spite of our differences. We have to find a way to use this moment as energy to keep us unified and not let external pressures divide us.
The imperative to avoid black and white thinking
On one particularly challenging day of the trip, I visited with the community of Kfar Aza that was relocated to Kibbutz Shefayim close to Herzliya. During my time with the community I spoke with a woman named Yifat who witnessed the horrors of October 7th firsthand. She hid in her safety room with her children while terrorists entered her home and her friends' homes and killed so many of her friends and her children’s friends. She put her kids into her closet and told them that if anything happened to her, her kids shouldn’t move or make a noise no matter what they hear. Yifat also shared that she comes from the Israeli left and has traditionally voted for left wing political parties. I asked Yifat if her politics have changed. She told me a story about the Arab woman who cleans her hotel room. She told me that she asked the woman if she has family in Gaza. When the woman answered in the affirmative, Yifat told her “may G-d protect your family.”
Yifat then told us, I understand now something that I never understood before. “It’s us or them,” “I can’t have safety if they have safety,” she told us with great sadness in her eyes. And, at the same time, when I see another person face to face, I can’t help but want to reach out and be a human being.
On another day, I visited an unrecognized Bedouin Community in southern Israel and met with the former mayor of Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel. The mayor’s family was among the kidnapped victims being held in Gaza. We were there to see mobile bomb shelters that the San Francisco Jewish Community has been donating to Bedouin Israelis. I was able to hear first hand about the great patriotism of the community and the pride they have for members of the community who were fighting for the IDF in Gaza and their great frustration with the Israeli government, for not doing enough to protect Bedouin citizens in unrecognized villages.
I also visited a hospital in Jerusalem, Shaare Tzedek, where staff shared about the medical dilemmas that Israelis are facing now, the challenges of organ donations among victims of the war. We heard about the role of fertility experts to recover the possibility of future children from married men who fell in war and acts of terror.
These are the stories, filled with nuance, that we aren’t hearing in the news today. These are the stories that all of the pressures of media and social media want us to ignore. These are the stories that require critical thinking and understanding of the incredible humanity that Israelis are struggling with today. It’s imperative that we harness the energy of the Maccabees and grapple with the ethical dilemmas of today, rather than succumb to the self-righteousness and black and white thinking of the Hasidim of old.
This black and white thinking is precisely what I witnessed in the congressional hearing on antisemitism last week. The radical focus on free speech in the face of blatant antisemitism is shocking and the double standard that seems to be applied to restricting speech in so many arenas except when it impacts Jews is frightening. After the horrifying testimony of Liz Magill, the former president of Penn, she posted a video apologizing for her words. She said, “in that (referring to her testimony) moment, I was focused on the university’s long-standing policies, aligned with the constitution, that speech alone is not punishable. I was not focused, as I should have been, on the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide against the Jews is a call for some of the worst violence human beings can perpetuate.”
The value of free speech is paramount in America, however, we must call out hate speech when we see it. We must not be afraid to dig deep into the slogans that are finding their way onto our walls and all over social media and probe into what is meant and intended by these statements. We must not be afraid to ask our leaders to weigh the priorities of valuing free speech over the safety and security of our community. We must not be afraid of telling the stories that are not neat and clean. We must promote stories that demonstrate our humanity and the reality on the ground which involves our grappling with the ethical quandaries of urban warfare and the dilemmas of bringing back hostages amidst the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Celebrating our Judaism, now more than ever.
Finally, I want to recognize how lonely some members of our community feel in America now. Some members of our community feel scared to feel identified as Jews in public or to wear public signs of Judaism. For others, it feels hard to be so far away from family in Israel who, despite the great tragedy unfolding, are wrapped up in the warmth and solidarity of Israeli society.
I’ve heard from many of you and seen first hand how important it is for us to show up physically to celebrate our tradition and be in Jewish community with one another. We need to not only mourn Jewishly, but also celebrate Jewish time, moments of joy and life cycle rituals. For me personally, the school and the Jewish joy celebrated here has been a point of joy and celebration for me in contrast to the antisemitism that I observe on the streets of my city.
With that, I invite you all to continue joining us regularly for Tefillah on Monday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. It was amazing to see how full the Ulam was on Friday morning and afternoon this past week and I look forward to seeing many of you tomorrow at Foster City’s Hanukkah Celebration.
With gratitude and appreciation,