Hashing out the Hanukkah story

The literary/cultural critic and devout atheist Christopher Hitchens is famous for disliking Mother Teresa.

So it should come as no surprise that he’s taking swipes at Hanukkah.

seedo_onlineWED_01_hitchensBut it’s worth pointing out because, well, who attacks Hanukkah?

Hitchens calls the long-ago triumph of the semi-fundamentalist Maccabean Jews over the Hellenism of the Syrian Greeks the “triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness.”

He writes: “When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.”

Hitch even goes after liberal Rabbi Michael Lerner for liking Hanukkah.

Lerner is fighting back, asking readers first to read Hitch’s diatribe: “After you’ve read it all, you could try to figure out why anyone with a serious intellectual curiosity would give a moment’s attention to Hitchens’ intellectual clownishness.”

c_ml_photoLerner (right) also cites a recent column about Hanukkah by the NYT’s David Brooks, who writes about the messiness of the good guy/bad guy Hanukkah story.

Brooks writes of the Festival of Lights: “It commemorates an event in which the good guys did horrible things, the bad guys did good things and in which everybody is flummoxed by insoluble conflicts that remain with us today.”

Whether you agree with him or not, Brooks’ take on the holiday is worth reading and giving some thought.

Lerner writes of Brooks:


Brooks is entirely right to raise the fact that in the actual struggle, the Maccabees were often brutal in imposing their religious system on others and in using violence to achieve their ends. But David Brooks has been a supporter of using violent means to achieve democratic ends in the Middle East. I’d feel more convinced by Brooks if he had raised the same objections to celebrating July 4th or Veterans’ Day in the U.S. Why raise these issues around Chanukah but not about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan’s civilian population. And how does imposing “democracy” at the point of a gun on societies that are resistant to it on a higher moral scale than imposing some other relgious, ethical or ideological system through violence?

‘…to be deeply involved in mourning’

Are you familiar with Rabbi Michael Lerner? That’s him.

He’s a San Francisco rabbi and one of the leaders of American Judaism’s left wing. He’s the editor of Tikkun, the liberal magazine of Judaism and culture, and a tireless promoter of interfaith cooperation.

Well, his father died a few days back. Joseph H. Lerner was 94, a lawyer, a Zionist, a Democratic activist and he was believed to be a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the “founder” of Hasidic Judaism.

I mention this because someone in Rabbi Lerner’s circle sent out an email to a wide group of people about Joseph Lerner’s death. The email included some advice for those who might make a Shiva call at Rabbi Lerner’s home to pay their respects.

I want to include the two paragraphs here because they tell you a lot about Jewish rituals for mourning — in a very personal way. I don’t think anyone would mind because the email was sent to a wide group and Rabbi Lerner is so dedicated to education and what might be called cross-cultural understanding.

So here it is:


The traditions:

Bring vegetarian food to share whenever you come. The idea is to help out so that Rabbi Lerner does not have to do house work during the mourning period. Do not bring meat or chicken or shell fish. Please clean up before leaving-don’t let the burden fall upon Rabbi Debora Kohn Lerner, Rabbi Lerner’s wife.
Do not try to cheer things up by changing the mood from mourning to humor. The idea of Shiva is to allow and encourage the mourners to be deeply involved in mourning, not to “get them over it.” The primary form of conversation should be about the deceased. Your memories of him are welcome. So are your words of appreciation for Rabbi Lerner. So are words about healing the world (tikkun olam, politics, and Torah broadly conceived).

The mourning process continues for 30 intense days, and then saying Kaddish for the next eleven months.
Please do NOT call Rabbi Lerner to offer words of solace or support. You may send cards or letters to the home address, or emails to RabbiLerner… Please do not expect acknowledgment of your cards or emails. Again, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that the task of the community is to relieve the mourner of taking care of things, including taking care of the friends and relatives and supporters-i.e. the mourner should not have to be convincing you that he has recognized and appreciated whatever you have given or whatever you have expressed toward him. Don’t let the dynamics be shifted, particularly with someone like Rabbi Lerner whose natural inclination is to take care of everyone else, and who this time needs to allow himself to be taken care of. And one major way you can help is to simply show up, be witness to the mourning, even by sitting quietly, meditating, and just being there (particularly for morning and evening services, on time).