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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse fifteen: the aftermath

Well, and I’m still trying to think about the verse:

R. Elazar of Modim said, he who profanes things sacred, and despises the festivals, and puts his fellow-man to shame in public, and makes void the covenant of Abraham our father, and makes the Torah bear a meaning other than what is right, such a one, even though knowledge of the Torah be his, has no share in the world to come.

As I have said, I think this is a deliberate reference to the Chanukah story, and an attempt to connect the Roman situation to the Chanukah story, and an attempt to connect our current situation, whatever it is, to all of that.

I am, on the whole, an Assimilationist. Or, rather, I am in favor of the Jewish tradition of incorporating local traditions into our own traditions, flavoring them as seems good, interacting with the local non-Jewish population, adapting, living, growing, changing. I like having other Jews around, but I also like having non-Jews around.

I don’t want to be forced into an us-or-them situation. I don’t want to be part of an insulated enclave that manages to keep the festivals and the sacred things and the Torah all safe from outside influences. But I don’t want to make void the covenant, either. I know that the Maccabees were reacting to an hostile occupation; they are not a good model for how to live in a free and wonderfully heterogenous and hybrid country. Neither is the rabbinic reaction to the Romans, although a marvelous thing and a miracle in itself, more than a starting point for our own choices.

Every year at this time, I grumble (at least in my own head) about the contradictions of American Hanukkah. The commemoration of the fight against assimilation become the epitome of assimilation itself. More than that, the way that our celebration of Hanukkah becomes a half-assed secular Christmas—as if we are simultaneously telling our children that it’s all right that they are missing Christmas while implying that of course they are missing out on the real winter holiday. Or, worse, giving eight presents as a bribe to keep them Jewish—you see? Hanukkah is eight times better than Christmas, because you get eight presents! As if Christmas was nothing more than gift-giving, and as if the religious observances were spreadsheets. A new way of despising the festivals.

I get very cranky about it. If you hadn’t noticed.

Less so, I must say, since my own household has been observing both holidays, having both Jews and Christians in the house, and doing (I think) a pretty good job of it, so far. We muddle through. Eleazar wouldn’t like it, but there you are.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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