“These are things that are limitless…” Our Eternal Values
“Hannukah, the Feast of the Maccabees, celebrates a victory—not a military victory only,
but a victory also of the spirit over things material. Not a victory only over external enemies—
the Greeks; but a victory also over more dangerous internal enemies. A victory of the many over the
ease-loving, safety-playing, privileged, powerful few, who in their pliancy would have betrayed the best interests of the
people, a victory of democracy over aristocracy…As part of the world-wide
struggle for democracy, the struggle of the Maccabees is of eternal world-wide interest.
It is a struggle in which all Americans, non-Jews as well as Jews, should be vitally
interested because they are vitally affected.”
Louis D. Brandeis, Boston, 1912
U.S. Supreme Court Justice 1916-1939
“For, as it happens, the two groups that wrestled with each other in Palestine in the
2nd Century B.C.E. represented more than artificial and meaningless national affiliations. They
were the bearers and protagonists of distinct cultures. Through the triumph of Jewish
arms, then, there was preserved for mankind a cluster of religious and ethical values
which have been a vastly beneficent influence on subsequent generations. Of the larger
implications of their actions the Maccabees themselves could have been only
vaguely aware. As they saw it, they were fighting for freedom, for the faith and traditions
of their fathers. Unwittingly, they fought also for certain concepts indispensable
to adequate human living, which in the ancient world they alone possessed and which
became the common possessions of mankind through their heroic efforts.”
Rabbi Milton Steinberg, 1937
Chanukah will be celebrated beginning December 18 and observed for 8 days. It is not a major holiday in Judaism, but its themes remain strong pillars of faith for Jews everywhere. The word, Chanukah, translated from Hebrew, means dedication and it references the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees, a small group of gorilla fighters, who in 167 BCE fought the Greeks, reclaimed the Temple and rededicated it.
Chanukah is one of the best-known Jewish holidays by non-Jews, not because of any religious significance, but because of its close proximity to Christmas. Its most significant meaning, however, has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of the Jewish religion. It is often described as the first fight for religious freedom. Its story begins with the reign of Alexander the Great who conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea but allowed the people under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews, finding Greek culture and ideas very attractive, assimilated into Greek culture, adopting much of the Hellenistic culture, language, dress, customs, etc.—just as many Jews today blend into secular American culture.
More than a century after Alexander the Great, a successor, Antiochus IV, was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, desecrating the Temple, requiring pigs to be sacrificed on the altar. Antiochus was opposed by a nationalistic group led by Mattathias who revolted against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek Government. They won against over-whelming odds: the first Chanukah miracle. The Temple was then rededicated using a small cruse of oil that should have lasted only a day but lasted 8 days. This is the other Chanukah miracle.
The themes of Chanukah that remain pillars of the holiday: the right to religious freedom and the lesson of maintaining strong Jewish identity in the midst of the tides of assimilation. Bottom line: the sustaining of indispensable Jewish values which have proven to be beneficial to all mankind. Following is a story of a man who struggled with that identity and with his belief in those values.
“Sinai Sundays,” a class this past autumn, a discussion in studying Talmud with Rabbi Rheins, senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, Denver, led to noting the story of Elisha ben Abuya, AKA “Acher,” or “The Other” and the novel about him, “As A Driven Leaf,” by Rabbi Milton Steinberg. Wanting to read it again and not finding my copy, I went to Barnes and Noble and asked if they had a copy. The helpful source-person, finding it on his computer, raised his eyes to me and said, “Ma’am, is it current? It was published in 1939.” And I responded, “Oh yes, it is current.” Of course, I realized, he and I were on opposite poles of the issue: his, a practical one–was it still in print? Mine, an existential one—yes, its message is still very current.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg, an American congregational rabbi, born in Rochester in 1903, was a brilliant man who excelled in school and was a beloved and charismatic rabbi. He was the rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York and known for his learning and the power of his sermons. He was an expert in Greek and Latin literature as well as in rabbinic literature. His doctoral thesis was on “Hellenistic Influences on Rabbinic Judaism.” He published many writings but “As A Driven Leaf” was his only novel. (A second unfinished novel, “The Prophet’s Wife” was published posthumously March 2010.) He died prematurely in 1950 at age 46. His classic novel transcends its historic setting with its depiction of the timeless, perennial feature of the Jewish experience: the inevitable conflict between the call of tradition and the glamour of the surrounding culture.
“As A Driven Leaf,” its title taken from Job who says to God, “wilt thou harass a driven leaf?”—is a historical novel set in Roman Palestine in the Second Century CE, post Maccabean revolt and post destruction of the second Temple. It deals with questions of faith versus reason, religion versus paganism and strict adherence to ritual versus assimilation. At the time of the book, the Romans now rule Jerusalem, imposing stricter and stricter laws and sanctions against the Jews, including not allowing them to rebuild the Temple. It takes place in ancient times, as indicated, after the Maccabean revolt and follows the life and struggles of Elisha ben Abuya, the protagonist, a Talmudic rabbi in the first half of the second century, who was excommunicated for heresy. Elisha was a historical person about whom not much is known but with novelistic skill, Steinberg adds character to what little is known, adds an array of other characters and creates a drama about a Jewish apostate who lapses into hedonism, replaces Jewish ethics with pagan aesthetics and allegedly betrayed the Jews to the Romans during the Bar Kochba rebellion.
The first half of the book chronicles Elisha as a boy and young man, growing up after his mother dies in childbirth—his father sending him to learn more secular subjects because he did not believe that Scripture was actually the Almighty’s word and that miracles were stuff of legend. However, his father dies and soon after his father’s death, Elisha’s uncle took over his education and exposed his nephew to the tenets of Judaism, teaching his nephew that the Almighty must be served with a whole heart, leaving no room for doubt. Eventually, Elisha becomes a renowned scholar and an elected official of the Sanhedrin, the governing and judicial assembly in ancient Israel. Always a scholar and deep thinker, Elisha begins questioning the basis for Jewish practice and thought, having a hard time reconciling it with his earlier teachings. He has many questions about the world, about science. Additionally, he encounters tragic events, his wife sustaining several miscarriages, Elisha finally being told she could not have children and then the death from the plague of the two children of his disciple—these deaths leading him to doubt and to search for answers to the world’s mysteries outside of the realm of Torah and Jewish learning. His fellow Sanhedrin scholars are taken aback by his forthrightness in even daring to question faith or to incorporate Greek philosophy into his learning. And thus, Steinberg brings us a portrayal of the clash of Judaism with a modern secular society.
The Jews believe that they must be kept separate from the pagan Greeks and Romans, saying, “We are a small people in the vastness of the pagan world. Our faith is a pinprick of light in the night of their darkness..Only if we keep ourselves apart can we hope to live at all,” say his fellow scholars. But Elisha cannot accept that and argues back, “As custodians of the Tradition, we shall have failed in our duty to our people and our own souls unless we exploit every device to render faith secure.” He insists that he doesn’t disbelieve in a higher power but merely requires certainty, thus he continues to question the truth behind rituals and prayers—”Are miracles possible? Is the Scripture the Word of God? If not, what basis can there be for tradition, its law, its rituals and beliefs?”
Greek learning is where his search leads. He is fascinated by Hellenism and its presumed systematic logic; he is attracted to the science of geometry by Euclid, in which he discovers what Jewish learning cannot deliver: cold axiomatic proofs set through a series of indisputable propositions. Steinberg portrays the clash between Judaism and a modern, secular society—he brings his protagonist through arduous tests: agonizing doubt, a divorce, the temptation of adultery and intellectual vanity. Elisha’s intellectual wandering eventually leads him to apostasy and excommunication from the rabbinate.
The second part of the novel takes place in Antioch, Syria where Elisha’s search for certainty takes him to the study of Gnosticism, the arguments of the Gnostics, the Cynics. In Roman Antioch, Elisha encounters the barbarity of the Roman slave markets, the bloodiness of the gladiatorial arena where his fellow Jews are put to death at the command of the Roman praetorian prefect. Elisha’s reverence for Pax Romana is wiped out as he sees, “with such fearful clarity, that no society no matter how great the achievement of its scholars, can be an instrument of human redemption if it despises justice and mercy.” Elisha comes to self-knowledge, but the secrets of the universe remain withheld from him. He feels his error in hoping for certainty in life, in abandoning his people, community and his religion out of intellectual hubris and realizes that important truths do not await at the end of a geometric proof. In fact, he realizes that Greek philosophy itself is based on faith in postulates and axioms. He realizes at the end telling a former student: “On the contrary, salvation is through the comingling of the two—faith and reason—it is not a certainty.” In his spiritual wanderings, Elisha has gone too far, is without family, community, friends, and faith. (Sources: “As A Driven Leaf,” novel by Milton Steinberg; “Balancing Faith and Reason,” Joseph Epstein; “As A Driven Leaf,” Dr. Alan Bennett; “As A Driven Leaf, Powerful Look at Politics, Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Times,” Jewish Chronicle; “As A Driven Leaf After 80 Years,” David Golinkin).
So in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Denver, Colorado, 2022, I answered a patient source-person, “Yes, it is current,” maybe published in 1939 but purposefully, by the author, carrying a message from ancient Palestine showing men have struggled with these same philosophical and internal struggles since time immemorial and that Elisha’s conclusion is for us as well: “Faith and reason are not antagonists.” And, yes, in 2022—2,000 years after Elisha ben Abuya’s tortured wandering—we stand at Chanukah facing the very ancient issue: how much do we as Jews assimilate into the secular culture? And not only at Chanukah, but at any time—where do we draw the line to keep separate; where do we blur the line a bit and where, if at all, can the line disappear? And how do we say to non-Jews: “At this time of year, it is all about our values, honoring them, teaching them and making certain they are remembered.”
It is difficult in our fluid American society to maintain Jewish identity—harder even to help our children navigate through the Scylla and Charybdis of the narrow straits of assimilation—or not –of our culture. At Chanukah, the bright lights, the glittering trees, the music, the Christmas parties, the busy-ness of shopping, the constant commercialism coming at us from all directions—all constitute our “December Dilemma.” In an anthology, “Hannukah The Feast of Lights,” published in 1937, and in a specific article within it titled, “Judaism and Hellenism,” Rabbi Steinberg wrote regarding Greek culture: “Affluent in its possession of physical things, colorful in its art, glorious in its literature, and searching in its philosophy, this was indeed a magnificent world, a world startlingly like our own. The Jew, to be sure, could not but be affected by this dazzling culture.” (from “Feast of Lights,” Emily Solis-Cohen, editor).
But the loyal few of ancient Palestine, the Maccabees, knew how to choose the right path..”the objection of the Jew to this Greek world, to its science, its art, its philosophy, and its amenities..sprang from an intuitive but none the less profound and accurate judgment of the Jews concerning Hellenism. There were in Greek life certain deep and fundamental voids, certain basic lacks which the Jew perceived. And there was in the Jewish tradition a body of religious and moral values for which the Maccabees fought justifiably. Almost by instinct, the Jew recognized that his culture possessed attitudes and ideals of which the Greeks were unaware but which were eternally necessary for man’s blessedness and his salvation,” (Steinberg, ibid).
David Golinkin observed in his article, “As A Driven Leaf 80 years later,”[Steinberg] expressed a tremendous appreciation for Hellenistic culture—based on affluence, methods of government, architecture, sculpture, science, geometry, zoology, botany, literature, and philosophy. On the other hand, he noted its ‘deep and fundamental voids that caused Jews to reject this culture, namely the lack of: a living religion, respect for the life of every human being, chastity, charity, compassion for the underdog and sympathy for the oppressed.’”
Steinberg details in “Judaism and Hellenism,” the Jew recognized the Greek world had no living religion, that he, the Jewish person, possessed a reasonable and intelligent faith, that the universe was not a matter of blind chance and that his life was not a meaningless accident. He saw that in the ancient world, he alone had a sense of the dignity of life of every human being, hence he was taught to detest all form of human exploitation. He was aware of the profound difference in morals of the two worlds, that in contrast to Hellenism, there were three characteristics of the Jews: they are merciful, they are chaste (the sanctity of marriage, of family and of the position of the woman) and they are charitable (compassion for the underdog; for those who fail in life). Only the Jew had a doctrine of charity and of sympathy for the oppressed. Only he had the feeling that man attains his truest humanity in the giving of himself to those who falter in the struggle for existence. It was because of these inherent differences in tone that the Jew rejected Hellenism. The Greek world had wealth, science, art, and literature. They were not enough. It had no adequate faith and it had too little heart. It was inevitable that this world would fall into decay, that it would collapse into barbarism.
The Greeks were unaware of the values of the Jewish people that were necessary to not only contribute to a better world, but to sustain it. But in these United States, the knowledge of these Jewish values as the foundation of and the bedrock for many of our institutions is readily available to know and awareness of them is at our fingertips. Our problem? Our society has a tendency to wander from those values—or, worse, to ignore them completely and from whence they came. The iconic gateway to our shores, the Statue of Liberty, is inscribed with the words of a Jewish poet: “Send me your tired, your poor…” Our Liberty Bell is inscribed with words from Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” In the law, we are reminded, “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue,” (Deuteronomy 16:20), but we still have difficulty eliminating racism once and for all, understanding how anti-Semitism destroys societies, how women have the right to manage their bodies, how gun violence against children—and others—first and foremost must be ended, and how love can be between all and for all. Thus, it is not only at Chanukah that we fight to maintain our identity and our values—but at all times, at all levels of society that we must reach for that intuitive sense of the Maccabees and fight to keep those values intact—in our Jewish life and in our country. To paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis, when it comes to Jewish values, all are vitally affected—Jews and non-Jews alike.
Entering Temple Sinai’s Abrahams Chapel for services one Saturday morning (Shabbat) 3 months ago, I encountered our senior rabbi, Rabbi Rheins, talking with a young woman who was a guest to the service that day. Listening and observing, it became clear that she was likely a student from a comparative religion class at one of Denver’s colleges/universities. Students frequently attend our Saturday Morning Minyan service, so recommended by their professors. Rabbi Rheins was just finishing a review of the parsha for that Shabbos in the Torah scroll. Prior to placing the scroll back into the Aron Hakodesh (the Ark), he had graciously invited the young guest to view the Torah scroll. As I watched, the young woman nervously held and shuffled several papers in one hand, trying to answer questions in what appeared to be a study guide. Referencing her study guide and asking a question of Rabbi Rheins regarding information about a major Jewish value and hearing his answer, she scrawled rapidly while responding with an off-hand, dismissive and flippant tone, “Oh yeah, well we have that in Christianity.” And immediately, in a heartbeat, Rabbi Rheins retorted, “And where do you think you got it from?” From one of those eternal values of the Jewish people. That “cluster of religious and ethical values” which have been vastly beneficial for all of mankind.
the servant, which on the other nights is used only for the lighting of the others.
A great splendor streamed from the Menorah…When there is but one light,
all is still dark, and the solitary light looks melancholy. Soon it finds one companion,
then another, and another. The darkness must retreat. The light first comes to the young
and the poor—then others join them who love Justice, Truth, Liberty, Progress, Humanity,
Beauty. When all the candles burn, then we must all stand and rejoice over the achievements.”
“The Menorah,” Theodor Herzl, 1860-1904
Austro-Hungarian Lawyer, Journalist, Playwright and Father of Modern Political Zionism
In memory of Judy Schwartz, high school English teacher and counselor par excellence; religious school teacher, fellow book club member and book buddy. Judy loved these values and taught them well to many Temple Sinai children and teens. She would have loved any discussion erupting from this material and would have, with empathy, embraced the struggling Elisha ben Abuya. We miss her. Zikhronam Livrakhah, may she be remembered for a blessing.–JG