Friday, December 23, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5777- Unspoilers

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

Before I launch into this week’s musing, a major expansion upon one I wrote a decade ago,  I wanted to acknowledge a comment made by a friend on one of my Facebook posts. I wrote on Facebook chastising AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists,) the union  hat represents The Rockettes:

So, AGVA, the cast of Hamilton is lauded for speaking out when VP-Elect Pence comes to their show, but the individual dancers in the Rockettes get no choice about performing at Trump's inauguration? In what universe is this you, as a union, representing the best interests of your members? And shame on you, MSG Entertainment for lending the prestigious air of The Rockettes to this travesty.

My wonderful, thoughtful friend Dawn Bernstein, who writes a well-worth-reading blog at Dawn Ponders, wrote this in response:

I posted this early this morning. Dawn's Ponderance of the Day. Apparently, the Rockettes have been booked for the Inauguration. Many of the women have quietly let it be known that they don't want to perform but that their union is giving them an ultimatum, dance or be fired. I wonder if any of these lovely and strong women have ever read the story of Purim and how Vashti refused to dance for the king?"

Boom. Mic drop.

The sad thing however is that, like Vashti, those who refuse to dance for the King at his celebration might also wind up banned and outcast. There’s a great article about it. Read all about it here on Broadway World (and be sure to follow the update links to see what AGVA had to say. The follow the links to give AGVA a piece of your mind.

If this were the Purim story, then AGVA would be playing the part of all the King’s misogynist advisors who urged him to banish Vashti, lest all the kingdom’s wives see her example and challenge their husbands. (It’s so sad that the sages and rabbis saw fit to uphold the misogynistic tradition,and paint Vashti as wicked and disobedient, rather than someone to admire. Thankfully, we are reclaiming Vashti these days.)

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

It is not, unfortunately, Purim time. No, Hanukkah is upon us this weekend. So I think it may be more appropriate to put the outspoken Rockettes who don’t want to be forced to perform at the inauguration in the role of the Maccabees. You know who, of course, in Antiochus IV Epiphanes. More about him below.

I’m sitting here realizing just how double-edged the Maccabee story is. Consider, for a moment, that one could, theoretically, liken DJT to Mattathias, crying “Follow me, all who are for G”d’s law and stand by the covenant!” just as easily as they could liken someone on the opposing side to Mattathias-perhaps the Rockette that has spoken out on Twitter or those organizing the Women’s march on January 21st, or those now organizing the protest concert on Inauguration Day. I begin to wonder, though, if the comparison to DJT is more apt, when one considers the political realities that followed the Maccabean revolt and the despotic rulers from the House of Hashmon. The Hanukkah story has a very dark side. It’s easy to revile Antiochus IV Epiphanes for his oppressive rule and trampling of religious freedoms. It’s not so easy to love Mattathias, Judah, and the rest of the Maccabees who were, after all, guerilla warriors, who and who may have killed as many Jews as Syrian-Greeks.

But…but…latkes, soufganiyot,one little cruse of oil, dreidls.

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

Oh, dreidls. Right. The Irish gambling game of Teetotum, that made its way across Europe. (Even if the top used in Teetotum does, as some scholars believe, have its origins in Greek and Roman times, it would have had 6 or more sides. So Hellenized Jews might play with a top, but one with more than four sides. I sort of doubt non-Hellenized Jews and zealots would have been playing a Greek gambling game to hid their Torah studies.) Those letters on the dreidl? They don’t stand for Neis Gadol Hayah Sham. The stand for the Yiddish translation of the Latin words originally represented on the Teetotum by their first letters – the words for take, put in, nothing, and take all. The “great miracle happened there” was conveniently retrofitted to the dreidl’s letters. The Teetotum game rose to greatest popularity more than a thousand years after the Maccabean revolt.

Even latkes have become a source of historical controversy, with scholars now asserting they started out as pancakes of fried ricotta cheese (since potatoes are from the Americas, and unknown in Europe until the voyages of the 15th and early 16th century.

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

That's to you, my dear readers, and to the hundreds of students and adults for whom I have talked about the "real story" of Hanukah. How there was all this infighting between the various Jewish factions before the actual Maccabean revolt. (It's possible more Jews were hurt in internecine strife than in the actual Maccabean revolt.) How the end result of the victory of the Maccabees was rule by the house of Hashmon, some of the worst rulers that the Jewish people ever had, and those ultimately responsible for allowing the Romans in. That dreidls don’t come from the time of the Maccabees and the letters didn’t originally stand for “neis gadol hayah sham.” That potato latkes started out as cheese pancakes. That Hanukkah is really a minor Jewish holiday, not even seen fit to include in the Tanakh, and its story appears in books excluded from the Jewish canon but included in the Christian version of the Bible. That some of what we know of it comes from sources like Josephus and Philo who had their own agendas.

And most of all, for saying that the story of the miracle of the oil wasn't true. We've all heard the various arguments. The oil isn't even mentioned for the first time until hundreds of years later. Some scholars suspect it was to help us keep a low profile during the period of Roman rule and in the subsequent diaspora, not flaunting this victory of a small band of guerilla fighters over the mighty Persian-Greek forces. And there's that whole Hanukah-Sukkot connection, with the original Hanukah being a belated celebration of Sukkot, one of the pilgrimage holidays, in a (somewhat) restored and cleansed Holy Temple. There's correspondence between the Jews of Alexandria and Jerusalem that appears to attest to this viewpoint. And, of course, as Sukkot was the holiday of the water libation, the cleansing of the holy altar in the Temple, there's an obvious connection between this festival of rededication, of Hanukah.

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

I don't take it all back. You need to know the truth (at least, as best as we can construct it.) However, we all need to learn to wear our truth hats and our faith hats. Neither one by itself is sufficient.

I also don’t apologize for portraying the villain in the Hanukkah story as the vain person he was. Why even just yesterday I was regaling an audience with the story of how being Antiochus IV wasn’t enough, he had to add Epiphanes, meaning “G”d manifest” to his name.But I do want to give you back something.

(Interestingly enough, since I started this musing with a Purim reference, I feel compelled to note that the Purim story, though it clothes itself in some potentially historical trappings, is as fanciful as the trappings with which we have bound up Hanukkah. Hanukkah, at least, has some basis in historical fact. More, probably, than Purim. Like Hanukkah, Purim has its dark side. Remember that in the story, this one actually included in our bible, the Jews proactively go out and kill those who were going to destroy them. For a people that claims to be so focused on peace, we have a pretty bloody history. Or perhaps our modern focus on peace is our way of atoning for the stories we have cherished that were anything but peaceful?

Enough. Even I grow weary of my own insistence on telling the truth, on rejecting so-called pediatric Judaism. Let me give you back some of what I may have taken from you, and even from myself.

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

What I want to give back to you is that sense of innocence, that faith. The "tooth fairy" faith, dare I even say the "Santa Claus" faith. That childlike sense of awe and wonder and belief in things miraculous. So forget, for a moment, all the truths I told you. Think of the story of the miracle of that cruse of oil that should have only lasted for one day but lasted for eight. The miracle of a small band who dared to stand up to a larger, more powerful force when their right to practice their religion was denied, and who were victorious. It is our story, just as all the tales in the Torah and Nakh are our stories. Maybe not our history, in the truest sense of the word, but our saga, Few of us believe the creation story as revealed in the Torah, and we question the historicity of many things in the Torah, though perhaps many of them have a kernel of truth. (The flood story appears in many other ANE cultures,so perhaps there was a significant event that found its way into the stories of all these cultures.) That does not make the words of the Torah any less true, in the most philosophical and theological sense of the word. Perhaps, in what is turning into a “post-truth” age I should be worried about asserting such a broad meaning for the word truth. However, doubting truth is not a new idea. According to one story, did not a certain Roman Prefect ask a certain itinerant rabbi “What is truth?” (Biblical scholar that I am, I can’t avoid mentioning that the word used in the gospel of John (18:38) is ἀλήθεια, aletheia. most often translated as “truth” really means “unconcealed.” Yet another example of biblical text being massaged eisegetically to give us a particular reading. This is why I keep encouraging people to learn to read Torah, and indeed all religious texts, in their original language, so one can translate for oneself.)

I'm sorry. I apologize. I didn't mean to spoil it for you.

We are at the darkest time of the year. Dark times may loom for us. So we must not let the light go out. As you light the candles Saturday night, and the following 7 nights, focus on the miracles. For we live in a time when we need to believe in miracles - even if we ourselves must have a strong hand in helping those miracles come to pass. After all, we can't always just wait around for G"d to fix things. When we believe in the miracles, we can help make them come true.


Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Urim Sameakh,


©2016 (portions © 2006) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha

Vayeishev 5776 - Revisiting Mikol Hamishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeishev 5775 - Seriously...Who Was That Guy?
Vayeishev 5773 - K'tonet Passim
Vayeishev 5772 - The Ram's Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T'vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 - Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 - In Gd's Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What's Worth Looking After

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Adrian I love all of this! Always good to remember that though we may chuckle at the Santa Claus stories, we have our own myths that are so obviously chuckle worthy as well. And the miracle in the coming days will be that we light-loving people will be able to rise above our pedantic nit-picking to create one unified light...banu hoshech ligaresh.