It was a cold December morning. While my memories are not that clear any more, I know that we woke up early and took a bus from New York City down to Washington. I went with hundreds of my classmates from my modern Orthodox high school.
It was Sunday, December 6, 1987.
The head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was going to meet with President Reagan, and the Jewish community came together. It was a remarkable event. Over a quarter of a million people – almost all of them American Jews – came to rally in Washington,D.C.on behalf of Soviet Jews.
When the rally was being planned to coincide with the Soviet premier’s visit, Jewish leaders at the time were skeptical. They did not think that having a December event outdoors would draw more than a few thousand people.
But Natan Sharansky, less than two years after his release from a Soviet prison, felt vindicated and inspired when he saw the huge crowd gathered on that cold, clear December day.
He and Elie Weisel were recently reflecting on that rally 25 years later.
“Weisel asserted that those who were there shared a rare feeling ‘that you were not alone, that there was a sense of history about you, always remembering Jewish history,’ adding ‘with it, you can never fail.’” (The Jewish Week)
My memories feel similar to Elie Weisel’s. I was a teenager at the time, and my high school was quite active in many Jewish causes. We sent groups of teenagers to the Soviet Union during winter vacation to smuggle in siddurim – prayer books – sets of tefillin, and other Jewish articles so that Russian Jews could preserve their faith traditions and culture under the yoke of Communism, which tried to squelch religion and individuality.
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Natan Sharansky tells the story of Hanukkah in the Soviet gulag, in prison. Sharansky was arrested in 1977 for his Zionist activism and his insistence on the right of Russian Jews to be allowed to move to Israel, to make aliyah. Unfortunately, he was accused of the much more serious crime of treason for spying for the United States.
So, he sat in prison from 1977 until 1986, including eight years in Siberia. Finally, after continuous public protest in the West, spearheaded by his wife Avital, Sharansky was released in a spy exchange between the United Statesand the USSR in 1986.
He later made aliyah, moved toIsrael, established his own Russian immigrant political party, and became a minister in the government.
He writes about his time in the Soviet gulag as the holiday of Hanukkah was approaching.
“At the time, I was the only Jew in the prison zone, but when I explained that Hanukkah was a holiday of national freedom, of returning to one’s own culture in the face of forced assimilation, my friends in our ‘kibbutz’ [his tongue-in-cheek term for prison] decided to celebrate it with me. They even made me a wooden menorah, decorated it, and found some candles.
“In the evening, I lit the first candle and recited a prayer that I had composed for the occasion. Tea was poured, and I began to describe the heroic struggle of the Maccabees to save their people from slavery. For each zek (a prisoner in the Soviet gulag) who was listening, this story had its own personal meaning. At one point, the duty officer appeared in the barracks. He made a list of all those present but didn’t interfere.
In his book Fear No Evil, Sharansky goes on to describe how he lit the candles on every subsequent evening of Hanukkah until they were confiscated by prison authorities.
He went on a hunger strike to try to get his candles back and, in the end, was able to convince the prison camp’s director to let him light them for the last night of Hanukkah in the camp director’s office. It’s truly a remarkable story of Sharansky’s bravery, faith, and commitment, and it is the story of Hanukkah, of that little spark of hope that can overcome the darkness.
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As both Hanukkah – which begins on the 25th of Kislev – and the 25th anniversary of the Rally to Free Soviet Jews fall this coming week, I have been thinking a lot about both this somewhat forgotten activism and the significance of Hanukkah for us as modern Jews.
The historical Hanukkah is not exactly as it appears in the story that has been handed down to us. We have been told that Hanukkah is about the miracle of the Maccabees overcoming the much more powerful Syrian Greeks and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days.
But if we look at the earliest historical texts, we find no mention of the oil – only of the story of the brave Jews, who were basically zealots who fought the Syrian Greeks and other Jews who wished to follow a more assimilationist path. I suspect that today most of us would not have joined forces with the Maccabees as we would have seen them as too extreme.
The books written just after the time of the events – the years 167 to 163 BCE – make mention neither of God nor of the oil. The books of Maccabees tell of an incredibly heroic military story. When our rabbis came to decide which books were going to make it into the Tanakh, which books were going to make the cut and be a part of the Hebrew Bible, they did not choose the Book of Maccabees, and so it was dropped from our canon. In fact, we would not even have a copy of the Book of Maccabees had it not been preserved by the Catholic Church that saved it as part of their sacred tradition.
You might ask why the rabbis did not include the Book of Maccabees in the Hebrew Bible? After all, it was written in Hebrew by Jews, and it tells a very powerful story of Jewish survival.
There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, God is not mentioned in the text. The entire narrative is composed of historical events, and God is not even an actor behind the scenes.
Now you can object and say, “Well, the Book of Esther doesn’t mention God,” and you would be correct. But there was something else about Hanukkah that made it much more dangerous. Hanukkah encouraged revolt against the authorities, something that the Jewish people went on to do just two centuries later with the Great Revolt against the Roman Empire in the years 66 to 70, followed by the Bar Kokhba Revolt from the years 132 to 135 CE.
Neither of these revolts or rebellions went well – nothing like Hanukkah. They ended disastrously for the Jewish people as over one-third of the Jewish people were killed, theSecondTemplewas destroyed, and many Jews were exiled from the land of Israel, losing our autonomy and our independence.
The rabbis were aware of the dangers of revolts, and so they taught us a different message, choosing to highlight an oral folk tale about lights and the miracle of the oil as the essence of Hanukkah. In addition, the Macabees and their descendants became a pretty bad lot; corruption plagued the Hasmonean dynasty and, surely, this was not a model the rabbis cared to emphasize.
And thus, the rabbis created a new, more spiritual Hanukkah. This is evident in the haftarot, the prophetic readings for the holiday, which focus not on power, but spirit alone. As I reflect on Hanukkah and this great rally from 25 years ago, I realize that there are really two poles of Jewish commitment inAmericatoday.
There is the pole of Jewish peoplehood: the kind of Judaism that’s animated by and focused on things like remembering the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, the physical survival of the Jewish people and support for the State of Israel. That is a strong argument for Judaism, and it is powerful force in my life.
But it’s not enough.
In fact, it is not the core of Judaism, not the message that has made Judaism a way of life. We need that core.
That second Judaism is spiritual Judaism. It’s the Judaism of discovering that inner divine spark that lies within all of us. It’s a Judaism of relationship with God that shapes and informs our lives every day.
It’s that Judaism that utilizes our rituals to uncover deep meaning. It’s a Judaism that explores our sacred texts and appreciates the insights that our people have offered ourselves and the world for four millennia. It’s a Judaism of moral grandeur and psychological awareness as manifested in our ethical Mussar literature, mystical Kabbalistic texts and emotionally insightful Hassidic commentaries.
It’s a Judaism of deep spirituality and feeling, which we can experience, for example, on Tuesday at our Meditative Ma’ariv service and Spirituality Group.
It is a Judaism of vibrant dynamism. It’s a creative Judaism. It’s the Judaism that’s been with our people for thousands of years. It’s innovative, it’s imaginative, it’s cutting edge, and it’s a living tree – an eitz hayyim, as we just sang as we returned the Torah.
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As much as Rabbi Fel and I enjoy making our weekly videos, we make them not only to have a good time – which we do – but to present our tradition in an inclusive, open and joyous manner.
It does not need to be stale, stiff or static.
It should have the euphoric singing of a Friday-night service, the deep intellectual and rich communal experience of Shabbat morning, and the place of deep feeling when we chant the 23rd Psalm, as we let go of Shabbat, feeling that sense of oneness with God.
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The other major Jewish rally that I attended occurred in April, 2002, during the Second Intifada, during constant waves of terrorism. Again, a huge group of American Jews gathered, possibly as many as 100,000 traveled from all over the country – this time to support Israel.
Sharon and I, with Talya who was just nine months old at the time, all got on a plane and flew to DC from Chicago.
There is something about the urgency of the Jewish peoplehood’s survivalist Judaism that gets us to come to a rally in large numbers, as it did for hundreds of us last Sunday night to hear Congressman Ed Markey’s support for Israel during this latest conflict.
While some of us appreciate peoplehood and others spirituality, we all need both.
We also need spiritual rallies. We might not get hundreds of thousands of people; but each soul is precious. We need all of us to look into our hearts and connect to that place of deeper meaning – to open up Jewish books, to come to classes where we’ll be able to learn and soak up the wisdom of our tradition.
My friends, we have been given a treasure chest – a treasure chest full of jewels. And these are precious jewels.
These are jewels that have been passed down dor l’dor, from generation to generation. They are the literal Torah scrolls that stand behind me and the figurative Torah, the oral insights and values that have been bequeathed from one generation to the next.
While they might not draw huge numbers, we need to rally for that as well.
It is the Judaism that is lived between and with both of those gravitational forces, a balanced Jewish path that we need to follow.
We need a Judaism that encompasses Jewish peoplehood, that is animated by our bonds that are almost inexplicable, that transcends time and space – the bonds that I felt 25 years ago with my brothers and sisters living in the formerSoviet Unionwhom I’d never met.
A family I met with this week told me how they immigrated to this country from the former Soviet Union in the years just after that 1987 rally.
They reminded me that the rally changed lives. It had changed their lives. It gave them freedom!
But then this family spoke about another part of their Judaism – their love of Jewish learning, their commitment to Shabbat observance, their belief in Jewish values and their enthusiasm for the meaning Judaism brings to existence.
Our Judaism must be about Jewish peoplehood, but it also must be about ritual, learning, spirituality, and Jewish living, for they are the values that make survival meaningful.
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