Today is the first day of Hanukkah. It sorely tempts me to write on something you don’t want to read about: orthodoxy and the importance of preserving it from the gusts of worldly power that would snuff it out as they come roaring into the Holy City.
Judea in the second century BC was split between two conflicting influences. Call them Athens and Jerusalem, if you like, although the Greek influence exerted by the Seleucid empire, to which Judea now belonged, was more Macedonia than Athens. And the Jews who resisted that influence, who were most concerned to restore the ritual purity of the Temple and to reestablish the Jewishness of Jerusalem, more of them seem to have hailed from the exurbs, as it were, than from the capital city itself.
But you get the idea. Cultures clashed. That’s how you saw it, anyway, if you were a Hellenized Jew, perhaps an upper-class Jerusalemite who enjoyed identifying with the prestigious Gentile culture of the Western occupying power.
But if you were a rigorously observant Jew, the clash was not between two equivalent cultures. It was between God, who dwelt in the Temple up on the mount, and the profane world, represented by the gymnasium that the emperor had built on the bottom of the hill. Choose this day whom ye will serve.
Fidelity versus Assimilation
Fidelity versus assimilation: It’s a familiar trope, and for people of faith it’s clear both which side is ours and how hard it is to stay true to it. At Hanukkah, we celebrate those who fought for our side.
My friend and colleague Fr. Pat McCloskey cautions me against drawing analogies to present-day religious categories. I told him I would take his advice, but I’ve changed my mind. Fr. Pat is right that distinctions are crucial. But so are similarities. In the end, nothing is identical to anything except itself, and so to think at all, we have to make associations between one thing and another. Otherwise we could never begin to understand the past.
Cicero was a Republican; Julius Caesar, a Democrat. David Brooks is a Tory; Frank Rich, a Whig. There, I said it.
Now consider this. The Maccabees, the Jewish militia that kicked out the Greeks and turned up the volume on the Jewish character of Judea, they were Orthodox. The Hellenized Jews who took out a membership at the gym may have considered themselves Reform, but in the eyes of the Orthodox they weren’t really Reform at all but had flat-out fallen away. The cold war escalated into a hot war, and the Orthodox won. And the plain truth is that part of what we celebrate at Hanukkah is that victory.
The Two Cultures
Now, taken to extremes, orthodoxy in any religion produces more heat than light. This recent news item from Israel is an example.
As for the reform impulse, taken to extremes, it’s what gives cover to those who choose assimilation over observance but lack the resolve to divorce themselves from their religion in a forthright manner.
At its best, the reform impulse receives the world so as to consecrate it, to assimilate it to God’s invisible but tangible kingdom.
At its best, the orthodox impulse builds the Temple, a cultural sanctuary, a holy place that’s in the world but not of it.
Both impulses serve a noble purpose. Each of us is temperamentally inclined to live in one culture or the other, the orthodox or the reform. Recognize that there is good—and goodwill—among those who live in the culture you don’t. For those of us who live in the reform zone, this is the season to be magnanimous and salute the orthodox virtues of boldness and zeal.