A Chanukah Message From Dena Schusterman

A Chanukah Message From Dena Schusterman

Faith is the staying power of the Jew.

Dena Schusterman is a founder of Chabad Intown, a Jewish educator, and a founding director of both the Intown Jewish Preschool (intownjewishpreschool.org) and the Intown Hebrew School. She and her husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, are native Californians living in Atlanta for 20 years with their eight children.

Dena Schusterman
Dena Schusterman

Standing in front of the towering outdoor menorah on a balmy December night, staring at the flames as they flicker and feeling the connection of my Atlanta Jewish community, I swell with pride. As I let the warmth spread through my body and take another glance at the flames, I look around and experience a slight chill; I wonder, am I experiencing a version of the fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? Am I celebrating the Maccabees’ physical and spiritual win over the Hellenistic culture, when in reality we are all modern versions of Jewish Hellenists? Who among us on a cold Chanukah night is a modern-day zealot – Maccabee? Does anyone want to be one?

Our modern world is one where we focus on the physical body with our worship of fitness, healthful food and the secular mind, with our world-class schools, publications and academia. Have we expanded the ancient colosseum’s majesty to include our whole blessed country, and ensconced ourselves in all its glory?

And then I think, wait, what is the problem? And what was the problem in 165 B.C.E.? A tenet of my education is that the whole purpose of creation is to marry the physical and spiritual. If so, what was wrong with Hellenism and why were the Maccabees vociferously anti-Greek? The Greek culture is the prelude to our modern culture, one we happily partake in. So why the grave discord that gave us the Chanukah narrative?

There is a vital difference in today’s Judeo-American culture and the Judeo-Hellenism the Maccabees fought against.

It is true that Greek culture was a universalist culture open and engaging to all. The ancient Greek aversion to Jewish practice and prohibition against certain Jewish edicts was unusual in Greek history.

It is also true that a Jews’ ultimate purpose in this world is to live in it, partaking of the materialism and elevating it to the service of G-d. So, the Jews and ancient Greeks should have been able to get along. The Hellenists should have been able to take the best of both cultures and create an even more robust Judaism. Yet they did not, and they could not.

Sure, they were smart! They were the philosophers of Aristotle and Plato. The Talmud tells about the beauty of the Greek language, intimating that it is the only other language for the Torah to be gracefully translated into.

But it was this very thing, the Greek thinking, that was their downfall. The Greeks and their Jewish compatriots had a vital difference: reason. The ancient Greeks valued intellect, logic and rationality above all else. In other words, if they could not solve it, see it, weigh it, touch it, or feel it, it did not exist. As it were, this is the reason that now they do not exist.

Faith. This is the staying power of the Jew.

Faith is believing in something beyond your comprehension; it is conviction in the face of uncertainty. Faith above reason is what separated the Jews from the ancient Greeks.

How do I know with certainty that I would have been a Maccabee back then? That all of us standing in the square gazing up at the flames, swaying gently as we sing or humming the traditional Chanukah songs would have fallen on the side of Maccabee? Because standing in front of the menorah we celebrate a miracle.

And to believe in miracles you have to have faith.

So, this Chanukah, as I look around at my community huddled together, basking in the glow of the menorah light, I am cognizant that the battle between Hellenism (cynicism, apathy and skepticism) and the Maccabees (faith, optimism and conviction) still wages on. I am grateful that to win this battle in the modern day, I need not pick up a sword and shield or mount an elephant. All I need to do is absorb the message twinkling in the lights of the Chanukah menorah, and pay it forward. Keeping the faith.

Dena Schusterman is a founder of Chabad Intown, a Jewish educator, a founding director of both the Intown Jewish Preschool and the Intown Hebrew School and a regular contributor to the AJT.

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