There was a gorgeous moment of surprise and laughter that opened our December Wrestling Together session. Quite fittingly, we began a conversation about ritual with the ritual of lighting Chanukah candles. I shared some teachings about the mitzvot of candle lighting – which candle we light first, placing the chanukiyah in a window, the requirement not to use the candles for any functional purposes but only to look at them. Each teaching was a Hasidic interpretation, giving spiritual radiance to the concrete specifics of these practices about light. And then I commented that, of course, the story of the miracle of a single day’s supply of oil lasting for eight days was invented by the rabbis of the Talmud, a couple hundred years after the battles of the Maccabees took place, an imaginative and creative narrative inserted into history.
There was a loud gasp. One person, with mouth hanging open, eyes wide with surprise, exclaimed, “WHAT! It never happened?” Then a moment of silence and bursts of laughter. I think there were others hearing the news for the first time as well, and perhaps others who had never thought about the historical accuracy of the narrative. But the expression on this person’s face revealed shock, surprise, delight, and sadness all at once. This is the sound of myth shattering – like finding out your parents are human and fallible.
That’s right. The miracle of the oil never happened. And yet every year we tell the story and light the Chanukah candles “for the miracles, the deliverances and the wonders, in those days and at this time”. Many of our rituals are rooted in story, yet how do we relate to rituals based on narratives that never happened, or didn’t happen in the ways they are described in our sacred and central sources? Slavery in Egypt? Esther and Mordechai? The Torah as a whole? There is something mournful in losing the eye of innocence about anything in our lives, but it makes room for adult awareness and the building of richer, more sustaining and deliberate meaning out of the shattered fragments.
Knowing that a story is not factually accurate does not make it any less true, any less insightful or less meaningful in animating our lives. We turn to the stories of Jewish tradition not as history but as maps of the Jewish condition, the human condition, and a collective Jewish path through them. The stories we tell about ourselves as a people shape our sensitivities, open our eyes, and direct our actions. They define what is worthy and ennobling, calling us to reach for liberation and resilience rather than giving up or selling out – pointing, as well, to sources of strength bigger than our individual selves. They give us the tools to navigate what is frightening, painful, or gets us stuck. Our stories give us a sense of belonging, at home with each other as a distinct people and culture, as well as thoroughly part of the sea of humanity – naming our responsibilities to both. Our stories teach us how to wake up, over and over, in a life that pulls us toward the sleep of apathy, self-absorption, and habit. The stories we tell about ourselves have universal reach while they are always also rooted in what is particular to the Jewish experience and the distinct ways we embody our values and sensibilities as we walk through the world (halakha, the word for Jewish law, literally means “the way of walking”).
This way of relating to our sacred stories breaks down the split between religious vs. cultural. When our animating questions are not about whether or not we believe in the facticity of the narrative and its claims, we can meet Jewish story in a much wider range of ways. In any given moment in our lives we might discover in our narratives, interchangeably, ethical imperatives, cultural enrichment, spiritual discipline and growth, religious commitment, national vision, and so on. This way of relating to our stories doesn’t require a leap of faith but it requires a mindful opting in, claiming these stories and the chain of generations before us who also claimed them, living inside them, and were shaped by them. It also requires developing the tools to consciously interpret the stories, to keep their potency alive, not simply by repeating the narratives we receive, but letting our lives shape them in return.
The rabbis of the Talmud changed Chanukah. They were steeped in Jewish history. They claimed the Maccabees as their ancestors and predecessors in the fight against assimilation on the one hand and oppression on the other. And they sought to steer the focus of Chanukah away from a complicated history of the repressive militancy of the Assyrian Greeks, the assimilationist Hellenizing Jews, the zealous and violent Maccabees, and the slaughtered Hasidim who wouldn’t pick up arms in self-defense so as not to violate Shabbat. In creating the story of miraculous light, the rabbis set themselves as continuous with history and with the Jewish people while redirecting their focus and meaning, bringing light into the darkness, and resisting assimilation with subtle commitment and dedication rather than brute force.
How do you wish to claim Jewish story? When you engage in a ritual that is rooted in Jewish story, how do you situate yourself within it? What would you want to know, learn, explore, or commit to in order to meet the authenticity of story and ritual with the truths of your own life?
Read the results of Part 1 of this conversation and join us for the next Year of Wrestling Together conversation on January 25th as we continue to delve into these questions.