“In Those Days, In These Times”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The story of Joseph, as we have written in the past, may be seen as the story of an assimilator struggling with his identity. When Joseph eventually proclaims loud and clear (Genesis 45:3), “Ani Yosef, ha’od avi chai?” “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” he re-embraces his family and his tradition. How timely it is then that parashat Mikeitz always coincides with the festival of Chanukah whose central theme is assimilation and the struggle to return one’s roots.

The basic story of the holiday of Chanukah is that in the year 167 B.C.E. the Syrian-Greek monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes set out to abolish the Jews observance of Shabbat, new moon festivals and the practice of circumcision. Many of the Jews of those days were deeply impressed by the Hellenist culture. They loved the intellectual pursuit of Hellenism as well as the centrality of aesthetics in the tradition of the Greeks, and rapidly became enamored with the Hellenists “worship of the human body.” In fact, sources report that some Jews even underwent the painful operation of reverse circumcision so they would look non-Jewish during the naked wrestling matches. And yet, despite the fearsome external enemy, Chanukah was not so much the battle of the Jews against the Syrian-Greeks, as it was a battle of the the Chassidim–the Jewish Traditionalists against the Mityavnim–the assimilationists, the Jewish Hellenists!

Although 2,000 years have passed since that fateful Chanukah victory, tragically we are facing the same battle against assimilation today. In a sense, the battle today is even more heartbreaking because the contemporary struggle is not against forced assimilation under duress from our enemies, but rather assimilation through kindness. The blandishments of America are so subtle and powerful that the vast majority of our people are not even aware of the battle taking place, and consequently are unable to withstand the seductiveness of the dominant culture. So for instance, the average American Jewish child today surely knows who was the mother of Jesus, but has no clue of who was the mother of Moses (Yocheved). The average American Jewish child knows the words to “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly…” but has no idea of the lovely Hebrew Chanukah song, “Maoz Tzur...” Assimilation in America has become so pervasive that perhaps 4-4 ½ million American Jews are at risk today of vanishing as Jews within one or two generations. Tragically, these losses are further compounded by the fact that the reasons for these losses can be relatively easily addressed by attending to the vast illiteracy and ignorance of basic Judaism that afflicts our people today.

While those in the committed Jewish community often speak forlornly of their unaffiliated and assimilated brothers and sisters, they fail to recognize that assimilation is a significant threat to the committed Jewish community as well. Slowly but surely, the dominant culture is impacting on the so-called “absolute values” of the traditional Jewish community. Traditional Jews are becoming insensitive and indifferent to many of these vital values. So for instance, since the acclaimed “Giuliani era,” most New Yorkers are ecstatic at the reduction of crime in New York city. The number of murders has declined from its peak of 2,245/year, to “only” about 643 last year, and we rejoice. Yet, how can we rejoice when 643 innocent people are being killed each year, and when cities far larger than New York, like Tokyo, have less than 1/7 of New York’s murder rate? We’ve been reduced.

Committed traditional Jews are delighted that masses of homeless are, for the most part, no longer living on the streets of America, but at the same time we are quite indifferent to the huge pockets of poverty and squalor in our nation and fairly unresponsive to the needs of the millions of children who go to sleep hungry each night. We’ve been reduced. Of course, it’s hard not to become insensitive when Americans are fed a constant fare of the likes of John Wayne and Lorena Bobbit, AIDS and condoms, O.J. Simpson, and Monica Lewinsky. We Jews are being constantly bombarded by values that are thoroughly inimical to our Jewish tradition. We’ve been reduced, and in too many instances we’ve been rendered indifferent.

It is this battle against the “subtle assimilation” that is very much an essential element of the festival of Chanukah. Chanukah proclaims the need to reaffirm one’s commitment, to strengthen our resolve to heed the immortal values of our people. We must be certain not to allow ourselves to be swept away by the often decadent marketing and the blandishments of Madison Avenue advertisements. We must do battle with the fact that the vast majority of mainstream American entertainment is mostly sex and violence. The constant awareness that is necessary to do battle with the pernicious assimilation is what is reflected in the blessing that we recite over the Chanukah candles: “Sheh’ah’sah nee’sim la’avo’tay’noo bah’yamim ha’haym bahz’man ha’zeh,” We thank G-d for having wrought miracles to our forefathers, in those days, in these times.

In this time of Chanukah it is incumbent upon all committed Jews to address the issue of the subtle assimilation which is exacting a heavy toll on our people. The committed community must kindle its lights more brightly than ever before. We must affirm and reaffirm our commitment to the ethics and morality reflected in our Torah. We must work assiduously to share the beauty of our tradition, and stave off the blandishments of alien values.

If we are prepared to make this commitment and to do our part, then we will surely see that the lights of the candles that we kindle will be “moseef v’holaych”–will grow stronger and brighter, as we inspire our entire world with our good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.