Goldberg vs. Tlaib—WUT?

On December 10 Representative Rashida Tlaib, Congresswoman from the Michigan 10th District tweeted: “I’d like to wish my Jewish neighbors a Happy Hanukkah. Hanukkah inspires me, especially during this difficult time. I hope we can all remember that even in the most unexpected moments, miracles can happen.” The Tweet seems innocuous, no different than probably hundreds of such messages which politicians send to their constituents, or to the broader public, wishing all a happy holiday. Representative Tlaib also included some sweet pablum about miracles, saying she herself draws inspiration from the holiday in this difficult time. 

Justin Amash, the Libertarian Congressman from Michigan’s 3rd District tweeted: “Wishing a blessed and happy Hanukkah to all who celebrate!” Representative Dan Kildee of Michigan’s Fifth District tweeted: “Happy #Hanukkah to everyone in mid-Michigan and around the country celebrating the first night of the Festival of Lights! Even though this holiday looks different this year, I hope happiness, love and hope fill your homes for the next eight day and many more to come.” Congressman Kildee added a Hanukkah emoji and a photograph which showed a menorah with eight candles and a present. While Flint has a few synagogues and a long Jewish presence, there are not that many Jews in the area represented by Kildee. His greeting, like those of the other politicians were not so much de riguer as the signs of civility. Before a religious holiday it is befitting for a political leader to wish those who celebrate that holiday a happy holiday. If they want to go the extra step, like Kildee, and show some understanding of the holiday (“first night” “eight days”)—great. If they want to draw some inspiration from the meaning of the holiday, even better. However, even the boilerplate greeting that Justin Amash sent is a welcome sign of civility in our civic culture. 

It was somewhat striking then that Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of the Atlantic, who happens to be Jewish, decided to “dunk” on Tlaib. First thing the next morning, Goldberg retweeted Tlaib’s tweet with the comment: “Just noting that the Hanukkah miracle to which she refers is the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel.” The “just noting” introduction is the Twitter giveaway that the following comment is significant and cutting. It seems that Goldberg thought that Tlaib was aligning herself with Ancient Jews whom she would not align herself with had they lived today. In other words, Goldberg seems to be implying that Tlaib is mistakenly or hypocritically celebrating Jewish restoration of sovereignty over the land of Israel, while at the same time she is a supporter of Palestinian rights. 

So, first, Goldberg’s comment replaces the discourse of civility—politician wishes their constituents well—with the more common Twitter idiom of political snark and sarcasm. The Tweet also, perhaps inadvertently, placed itself in the middle of the Hanukkah controversy itself. Many Jewish Twitterati immediately replied to Goldberg that he was getting the holiday wrong, and that the miracle of Hanukkah was actually the cruz of oil which burned for eight days. Goldberg is a learned Jew and therefore he would have known this. In fact he probably knows that there are two different miracle stories which are in tension and perhaps in conflict with each other. 

There are two prayers that are unique to Hanukkah. One is said in Jewish rites, in the amidah prayer which is recited thrice daily. The second is a liturgical poem, recited in Jewish communities of European origin during the candle lighting ritual. In the first prayer, also known as al hanisim/about the miracles, the miracle that is extolled is the victory of the few over the many, the righteous over the wicked. In the liturgical poem (maoz tzur translated unfortunately as “Rock of Ages”) the miracle is that when there were not enough cruses of sanctified oil, the sanctified oil that was left lasted for eight days. 

Goldberg’s choice of the military victory is not a neutral choice. The rabbis of the Talmud, the 6th century Babylonian Jewish text which expounds on Hannukah in all its legal complexity for the first time, chose the miracle of the oil and glossed over the military victory. The rabbis were not very fond of the Hasmonean house which descended from the Maccabees, so this may not be surprising. They also preserved an acute memory of the death and destruction which accompanied the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE. The rabbis of the Talmud have a strong preference for pacifism. 

However, pacifism did not serve the nascent Zionist movement well, and so when searching for militant ancestors they could find none better than the Maccabean band of zealots. The Zionist movement resurrected the fight for national sovereignty from the dust of the extracanonical books of the Maccabees. 

This Twitter scrap played out as it did because of the two registers in which everything religious plays out in today’s political realm. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, have all become fighting words. Any Tweet that a Muslim-American politician tweeted on a Jewish topic would be scrutinized for its political content. It would not and did not matter that the message was a human message not on the field of battle. Goldberg is picking up a cudgel from another fight that is obviously not yet over for him.

The call for civility is usually a call for the weak to disarm and not to use the weapons of the strong. However, there is great benefit when around the margins there is a recognition that the battleground has boundaries. There is no glory when the Jewish editor in chief of one of the magazines which sets the intellectual agenda for the public space dunks on a Muslimah Congresswoman of color on an issue which was obviously not on the field of battle. 


Dr. Annette Yoshiko Reed has a phenomenal Twitter thread with links if you want to really geek out on the history of Hanukkah.

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Seventh Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the seventh Hanukah light.חנוכיה

The Hanukah lights are about the boundary—between inside and outside, between public and private, between the market and the home. Also between the past and the present, and between ourselves and others.

The Torah portion that we read today in synagogue recounts the Joseph story. It is called miketz, at the end. The portion begins at the end of Joseph’s seven years of imprisonment on the false charge of attempting to rape his master’s wife. Joseph is called to Pharaoh from his cell to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he does successfully. He is rewarded with the highest position in the kingdom—second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is given authority over all the lands and resources of the kingdom, authority to collect food and prepare Egypt for the famine to come. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fourth Night of Hanukah

IMG_1553Tonight we light the fourth Hanukah light.

One of the things that the Sages of the Talmud do best is designate times for rituals. Often according to the cycle of the sun—first light on the horizon, sparkling of the sun, sunrise, midway through the sun’s cycle, twilight, sunset. These time measurements (for prayer, for starting the Sabbath, for beginning and ending fast days and holidays) are relatively objective. It is surprising then that we find the following time designation for the Hanukah candles:

The obligation [of lighting the Hanukah candles] is from the setting of the sun until everyone has left the market. (Bavli Shabbat 21b)

Why do the Hanukah candles have to be burning until the marketplace is empty, rather than, say, two hours into the night, or some other “objective” marker?

There are two blessings for the Hanukah candles. One blessing is upon lighting the candles, and the other is for seeing them (and being reminded of the miracles God has done). When a person lights the candles, she makes both blessings since she has both lit and seen them. However, if a person is just passing by, he may make the second blessing, for seeing the candles without having lit them. This is where the marketplace comes in.

Hanukah lights are lit on the boundary of private and public with the intention that they are seen both inside the house and in the market. The purpose is to shine light on the marketplace. Flame, the symbol of the Divine, is sorely needed in the marketplace. The spiritual need for justice and righteousness is most acute in the market, where the illusion that “this is all the work of my own strength, my own hands,” is most rampant. The dazzling idol of wealth can blind one to the demands of justice, to the righteous needs of workers, to our covenantal obligation to the earth. The flame of the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, shines a light into the marketplace, binding us to the demands of justice. “Do what is just and right; rescue from the defrauder him who is robbed; do not wrong the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; commit no lawless act, and do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Third Night of Hanukah

IMG_1548Tonight we light the third Hanukah light.

We place the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, on the boundary between inside and outside, at the place where private meets public. The flames, except in times of great danger, must be seen from the public spaces. The public space is not nobody’s space—it is everybody’s space. It is the place in which democracy happens, in which people gather together to bring about change. It is the place in which we must play out our responsibility to everybody. Placing our hanukiyah in the window, or outside next to the door, is making the statement that the boundaries between my house and the world are permeable. I do not retreat to my house so as to shut out the injustice and pain of the world. I retreat to my house to gather my strength with my family and friends so that I can go out and make a change in the world—so that we can stand together in the public spaces, the streets, the halls of political power, and demand accountability, and articulate a vision for a more just city, and country, and world.

The public space is also, for some, a cold and threatening space. It is the only place that some folks have to lay their weary bodies down to sleep. When I place my hanukiyah on the permeable boundary between my house and the world, I also embrace those people who only have the public place, a dangerous and cold space—where our prayers are not enough, and nothing less than radical change will suffice.

A Kavanah [intention] for the Second Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the second Hanukah light.

The original Hanukah story is told primarily in the first Book of Maccabees (Sefer HaMakabim), which was written in near proximity to the second century BCE events which are recounted therein. Some scholars think that the original author was a witness to the events. I Maccabees, the book, tells the story of the victorious military revolt of a band of faithful Judean priests over the forces of the Hellenizers (called “sons of Belial”) and the army of the empire. The climactic scene is the capturing, purification, and renewal of the Temple in Jerusalem. The eight day holiday of rededication (from whence the name Hanukah/dedication comes) was originally a thanksgiving celebration for the miraculous military victory of the Hasmoneans over their internal and external enemies.

Hanukah, one of the two post-biblical holidays in the Jewish calendar, was recorded in the Scroll of Days on Which it is Forbidden to Fast. When incorporated in the Talmudic discussion (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b), the explanation for the holiday is radically changed.

For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil in the Temple, and there was not enough oil to light [the candelabrum]. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they searched but found only one cruze of oil sealed with the seal of the High Priest which had not been defiled. There was only enough oil to light for one night. Miraculously, though, it burned for eight days.

From the point of view of the Hasmoneans, the rabbis seemed to have buried the lede! The military victory of the few over the many is overlooked in favor of the miracle of the oil. This was no simple oversight. The rabbis time and again, choose the path of nonviolent spiritual struggle over the bloody path of military victory. (The miraculous appearance of fire, is also a well-known sign of the presence of God.)

The rabbinic tradition is not necessarily a pacifist tradition—the Bible itself is filled with war and violent mayhem—however, the rabbis in their ultimate homeland, the house of study, labored to create a world of spiritual struggle rather than military clashes. Rabbinic heroes, such as Rabbi Akiva, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the decrees of the Roman empire—and paid the ultimate price for it. As we light the candles tonight we embrace the legacy of spiritual struggle, the nonviolent path of righteousness and justice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

A Kavanah [intention] for the First Night of Hanukah

Tonight, we light the first Hanukah candle.

Beginnings, true beginnings, are always hard. We live in a culture in which every week or so some gadget or technological innovation is trumpeted as the beginning of something new, something that will change the way we do things forever, a disruptive technology which will undo the old and start something else. In our tradition there are few truly disruptive moments. When Abraham saw through the fog of idolatrous power and recognized that there was one God, the God of everyone, and that therefore everyone was equally worthwhile—that was truly disruptive. When the People of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the voice of that God—a voice that said that cruel oppression is the opposite of the Divine way, that bearing one’s fellow’s burden is the prerequisite of accepting the Torah—that was truly disruptive.

Tonight, as we light the first Hanukah candle, we hope to take part in a truly disruptive moment. A moment where the cultures of oppression, of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia are overthrown. With this first light we embrace the hope of more light. “For the light of God is the soul of a person.” (Proverbs 20:27)