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Parshot Festivals

Chanukah – the battle for Jewish identity

  • Ann Harris
How quickly the Jewish year slips by! One minute we are enjoying Purim; next we are agonising over Pesach; suddenly, the frantic timetable of the Yamim Noraim (the High Holy Days) and Sukkot is upon us!
by ANN HARRIS | Nov 29, 2018

And now – Bingo! Chanukah with its candles and gifts is here!

It is interesting to note that almost all our festivals emphasise women power. There is Esther over Purim, Miriam over Pesach, Ruth over Shavuot, and on Rosh Hashanah, there is Hannah, the mother of Samuel. We know them well. But the Chanukah story introduces us to two women of a different kind, not Biblical but apocryphal. Some even say that the story of Judith is not even “scripture” as such, but a tale written so that communities for years to come would learn the history of those times.

Judith and Hannah lived in the eras of successive Emperors Antiochus and of Nebuchadnezzar. It was a time when the Greco-Syrian empires were campaigning to destroy Judaism so that all the people under their power would be forced to think and believe alike and accept their rule, their ideology, and their way of life.

These two women exemplified the proverbial woman of valour in a personal and physical way. Hannah encouraged the sacrifice of the lives of her seven sons rather than watch them give up their Jewish way of life. Judith tricked and beheaded the Greek general Holofernes, who was intent on obeying the dictates of his imperial master and destroying Jewish communities and villages.

Different times, different ways of life! We look back at these two stories, apocryphal or not, with horror and disbelief. Were women (and men) driven to go to such lengths to preserve their faith and tradition?

It is hard for us to understand.

More than two centuries on, the Jewish world is still plagued by controversy and danger both inside and out. What has Chanukah to tell us about that?

Since it is the festival that teaches us most about Jewish Identity, there are many lessons to be learned. In the time of the Maccabees, the only way to keep Judaism alive was by faith in G-d and by fighting. But in today’s sophisticated world, battered as we are by media and politics, we need to consider our problems carefully, and plan our responses.

There are probably as many manifestations of Jewish identity as the number of our fingers and toes. What is it that actually makes each of us feel Jewish, and how can we strengthen those feelings? Is it really just chicken soup and “oi vey”?

There is in some quarters an erroneous belief that Jewish identity can be measured only by a person’s level of observance of our laws and customs. How we live our religious lives is a very personal matter, and difficult as it may be, we all need to learn to be judgemental of ourselves, and not of others.

However in the public and communal domains, our standards of religious life, in particular, the authenticity of our personal religious status, needs to be of the highest level, so that we can hold our heads high in the Jewish world. In addition, our standards of kashrut need to be without blemish so that those who wish to keep kosher are fully protected.

The Jewish identity of the South African Jewish community, and indeed those communities still remaining outside our borders, is greatly motivated and supported by the traditions of their founders. Our continent-wide communities have a very proud history. These may not always have been based on orthodox religious principles, but their roots in family and community will not easily wither away. We owe it to them to support that identity.

For many Jewish people, identity is fuelled by time spent learning and teaching. We are blessed with a large number of educational establishments both for children and adults.

If the Jewish identity of future generations is to be nurtured in this part of the southern hemisphere, there is a heavy responsibility on parents to educate themselves, and to be constructively involved in the Jewish life of their children. There is a huge variety of Jewish knowledge to be learned – something for every interest, and many willing instructors to show the way.

One of the strengths of our community is the number and variety of organisations involved in every aspect of Jewish life. They all have their challenges and problems, and some are already losing their way. We all have our Jewish identity to offer, and can contribute time and expertise to our communal bodies. We should stand up and be counted.

For many for whom Jewish identity is a vague optional extra, our love and support for the state of Israel should be a motivating and unifying factor. At the present time, that is not necessarily the case.

Our two major enemies are the media war and global anti-Semitism.

We have to come to terms with the fact that our community is no longer an unquestioning supporter of Zionism. We all think, we all read, and often we all say too much.

The solution lies in ongoing, unbiased education at every necessary level, so that we can all put the case for Israel’s position. This is a necessary task for the organisations mandated to get on with it.

For those of us who live outside Israel, an important factor in the preservation of Jewish identity is our relationship with our fellow citizens.

There are several levels of such contact. Start with courteous contact with members of other communities. Next, we need to search our souls to deal with the hate and fear many of us still feel for the other. Finally comes the recognition of our privileged position, and what the ethical and moral teachings of Judaism tell us to do about it.

It is our tradition not to work during the short time that the Chanukah candles are burning. Perhaps we can find a few quiet minutes then to define what our Jewish identity is, and to consider ways to strengthen it.

  • Ann Harris is the widow of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris. She practised as a solicitor in the City of London before she and her husband came to South Africa, where she worked at the Law Clinic at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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