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D'var Torah by Phil Keisman

Phil Keisman (Cohort 10) is in his 3rd year of teaching at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, New York

Did you catch it? This year, the second night of Hanukah shared the spotlight with Thanksgiving. Amid all of the marketing opportunities, jokes on Facebook and Stephen Colbert’s stellar bit on hand-drawn hanukiyot, lost was the irony that the Maccabees would not have been very happy with the excitement of American Jewry at this calendrical coincidence.

Historian Elias Bickerman is one of many who view the uprising of the Maccabees, and the subsequent establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty, as an attempt through force of arms to stymie the assimilation and reformation of Hellenized Jews. Even cultural institutions that, to Americans, seem devoid of religious content, from bathhouses to wine jugs, were frowned upon and suppressed by the Hasmoneans (as they would be by Hazal as well). The idea of Jews coming together with non-Jews in celebration of a holiday based on a non-Jewish national narrative, and the possibility that this would alter the practice of an ancient Jewish festival, would be anathema to the Hasmoneans. Of course, contemporary Judaism is not an outgrowth of the Hasmoneans, but of Hazal. Hazal’s political sensibilities often put them at odds with the philosophies of the Hasmoneans, so when the Gemara asks the question “What is Hanukah?” (Shabbat 21b), the answer comes not from any works sympathetic to the Hasmoneans, but in the form of a braitah taken from Megilat Ta’anit. In the process, Hazal manage to deemphasize the military and political elements of the Hanukah story and introduce the important role that God played via the miracle of the oil. In this way, one faction of Jewish leadership – our religious progenitors – wrests control of history away from the Hasmoneans, and Hanukah is born. What lessons can Hazal’s literature teach us about the tension and the joy that some feel at the coming together of American and Jewish cultures?

BothTalmuds are products of the same cultural tensions that influenced the Hasmoneans, so it is no surprise that there are many places where the Talmud calls for limits on interactions with non-Jews. These laws are often strict, in efforts to protect Jewish civilization from the temptations of idolatry, but these restrictions come in the middle of documents that are themselves products of the time and place of their production. Hazal’s way of life was one that allowed for at least some cultural awareness and influence.

The Talmuds have myriad ‘non-Jewish’ influences, and as a result, the barrier between Jewish and non-Jewish culture in them is semi-permeable – though the level of permeability varies from Rabbi to Rabbi, from generation to generation, and between the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. The level of influence is seen most clearly in words with Greek or Latin roots that were brought into these Hebrew and Aramaic documents. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, over 3,000 words derived from Greek or Latin roots can be found in the Talmuds. Words that express concepts regarding the layouts of cities (פלטיא=wide space), economics (אנפוריא= traveling merchant) and architecture (בסיליקי=basilica) made their way into our sacred texts. Close reads of Talmudic literature produce an understanding of the influence that outside society had on Jews of the period, and just as there is no one right answer to the question of how much a Jew should be influenced by the societies around him, there are various models of acceptance and rejection of outside societies to be found in Talmudic literature. There are models, such as the one proposed by Rabban Gamliel in dialogue with Prokolus the Philosopher (פלוסופוס!) in Avodah Zara 3:4, which resemble some of what Jews have done with Thanksgiving this year. When questioned about bathing in a bathhouse devoted to the goddess Aphrodite, Gamliel responds, “לא באתי בגבולה היא באתה בגבולי. I did not come into her borders, she came into mine.”

Within Gamliel’s response is a very powerful message about the role that non-Jewish cultures can play in a Jew’s life. Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, may stand in here for what is appealing and wonderful about the world around us. The “borders” to which Gamliel refers can be seen as those we set up around our own cultural identities. Gamliel’s message is that we can bring the outside world in, we can assimilate it in order to create a more nuanced, thicker sense of identity. When we enlivened our Hanukah celebration by including some of the messages, customs and understandings of Thanksgiving this year, we were following the spirit of Rabban Gamliel.

One of the great joys in teaching Judaic Studies to a heterogeneous group of students in a pluralistic school is the opportunity it presents for making Torah relevant to people who do not exist in a solely Jewish context. As an educator, I am at my best when the importance, interest and beauty of Torah are clearest to my students. The connection between Torah and their daily lives allows students to easily change their senses of reality and self based on their learning. The truest learning does not happen when Torah is isolated from the reality of America; it happens when cultural influences flow together and Torah becomes more firmly assimilated into a student’s sense of self.

Just as Hazal were influenced by the world around them in ways both conscious and unconscious, so too are our young generation a product of the world around them, both in ways of which they are hyper aware ("Thanksgivikah") and in ways which they have not yet noticed. As educators, I think we should celebrate this with our students and our school communities. Close reading of the Mishnah can reveal moments of celebration of the permeation of outside influence, and this message will resonate with the youth of today because it is something they experience in their realities. "Thanksgivikah" may not have been an acceptable mode of worship to the Hasmoneans, but with the passing down of Hazal’s values, we now live in a world where acceptance of some of what is around us can only serve to enhance our own Jewish selves.