Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Chanukah is Judaism’s most universal holiday with deep resonance for all Americans.
Our great country was founded by refugees who escaped religious persecution in Europe and were prepared to cross an ocean in order to found a colony where they could worship as they chose. Indeed, freedom of religion applied as a principle of colonial government goes back to the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 which provided that “No person or persons…shall from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.” By 1777 Thomas Jefferson himself had drafted The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of only three achievements Jefferson instructed be put on his tombstone.
For Jews, however, practicing our religion has never been as straightforward. Throughout history we have had to fight and die simply to observe our faith. Chanukah represents a triumphant moment in the second century BCE when that struggle was victorious.
After Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, he allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions. But a century later one of his successors, Antiochus IV, massacred the Jews, banned the practice of Judaism, and desecrated the holy Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. The Priestly family of Matisyahu the Hasmonean, led his courageous son Judah Maccabee, revolted and miraculously defeated one of the world’s greatest military powers. They purified the Temple and relit its candelabra, the menorah. A further miracle occurred when the special oil necessary, of which there was only enough for a day, lasted eight. Ever since, the Menorah is lit in homes and public squares as a universally regarded symbol of religious freedom.
But as America continues to fight wars abroad there is an even deeper resonance with the holiday.
The ancient world glorified men at arms. Heroes were those who could pulverize their enemies on the battlefield. Their names – Agamemnon, Achilles, Hannibal, and Caesar – remain legend, both in myth and history. Walk through the streets of Rome and you will be electrified by the site of ancient monuments to generals and battles, from the Arch of Titus, celebrating the slaughter of the Jews in the years 66-70, to the Arch of Constantine to Trajan’s column. The glory of war does not end there but stretches all the way to the modern world with European Kings and princes continuing to even marry in military uniform, as did Prince William in his nuptials with Kate Middleton. Great men are those who perform heroic feats of military daring and win grandeur by vanquishing their foes.
The Bible, however, with its vision of men one day beating swords into ploughshares and its promise of a future of eternal peace, sees war as savagery in every case but self-defense. The men of Arthur’s roundtable may be born for adventure. But the Biblical knight of faith is born for service.
On Chanukah the Jews – the people of the book, not the sword – are forced to take up arms to defend their right to worship G-d according to their conscience. They score a stunning military victory against the successor armies to the world’s greatest conqueror. And how do they celebrate? Not by erecting a single victory arch, staging a parade, or slaughtering their captured foes in public, a favorite among the jeering Roman masses. Rather, they rededicate G-d’s temple and light the candles of the menorah to demonstrate the human capacity to bring light to a world made dark with violence and bigotry, a tradition carried forth till the present day in Jewish homes and public squares everywhere.
Today Israel is falsely accused of being a militaristic state that tramples on the rights of others. But walk the length and breadth of the Jewish state and you will find holy sites and ancient ruins, memorials to dead soldiers and commemorations for victims of terror. The one thing you will never find is a single celebratory arch – either ancient or modern – commemorating a military victory. Even when, in 1967, Israel pulled off one of the most spectacular military victories of modern times, defeating three Arab nations with ten times the soldiers hell-bent on its destruction, Israel never celebrated the victory. Chanukah sums up the Jewish attitude toward war: you fight only when you have to, never when you want to, and whatever the result, you never rejoice but mostly cry. War is a necessary evil. Only in peace is there glory to be won.
King David was Judaism’s greatest warrior. Today he is remembered, however, for the beautiful Psalms he sang to G-d with harp and lyre. His wish was to build G-d a Temple in Jerusalem but the Almighty refused. He has shed blood in battle, even though it is was to protect his people from slaughter.
The lesson for America? We fight because we have an obligation to stop the bad guys from slaughtering the innocent. But we never revel in the fight. Rather, we pray for our brave men and women in uniform – living torches of freedom – to come home and brighten our lives with their luminous and warm hearts.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and is the author, most recently, of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself. (Wiley) In January he will publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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December 16, 2011 | 11:28 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
A journalist friend of mine emailed me at 1am Friday morning to tell me that Christopher Hitchens had died. The news brought with it a deep sadness and I instantly recited the Jewish prayer upon hearing of the passing of a friend, “Blessed is the true Judge.” That instinctive religious action captured the paradox of our unpredictable friendship, born in battle in four public debates – stretching from 2004 until 2010 – on G-d, faith, evolution, and religion, but solidified over food at kosher restaurants, kosher wines, and, of course, healthy swigs of whisky.
We were planning, over the last few months, to do another debate on whether the Jews are the Chosen people, and given Hitchens discovery that he was Jewish only when his mother revealed it to him in his twenties, the subject held a particular interest for him. Back and forth we went, trying to find a time that might suit him as he awaited the literal return of the voice he had lost to his treatment against esophageal cancer. His mother had also told him that she planned to move to Israel where the Jews were making the desert bloom, a move that was never carried out due to her tragic suicide. In one of my many interviews with Hitchens on my radio show I asked him, given his mother’s growing attachment to her people, what it would have meant to him for her to live to see the substantial Jewish intellectual following he would one day amass, and he told me that it would have made him very happy to see her proud. He further shared with me how, amid his passionate atheism, he took pride in his Jewishness due to Jewry’s immense emphasis on learning and scholarship and being the people of the book.
When I first heard that Christopher was sick I called upon all fellow people of faith to pray for him and asked him on my radio show if the gesture offended him. He responded that he was deeply flattered even as he was sure there was noone listening. But pray we did, a great many of us, because amid his being the most famous atheist in the world, there was something immensely likeable about him that endeared him to friend and foe alike. He was religion’s most vociferous enemy but you could not help but develop an affection for him due to his warmth, wit, and, bizarre as it may sound, humility. Unlike hate-filled atheists like Richard Dawkins whose principal contribution to the world is to detest people with whom they disagree, Hitchens may have had a problem with G-d but he had no such problem with His children. He was one of the world’s most strident and eloquent defenders of human freedom, going so far as to break with the left-wing intelligentsia in strongly supporting the invasion of Iraq to protest Saddam’s brutalization of his people. Indeed it is immensely ironic – or if you’re more inclined to faith, providential – that he died on the very day that the United States announced the end to the nine-year war in Iraq, a conflict that he brought his unparalleled eloquence to defend because of his hatred of tyranny in all forms.
Hitchens continued that trend by using his mighty pen to inveigh against any political regime whom he perceived to trample on the innocent. As an essayist he had no equal and as a debater – and I have seen more than my fair share – he had few who could better him. One only entered into the verbal boxing ring with him with the keen knowledge that it would be a fight to the death.
But for all his fame he was evinced an accessibility that made him unique. Write him an email and, after a day or two, he would invariably write back, not just a line but many paragraphs. And there was always some unique turn of phrase that brought a smile.
Not that it was always like that. After publishing G-d is Not Great, I detected a hardening in him against people of faith that I found out-of-character and, in February, 2008, we held a take-no-prisoners debate at the 92nd St. Y over the existence of G-d that has now been viewed by nearly three quarters of a million people. He had written in his anti-religious screed that Jewish courts in Israel had ruled that a Jew may not save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath. I publicly pledged to buy 100 copies of his book for 100 Rabbis if he could cite even a single such instance and he quoted a source that later turned out to be a famous fraud perpetrated by academic Israel Shahak. I was incensed and wrote Hitchens that he had always prided himself on the truth and had to correct the false information he had disseminated. He wrote back that he would amend the assertion in the book’s next printing, and our relationship cooled.
But while the announcement of his esophageal cancer did not soften him on G-d, it did soften him on people of faith, surprised as he was at the huge outpouring of support and prayer from people of every religion. We agreed to stage a public discussion on the afterlife which took place before 1000 people at the Cooper Union in September, 2010, the night before Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day. The debate saw an entirely new exchange between me and Christopher, one where we did not seek to eviscerate each other’s arguments so much as soberly and respectfully discuss one of life’s most profound mysteries. When the debate was over I sent him a case of kosher wine for the Jewish holidays and told him its purpose was to have him and his friends toast, “L’Chaim,” the ancient Jewish call for a long life. He wrote back that he was grateful for the gesture and had already finished the case.
I have no doubt that Christopher Hitchens will have an afterlife. As one of the most original and provocative writers of his generation, his words will continue to mesmerize, incite, confound, and entertain. As an atheist who challenged America’s deeply held religious convictions, he will continue to serve as a thorn in the side of those who believe that religion requires no rational defense. And for those of us who were privileged to know him, he will be remembered as a warm and engaging presence who, ever the iconoclast, was never afraid to swim alone against strong social currents.
No doubt you are now finally resting in peace Christopher given that, wherever you are, you finally have the answer to that great question of G-d’s existence you always debated.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ is the best-selling author of 26 books, including Moses of Oxford and the forthcoming Church of Evolution, which is a response to the recent spate of atheist books against religion. Follow him on his website www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
December 13, 2011 | 4:38 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Can a man who cheats on his wife be trusted with public business?
In the recent Iowa Republican debate, Governor Rick Perry of Texas attacked Newt Gingrich’s admitted infidelities. “If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn’t you cheat on your business partner?” Perry’s inability to recall the government agencies he would to eliminate has already shown that he is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. But his latest statement betrays not bad memory but bad judgment.
An important fact I have learned from the numerous couples I have counseled, as well as from the events and lives of historical figures, is that private betrayal does not necessarily imply public dishonesty. First, the impulses for each are very different. For the most part a man cheats on his wife not because he wishes to be deceptive or even to obtain sex. Rather, he cheats out of a sense of brokenness and out of desperation to feel desirable. If sex was what he was truly craving, he would have it with his wife. Rather, men with deep-seated insecurities feel the need to be desirable to the opposite sex. In fact, of the estimated 50% of married men who cheat on their spouses, 48% of men surveyed in this demographic claimed that emotional dissatisfaction was the main driving force behind their affairs, as my colleague Gary Neuman shows in his book, The Truth about Cheating: Why Men Stray and What You Can Do to Prevent It. Many of these men sadly find it easier to open up about their feelings and concerns to their mistresses than their wives because they are cheating primarily out of a sense of failure and pain. The mistress makes them feel successful and soothes their agony. So why can’t their wives do the same? As I explain in my book The Broken American Male, the man who sees himself as a loser will view the woman dumb enough to marry him as a loser squared. It is specifically the stranger who has made no commitment to him— the woman who has not allied herself with failure—that can assuage his macerated ego. Hence, men who are often otherwise honest in every other area of life still have affairs. Cheating on your wife is a terrible sin and a horrible violation of a marriage. But it does not mean that the person cheating will be a crook in the rest of his life or a failed public servant, as indeed some of our greatest Presidents have demonstrated.
Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave he owned who may have had no choice in the matter. Though he had already lost his wife for a number of years before this relationship began, his actions in this regard are still deeply troubling. Yet, he remains the author or our independence and one of the principal founders of our nation. Franklin Roosevelt saved the world from Hitler. But he could not save his marriage after his infidelity with Lucy Mercer, which left his wife Eleanor romantically cold to him till the day he died. John Kennedy is remembered as one of modern history’s most inspiring leaders. Yet the ego gratification he required from women is legend, and the same was true of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s compassion for America’s poor which led him to promote the Great Society and to expand school lunch programs did not prevent the pain he caused his wife with his repeated infidelities.
The fact that so many males in office are guilty of cheating should not surprise us. Personal struggles with self esteem that drive numerous politicians to seek validation from the electorate are many times the same force that drives their need to feel desirable to women. Yet this does detract from the immense good that they are able to do with their lives. It was Aristotle who said, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.”
Conversely, the irony of the secure and content man is that, since he feels comfortable in his own skin and is satisfied with his place in the world, he often achieves less professionally because he has less to prove. He does, however, sleep much better at night, and happily with the woman he married, even though he may have fewer accomplishments than his colleagues who are consumed with feelings of inadequacy.
For those like Governor Perry who believe that men who cheat on their wives are not to be trusted in the public sector, I remind them of men like Richard Nixon. He appears to have never strayed from his marriage vows to his wife Pat, whom he loved deeply, though that had little bearing on whether or not he always told the truth to the American public. Likewise, I would be shocked if a man as disciplined as President Obama has ever been unfaithful to his wife, whom he genuinely loves and respect. But with the moribund state of the economy, the high jobless rate, and his inability to effect any meaningful change in Iran’s race to become a nuclear power, his effectiveness as a family man has not translated into effectiveness as a President.
I personally never much cared for the press coverage of what transpired between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and found the whole episode tawdry and possessing little redeeming public value. Yes, it is sad that with his actions Bill Clinton caused great pain to his wife as well as substantial disruption to the nation. But Clinton’s great disappointment as a President was his failure to kill Osama bin Laden when he was presented with several opportunities to do so and, of even greater significance, his inaction in the face of the genocide in Rwanda. The fact that an American president in an age of mass communication did not even have a single meeting with his senior staff to stop the quickest slaughter of innocents in world history – 330 dying every hour and 800,000 dying in three months—is a far greater stain on his presidency than anything left on a dress.
Newt Gingrich made terrible mistakes in his marriage and has acknowledged his need to repent. But none of that has compromised his phenomenal moral clarity on issues like identifying Hamas and Fatah as being nearly identical in their mutual support for terror acts against Israeli civilians or their unbridled hostility to Israel. I cannot say the same of President Obama whose private moral commitment to his family is sterling, but whose foreign policy allows Assad of Syria to continue to slaughter his people and who pressures Israel to make concessions to terror organizations sworn to its destruction.
And it is here that my evangelical brothers and sisters like Rick Perry can learn something from Judaism. While Christians emphasize the perfection of Christ, and utilize the question “What would Jesus do?” in order to judge people by this infallible standard, the Hebrew Bible has not a single perfect man or woman. All make mistakes and all are imperfect, especially in the realm of family. Abraham has a broken relationship with Ishmael. Jacob fractured his children’s filial love by favoring one son, and David had the incident with Bathsheba. But each is remembered as a great personality of the Bible and human history because, amid their private failings, they wrestled with their nature to be better and contributed mightily to establishing G-d as a living presence among the earth’s inhabitants. The moral: even imperfect people can contribute mightily to the perfection of the world.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley) and will shortly publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley