Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Miketz-Hanukkah (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see below, at the archives for January 2006. For teachings on Hanukkah, see at December 2005.

“To Hearken to the Words of the Sages”

Lighting the Hanukkah candles is a Rabbinic ordinance—as is, for that matter, the recitation of the Hallel, the joyful group of psalms recited on various festival days, including Hanukkah. And yet, we introduce their performance by reciting a blessing in which we thank God “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to….” Yet if these mitzvot are not stated in the Torah, where and how did He command them? This question is asked by the Talmud at Shabbat 23a—interestingly, as almost a postscript to a lengthy discussion of the various practical, technical details involved in the lighting: when, where, how, with what kinds of oil and wicks, etc. The answer, for which two different proof-texts are given, is that He has commanded us to “hearken to the words of the hakhamim”—the Rabbinic Sages—so that any mitzvah they institute is seen as also coming from God, albeit indirectly. Hanukkah is thus the first Rabbinic holiday—and, appropriately enough, one whose story relates to Jewish religious and “Rabbinic” loyalty. One might add that the principle of Rabbinic law is the central formative principle of Judaism as such; indeed, in concrete terms it shaped Judaism far more than the Written Torah. Without the Oral Torah, it would have remained no more than a frozen, rigid set of laws.

But there is a certain duality inherent in the nature of Rabbinic law. On the one hand, the wide latitude given the rabbis to interpret, institute, and even innovate new regulations, expands the Torah, making the halakhic process into a kind of marriage between timeless writ and human creativity, responding to changing events and social climates. On the other hand, it creates a human authority structure, which may rankle some (or many) people, particularly in ages of rapid and radical change, when the human representatives of Torah may seem lacking in sensitivity to the zeitgeist and the demands it makes on the ordinary Jew living in a secularized world.

In attempting to connect this idea to the parashah (and we know well that Hasidic darshanim always try to find a link between Hanukkah and Yosef): the concept of Rabbinic authority may be read as a specific application of the broader human concept of leadership: that every community has leaders, who enjoy a certain charisma and sense of being recognized by their peers, who are instrumental in shaping the collective life of the community. In this whole sequence of parshiyot, we find the concept of leadership in various ways. In large measure, the story of “Joseph and “his brothers” is really the story of Joseph and Judah. Yehudah, as is befitting a leader, had great personal charisma, whether for good or for ill: we find him leading the brothers against Yosef, and suggesting that he be sold to the Ishmaelite traders who were passing by. He was doubtless the one who first suggested they go down to Egypt to buy grain during the famine, and he seems to have served as spokesman for the brothers as a group, throughout their encounters with the strange “Egyptian” prince. During the course of these chapters, we observe Yehudah moving from impetuousness to responsibility; in the final confrontation with Joseph at 44:18 ff. (Vayigash), he displays deep concern for his old father and his vulnerability. Joseph, on the other hand, enjoyed a position of leadership through his cleverness and talent—and a certain kind of charm and almost feminine attractiveness. These were also the source if his brothers; murderous hatred and jealousy—but in the end he won them over to “his side.” I like to see him as a certain kind of Diaspora Jew—akin to Don Isaac Abravanel, Disraeli, Henry Kissinger, et al.

Many people today associate submission to any kind of authority as somehow “fascist,” while nationalism, the sense of belonging to a specific group with a specific language and history, is tantamount to “tribalism.” Our culture today seems dominated by an extreme, almost atomistic, individualism—a subject to which I hope to devote much fuller discussion on another occasion. It seems ironic, and more than a little strange, that the word “Left” (in the political context) has changed its meaning 180 degrees in half a century (as has the word “red,” in a totally different way). From advocates of socialism, of protection of the “little guy” through collective means, the Left today have become the champions of individual rights as the sine qua non of “politically-correct thinking” (itself a tyrannical idea for so-called liberals to champion). Classically, Judaism sees the individual as finding his place within a community, in a joyful, positive way—and the rules, traditions, and ordinances as a natural part of a supportive kehillah.


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