Rabbi David Benjamin Fainsilber
2 Tevet 5777 // December 30, 2016
An enormous disco ball dreidle
hung from the ceiling.
The nun, gimmel, hey and shin all glowed each time the dreidle spun around
when the concert lighting cast its glow on the letters.
The music was reggae, or rock, or hip-hop,
any given moment, a medley of worlds
well beyond the 20th century Jewish landscape.
Yet, the words were spiritual, Jewish, some in Hebrew,
words of G-d’s oneness, the shema,
of Psalm 121 that hang above our aron,
of Adon Olam, we want moshiach NOW, Zion and Jerusalem,
of the opening prayer of the Amidah, G-d of Abraham,
all steeped in liturgy and longing.
Jews and non-Jews were dancing together
in harmony with the rhythms of the night.
We were led by a musician, a person
who was once known as a Chabad rock-reggae star,
now donning secular clothes, trading in his peyos for greying dreadlocks,
a medley of cultures, Jewish in its essence.
Matisyahu was showing us Jews in the room what it means
to celebrate the essence of who we are,
while at the same time unabashedly interchanging
with the rock-reggae world of music and life around us;
teaching each of us in the concert hall, Jew and non-Jew,
what it means to embrace an identity,
while exploring its intersection with others;
showing us that we are all made of an intersection of identities,
even as we embrace what is essentially ours.
How our Jewish identity is shaped
in relationship to the non-Jewish world
is not a new question.
But this year the question comes to a head,
as December Christmas coincides with our Kislev Chanukah holiday,
bringing with it all kinds of interesting questions to explore,
of how we as a people relate to the world outside ourselves.
It is fitting, then, that Chanukah is a story
all about how we relate to the outside world,
when King Antiochus of Syria began practicing idolatry in our Temple,
and the original Matisyahu and his sons, the Macabees,
fought to protect Jewish religious rights in the face of persecution.
Our ancient Matisyahu himself said:
“Though all the nations that are under the king’s domain obey him
and abandon the religion of their ancestors,
yet will I and my sons and brethren walk in the Covenant of our ancestors,
G-d forbid that we should forsake the Torah.” (I Maccabees)
Not all Jews thought like him.
Chanukah is a story of many Jews assimilating
to the Hellenistic culture of their time,
welcomed into it, yet also pushed without consent into Hellenism,
a story recurring in Jewish history
where Jews attempt to “fit in” with the dominant culture
in order to escape antisemitism.
And it is also the story of the Maccabees,
who faced persecution by holding onto Jewish values with zeal,
and by fighting back.
It was a time when the outside world had it in for us.
In the year 168 B.C.E., one’s worldview was limited to two options:
Fit in or fight back.
Flashback, yet further,
a couple thousand year’s earlier than the Chanukah story,
the story of our Torah portion,
when another Jewish leader chose another path,
much like the Hellenised Jews,
the path of assimilation into his surrounding culture.
First put into power as the second-in-command to King Pharaoh himself,
Joseph was also given a new Egyptian name by the Pharaoh,
And he was married off to an esteemed Egyptian woman Osnat.
Joseph names their first child Menasheh, מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה
meaning: God has made-me-forget all my hardships,
וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִי, all my father’s house. (Gen. 41:51)
Joseph attempts to fully assimilate into his new surroundings
by forgetting his past.
Who can blame him,
given that he was kicked out of the house by his own brothers.
cast into a pit and then sold and carted off,
excluded from his family of origin.
And yet, he was not able to assimilate entirely into the culture around him:
for we learn in our parashah that
when Joseph and his brothers sat down to have a meal,
the Egyptians would not eat with them,
“for Egyptians will not eat bread with Hebrews—
for that is an abomination for Egyptians.” (Gen. 43:32)
Joseph’s story is a complex case that painfully shows us
how internal struggles within a culture —
like his trauma with his brothers —
and external forces outside of his own culture —
like Egyptian practices that excluded him from full acceptance —
make for complicated relationships and dynamics with the outside world.
Today, we too live in complicated times.
On the one hand, 21st century North America
is not altogether embracing of Jews and Judaism.
There is a great deal of ignorance or misinformation
about our people and our traditions,
as well as an increase in overt antagonism these most recent months,
even in our “safe” North America.
Yet, that is only a part of the story.
Today, we live in a time when, in Burlington, Vermont,
non-Jews dance to the music of longing for moshiach,
disco-ball dreidle spinning above,
a time when we have the option of living
beyond the “fit in or fight back” mentality,
or, the mentality that we must recluse ourselves in order to survive.
Last night I danced on the concert-hall dance floor
with beloved JCOGS members,
and also with non-Jews, like our Morrisville-home plumber,
one of my favourite waitresses at McCarthy’s,
and one my buddies from my gym.
Today, as ever, Judaism will thrive
by Jews working at holding onto the essence of our beautiful traditions,
while also critically opening ourselves
to collaborating and interchanging with the world around us,
trusting that we too can be shaped by the human evolution
of ideas and technologies and even melodies,
while keeping our essence.
Ironically for this holiday
where Ancient Matisyahu fought so hard against Hellenised culture,
Maoz Tzur, the melody we sang earlier in this Musical Shabbat service,
is a prime example of cultural intersection:
It is an old non-Jewish melody
that has been so incorporated into Jewish practice
that most of us don’t even know that it was a non-Jewish melody.
Here at JCOGS, we sing the beautiful gospel song:
This Little Light of Mine during Chanukah,
because it captures the essence of what our holiday is all about,
the light within.
And this year, with Chanukah and Christmas falling on the same day,
we lit Chanukah candles at Saint John’s church,
lovingly embraced and invited into the church.
Because today we live in a world beyond that of our ancestors,
where we can affirm that both lighting Chanukah candles
and Christmas Eve church services
are both equal and both something to be celebrated,
each in their own right, and to be shared among sisters and brothers.
Yet in that intersection, we are faced with challenging questions:
As a Jew in a church on Christmas Eve, do I make communion?
That was simple for me.
No, I chose not to.
What about singing the hymns?
There were a few selections with more universal language
when I felt myself eager to sing along.
But as much as I love the beauty of the hymns,
I felt it better to be present through listening to the words about Jesus,
then to sing them myself.
These are questions I asked of myself and came to my own conclusion.
Each Jew must come to their own conclusions
when coming to interchange with Christianity
or our dominant secular culture.
This is especially true for interfaith families
and the questions arising as to whether or how to celebrate Christmas.
A generation ago, as a rabbi, I might have stood here and said:
“Do not celebrate Christmas!”
pumping my fist on the shtender/lecturn.
Yet, in this 21st century,
it is my belief that only each of us can answer those questions for ourselves,
each of us truly seeking what is personally authentic
as the interchange with others occurs.
And as we explore these questions and as we seek that authenticity,
we must show up —
to be with our sisters and brothers of other faiths,
to share a spiritual and cultural experience,
to represent our people and our faith among others,
to support them as they have supported us,
to build relationships, to challenge ourselves to be open and affirming.
to extend a hand and a hug,
and to see ourselves within an interchange of ideas and cultures
that only brings more diversity and life.
The ultimate survival and how we thrive as a people,
is dependent on how much we put
our reasonable hope in build connections with others
of different faiths and identities.
Yet, also, how we ourselves are open
to the co-mingling of other cultures into our own.
May we all be blessed to walk in the ways of connection,
to live a life interfacing with others,
even as we embrace what is essentially ours.