JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2002 / 23 Kislev, 5763

Chanukah and the dynamics of dispute

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | As members of a society where every manner of speech is guaranteed, where every religious practice is protected, where every form of expression is sacrosanct, it's sad but not surprising that we take our freedoms too much for granted.

We would do well, however, to recall that throughout human history freedom of expression has been the exception rather than the rule. The Inquisition, Soviet-style communism, and the Taliban are just a few examples of movements under which ideological practices not in conformance with the mandates of the State resulted in oppression, or torture, or death.

Such were the conditions 2,167 years ago in Land of Israel. The Selucid Greeks had forced underground every vestige of Jewish practice in their campaign to dismantle Jewish society.

Aided by the Hellenists, those affluent and high ranking Jews whose belief in the synthesis of Jewish and Grecian cultures incited them to betray their own people, the Selucids had all but crushed the spiritual life out of the Jewish majority that still resisted them.

Then arose the Maccabees, who rallied their Jewish brethren and, despite seemingly impossible odds, drove the Selucids out of Jerusalem and eventually out of Israel, achieving Jewish national autonomy for the first time in nearly 300 years.

Amidst our annual celebration of the miracles of Chanukah, an arcane historical footnote often escapes notice. In the days leading up to the Maccabean revolt, the Jewish sages encountered an unexpected bump on the highway of Jewish tradition: the first disagreement since biblical times over a point of practical Jewish law.

As Americans, we take for granted our electoral process and our sacred freedoms of speech and expression. As Jews, we take for granted the way every facet of Jewish practice is debated within and between every segment of the Jewish community. It's almost inconceivable, therefore, that our myriad differences can be traced back to an original First Dispute.

But more consequential than the historical fact is the historical context: the Greeks, in their efforts to overturn the foundations of Judaism, succeeded in disrupting the smooth transmission of Jewish law so that its application became uncertain, that room for doubt crept in, that the integrity of Jewish tradition became compromised.

One might even suggest, perhaps, that the Greeks lost the battle but won the war.

Jewish tradition, however, has always contained an intrinsic flexibility. As the world changes, so does our tradition adapt to meet changing circumstances. And in times as contentious as those of the Maccabees, in a post-prophetic world where the Jewish nation would have to grapple not merely with political enemies but with ideological adversaries, a new, multifaceted style of Jewish expression would enable the Jews to respond to all manner of intellectual and philosophical attacks from every quarter and in every generation.

In preparing to meet these ideological challenges, Jewish scholars began to engage in their own variety of intellectual warfare in the study halls. Yes, there would arise differences of opinion and differences in custom and practice. But the very process of Jewish legal debate would strengthen the fabric of Jewish law and observance. And so, by trying to destroy Judaism, the Greeks actually inspired an innovative method of ensuring Jewish survival.

But is every opinion an equally authentic expression of Jewish tradition? In Ethics of Fathers, our sages warn: Any dispute that is not for the sake of heaven in the end will come to nothing. All opinions, it seems, are not equal.

Indeed, why should people disagree? Whether in political policy, in educational theory, or in religious doctrine, honest debate arises when people sincerely believe they have the best understanding of what is best for society as a whole. In such debates, the sometimes passionate, sometimes heated exchange of ideas never devolves into name-calling, mudslinging, or character assassination. Rather, it leads to an appreciation of the opposing point-of-view, produces mutual respect, and allows for accommodation of the other party. Occasionally, it even brings about a change of mind.

On the other hand, ideological combatants are too often driven by ulterior agendas, personal vendettas, misguided ideals, or a defensiveness born of philosophical insecurity. When either side is incapable of hearing the other, such debates are worse than pointless, for they produce only acrimony and fan the flames of senseless hatred.

The threat from Greece forced the Jews to come together against a common enemy. The victory of the Maccabees posed an even greater challenge: to preserve Jewish unity and build a lasting peace guided by Jewish tradition. This is a challenge that calls for exceptional strength and unimpeachable sincerity. And it is a challenge that, as a people, we are still striving to meet.

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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis. To comment, please click here.


© Rabbi Yonason Goldson