St. Marks's Chanukah Sermon 2019
Over the last few weeks we've gotten a dose of with what has been called the oldest hatred.
The graffiti at SYValley High incident, has not only enraged and emboldened us, it has also caused us to strengthen ties to the community leaders who share our alarm. Also over the last few weeks, we've studied Chanukah, in all its spellings. The story of Chanukah is based in nationally sanctioned torment and hate toward Jews by the ancient Greeks, the perverse joy in torture and the outlawing our practices. Hatred flowed in those days against Jews, and the best way of intimidation was to defile the sanctuary by slaughtering pigs in the Holy of Holies. High grossout factor. even for us now. Gross and Just plain wrong.
We've been reviled for millenia because we brought the idea of monotheism to the west and have resisted assimilation in its service. Funny then, when Chanukah is Christmas-cised into some major gift giving 'do' and we have competitions for decorative outdoor house lighting and over the top everything. So what. They're fun, and everyone likes a present and candlelight in the darkness of a wet and cold winter and fried anything.
But the essential message of Chanukah is: maintaining individuality while living as a minority. So if anyone's still wondering, we are now obviously confirmed as non-white in the Santa Ynez Valley as targets of hate and anti-semitism. People still habitually think of Jews as Other, easy targets and vulnerable. We're not. As long as there haven't been actual acts beyond visual violence and easy intimidation techniques, or just plain stupidity, we aren't sounding any alarm bells. But it's time for wide education. It's time for a broad coalition of like minded peaceloving folk to come together and drop some wisdom of modern values of learning and inclusion in the Valley. White nationalism is just another manifestation of the divisive era in which we are living.
But we can't confuse stupidity with antagonism. Sometimes people spraypaint hateful things on lockers because they're drunk, bored, uninformed or undereducated or just plan mean. Though skeptical of that perspective, it's a starting point to engage and keep calm. We had a moving and for some a painful unpacking circle of community support last Friday night. Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspectives. I'm really glad to be joining in on the Chanukah fun on the 28th.
Thank you to Rev Day. Thank you to those of you who have been supportive in the Jewish community in any way these last few months.
Thank you for having us in your sacred space, your social hall and on your labyrinth.
In a faraway place, long long ago about 150 years before this common era of reckoning there lived a small group of people called the Jews. They lived in a place called Judea on the shores of eastern Mediterranean where their capital was established by King David in the year 1,000 before this common era in a mountainous region called Jerusalem. Their religious tradition taught that that land, the promised land, was promised to Abraham the first Jew many years before.
Jerusalem was a valuable station in ancient Judea and had been a contested land for many years already. As civilizations blossomed and retreated, such as the Canaanites and the Philistines, the larger though extinct civilizations such as the Persians and Greeks came into power. The Hellenizing influence of the Greeks was both appealing and repellant to the Jews living in Jerusalem at around 150BCE. Some Jews would wear Greek costumes, attend the gymnasium, find constellations in the night sky and take on the ways of ancient Greece.
But not all the Hebrews or Jews were happy with that. Other Jews thought that the Greek culture of indulgences and physicality were against the more reserved, and more Torah-driven ways of the ancient, pre-Rabbinic Judaism. Jews at the time practiced plant, animal incense sacrifices, with fires and lamps to light their ways.
The Greeks would prefer that the Jews not argue their point of view or adopt the Greek ways, thereby diluting the pantheon and decided to overthrow, to attack, and try to wipe out the Jewish ways and the small number of Jews themselves, living in Jerusalem, not that far from Athens.
What better way to attack a people than to desecrate their holy Temple. In Jerusalem the Temple that King Solomon built was destroyed by the Persians once already in 586BCE and rebuilt on the very same site, the very place where Abraham was thought to ascend to the Binding of Isaac, where it was thought that Muhammed ascended to Heaven, where rabbinic interpretation ‘midrash,’ that is tells us that God began the very creation of land, the earth and the very cosmos. If you think about it, desecration and destruction of holy places has been a time-honored tradition of land conquering and religious persecution. A few thousand years later, think of the Spanish building their great cathedrals on the holy sites in Mexico, to name just one.
The Jews were persecuted, because they wouldn’t erect statues of Zeus or Athena or other gods in the Temple, they wouldn’t eat the meat of swine or other forbidden foods, perhaps worst of all, they wouldn’t acknowledge the divine nature of the Greek rulers because they believed in just one indefinable, indescribable, unpicture-able, abstract God.
And so the larger, far more numerous and powerful people, decided that the best way to teach the Jews a lesson would be to do those very things the Jews held out against. The Temple was trashed. Lampstands were turned over, the altars for the plant and animal sacrifices had pigs blood dashed on them and the pure sacrificial oils were perhaps lost forever. Chanukah was never about wiping out the Jews, it was about intimidating the Jews.
The Hebrew word Chanukah means, dedication. And when reactions to the vandalism in the temple in Jerusalem had calmed down, one small jug of oil was found with the appropriate impression of the wax seal to light the lampstands. Cleanup it was thought supposed to take a week, and the small jug was meant to last for just a day. The oil lasted for eight full days and nights and so, the Rabbis of the Talmud initiated the festival of Rededication Chanukah, as a time of joyous celebration. Amen.
But not so fast.
I’m with you today, the Seventh Day of Chanukah—-tonight is the last light making a fully illuminated lampstand—-not only to share with you the story of the festival, but to offer thanksgiving to your community and to the Rev Day and all community leaders for all that’s been done in addressing anti-Jewish vandalism in our midst at the StY Valley High School.
There are so many ways to go about acknowledging a painful hurt. Symbols matter. Symbols tell shorthand stories of history, to a belief, to place, to struggle and to peace. Think of the olive branch, the cross, the star of David, the chanukah Menorah or the peace symbol. They all mean something. One teacher of mine, Rabbi Neil Comess Daniels from Los Angeles once said to me: nothing is merely symbolic. Symbols hold in their very shapes and materials deeper stories and deeper truths.
But what we saw at the high school a few of weeks ago is disturbing on so many levels. The uptick of anti-Jewish hate in the US over the last several years is undeniable. The proliferation of internet bullying and hate-cultivation is still shocking to those of us who love peace and cooperation.
But I’m struck by the similarity of the chanukah story to the St Ynez Valley incident. And I’ll draw our parallel with a Jewish teaching or two.
The ancient rabbis of the talmud teach that In Judaism we have two inclinations. The yetzer haRa and the yetzer ha tov. The inclination to do good and to do evil. We all have them and we all try to cultivate or control them. The Rabbis taught that it was Adam and Eve’s inclination to do the wrong thing by taking the fruit from the serpent in the Garden of Eden. They just had to learn the difference between temptation and restraint. We all have the yetzer ha Ra, and by means of self understanding and study, we curtail the drive to do the wrong thing as we mature, and learn the difference between right and wrong. The yetzer ha tov, the inclination to do the right thing also needs cultivating, and these two human instincts are in active conflict within us at all times.
It is just that at particular times of our lives, or more broadly in the life of a nation these inclinations are made freer from constraints. Today we live in a freer, less regulated United States in many ways to engage with the evil inclination. We have seen the rise of institutionalized, and national hatred against Jews for thousands of years, and today we see the rise of nationalism and white nationalism in particular enjoying a period permissiveness in the US and unfortunately globally. Just think of the towns Poway, Pittsburg, and just last night in Monsey NY.
As people who embrace religious life, we recognize our all our inclinations: the need to restrain unkindness and the challenge really, to cultivate kindness. We never really have to tell small children to stop sharing their toys so much. We learn kindness just as we learn to curb ignorance and unkindness which too often leads to violence or worse mass killings or domestic terror. Hatecrime violence reached a 16-year high in 2018, the F.B.I. reported.
So, hatred has always been with us. Conflict has always been part of the human condition. And, for others who embrace a different religious life may be taught that all who don't worship on that same path are doomed to eternal failure if all don't adopt their one path. No religious tradition is dangerous, unless it teaches that difference is dangerous or that difference is bound for failure.
One more insight on this note. One mustn’t ascribe malevolence to ignorance. I’ve learned this teaching only recently. There’s no mistaking a swastika for a heart with an arrow. Those of us who are acquainted with western symbolism know the difference. There is no mistaking a skull and crossbones for a peace sign. But it is not always a foregone conclusion that drunk punks who think they’re being cool will understand what profound repercussions on a community their vandalism have. A more harmonious community has got to be grounded in educating those who simply don’t know when they’re using harmful symbols. Those who use hate speak because of a malignant permissiveness nowadays—-against gay people, trans people, brown or black people, new immigrants or Jews —-must be carefully taught that everyone suffers from ignorance. If there remained any question a the close of this decade, that Jews were never really white people it should be obvious, today.
Last one: as we struggle to figure out the best way between to address hate vandalism in the Valley, my last teaching comes from my spiritual director Sylvia Boorstein. When I sat with her the other day, she told me that we all have ways of churning up outrage, indignation, and moral superiority in our minds. It does us no good but we do it anyway as a habit of mind. It is better to be involved in a productive campaign, she teaches, much better to be pro-active in respooling, rewinding the hatred that has been unleashed in the last several years in the US with education than to just sit in agitation. I do that too much.
So however those of us in the interfaith community of the Santa Ynez Valley decide on the best way to address the ages old hate that exists not just here, not just in ancient Jerusalem, not just in the biggest cities of the US but right here in Los Olivos, Solvang and Santa Ynez, let us do it by amplifying blessing, cultivating kindness and being mindful of who is kind.
The ultimate message of the Chanukah story is: the smaller oppressed people rising up to claim their individualism and not tolerate their sacred places desecrated, whitewashed as some would have it. It is about the weaker, the fewer and the underrepresented rising to claim that we won’t, we just won’t hate no matter how we are tormented or hated or shamed.
So let’s put the ancient Chanukah story and Sylvia Boorstein’s teaching together: we won’t pollute our minds with our indignation by becoming like those who try and intimidate or harm. When our community places are desecrated with hateful vandalism
In the words of Judy Chicago
May the day soon come when all that has divided us will merge And then compassion will be wedded to power then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle and both women and men will be strong And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied And the greed of some will give way to the needs of Many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance And all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young And then all will cherish life's creatures And then everywhere will be called Eden once again
We will Cultivate Kindness, we will Amplify Blessing and we will be mindful of Who is Kind.
Happy Chanukah and to a Happier and Kinder 2020
Oren J Postrel, Rabbi
Santa Ynez Valley Jewish Community