Rosh Chodesh Kislev
By Rabbi David Jaffe
Jews, whiteness, and addressing ashkenormativitiy (the exclusion of Mizrahi, Sephardic and other Jewish lineages) in our Jewish spaces is a topic many in the North American Jewish community are seeking to understand in this age of racial justice reckoning. The basic thesis is that when Jews from Europe came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century they were considered a distinct racial group by the dominant culture, and slowly assimilated into whiteness by the second half of last century, along with the Irish, Italians and other European ethnic groups. While the racial identification of Jews in the 19th century by Christian European intellectuals was often fueled by anti-Jewish sentiment, it did prevent a certain kind of assimilation into the dominant culture.
Rosh Chodesh Kislev is a perfect time to consider the impact of this assimilation because Hannukah is, in a large part, a holiday about assimilation. Hellenism offered many gifts to its adherents, but with the assimilation of Judaism to Greek norms of beauty, physicality and philosophy there were significant losses. When these losses to Jewish culture became too much, people rebelled.
The rebellion was not just about distinctiveness for distinctiveness sake. The Netivot Shalom (Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzofsky, d. 2000) notes that Judaism’s mission was to see the light of the Creator in all of creation. Seeing this light in all things testified to the essential oneness and unity of creation. The midrash (Genesis Rabbah) emphasizes that the goal of Antiochus’ oppressive edicts preventing Shabbat observance, Rosh Chodesh celebration and circumcision, was to “darken the eyes” of the Jews. Rabbi Barzofsky explains that this “darkening” was meant to weaken the Jews’ ability to see the light of the Creator in all things. Once they couldn’t see this light, they would drop any opposition to the norms of the empire. The rabbis of the Talmud emphasize the miracle of light as the key to Hannukah (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21b) because it was this ability to see the hidden light in all things that was essential to the Jewish testimony to God’s oneness in opposition to any empire’s claim to divinity.
The current reckoning with assimilation into whiteness echoes these earlier struggles. One challenge of whiteness is it coopts its members into whatever empire is ruling at the time to put faith in that system and become comfortable submitting to that system. This comfort with empire contradicts our mission as Jews to see the light of the one Creator in everything and know that that Creator is the only true entity that can be relied on and worshiped. The Jewish way is essentially anti-empire. Hanukkah is a special time in the year to take a clear look at what it means to be a Jew and to weigh the cost of European-descent Ashkenazi Jewry’s assimilation into whiteness in the U.S. over the past 70 years on all Jews. There are compelling reasons for this assimilation, including the promise of physical safety after millennium of vulnerability and destruction. But, when we become too comfortable with empire, and stop knowing that our mission is to see and connect the sparks of light that testify to a Creator who humbles any empire, we risk losing ourselves. Hannukah is the holiday for remembering who we are as a multi-ethnic, multi-racial idol smashing people, and it comes just in time.
Blessings for an awaking festival of lights,