The Search for Acceptance

Sermon by Cantor Eyal Bitton
December 5, 2015 at Beth Jacob Synagogue
PARASHAT VAYESHEV


Hanukkah Humour

Cartoonist Mark Parisi has a comic panel called Off the Mark which can be found in countless newspapers, greeting cards, and occasionally makes the rounds on social media. He has quite a few superb Hanukkah-related ones. One is entitled The Miracle of Hanukkah: Updated. In the panel, a father is talking to his daughters as his wife looks on. He explains the miracle of the holiday by holding up his cell phone and saying:

The cell phone only had enough battery power for one day but it lasted eight days.

In another Hanukkah-themed panel of his, we’re in a car dealership. The car salesman is showing a brand new car to a potential client. The car is called The Hanukkah Hybrid. Praising the car’s features, he says:

The oil lasts eight times longer than it should.

In both these comics, Mark Parisi addresses the idea of how we relate to Hanukkah in the modern world. The holiday is contextualized in a contemporary and secular setting. This reflects the extent to which we Jews, today, are a part of the society around us. Balancing the larger society around us while maintaining our Judaism has long been an issue.

The Theme of Acceptance in Hanukkah

This Festival of Lights commemorates the Maccabean victory over Hellenic forces. Antiochus didn’t just conquer the people of Judea. When he seized Jerusalem, he made sure to take over the Temple as well. The Seleucids sought to bring Hellenic culture, philosophy, and religion to the Jewish people. The Maccabees understood that this would signify the end of the Jewish people. If the Jews were to assimilate completely into the Greek world, Judaism would die. It would be merely a matter of time. So they fought back and they regained the Temple. Judaism was saved from destruction.

It’s a struggle that Jews have connected to for two thousand years. How do you preserve your Jewish identity when surrounded by, or immersed in, a more dominant culture? What is needed is acceptance. If the dominant culture, the dominant religion, accepts us as Jews, then there is no imminent or direct threat. If Jewish people are accepted, if our religious differences are accepted, then we can live within a larger society without fearing for our very existence – as individuals, as a people, or as a religion. Acceptance. It may not be the answer to the entire dilemma but it is needed if we are to survive.

Acceptance of Jews in North America

Jews in North America fled societies that did not tolerate them. Most Jews in the States arrived because of the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1880s. Another wave of immigration came to North America after the Holocaust. Jews found refuge in North America. They found acceptance. No, it was not absolute. Nevertheless, it was more than they had had before.

As the years, the decades, and the centuries have gone by, North American Jews have continued to seek complete acceptance by the larger society. I would venture to say that most, if not all, of us believe we have reached that point today.

Jews are accepted in society at every level. Look at the hanukkiah itself. How many cities across this continent have a giant one on display during this holiday? You can find that in most major cities in North America. We are accepted.

In this society, here in North America, we are accepted to the point that we are thriving. Our communities are thriving. You find Jewish sports team owners, in entertainment, as lawyers, doctors, ministers in Canadian government, Congressmen and Senators in the American government, and on and on. On a more mundane level, you can walk into almost any major store in a major American city in November and December and, in addition to Christmas related products, you can find Hanukkah-related products. Many of them are tacky but they’re there.

We have arrived. We are accepted.

We are so accepted in North America that the new fear is how Jews can hold on to their religious identity instead of sliding easily into an embracing society. Is it true, though, that we are this accepted?

In recent days, months, and in recent years, I’ve heard a lot about Islamophobia and about people being concerned that anti-Muslim sentiment is growing. That is entirely possible and it must be condemned. Curious, I looked up the most recent government statistics.

Statscan in 2013 reported that over half of all religious hate crimes in Canada were directed against… Jews. All the religious hate crimes combined didn’t equal the number against Jews. In terms of percentages, 56% of hate crimes in Canada in 2013 were against Jews. Against Muslims? 20%.

In the US, the FBI report from 2014 shows that over half of all religious hate crimes in the States are against, once again, Jews. The statistic is higher than in Canada.  Religion-based hate crimes against Jews represent 58.2% of the total. Muslims? 16.3%.

Do you feel accepted now?

I have to say that, while the statistics cannot be ignored, the total number should be considered. All religion-based hate crimes reported in Canada totaled 326 and, in the US, they totaled 1,092. While you would agree with me that one hate crime, even one, against any individual or group, is one too many, the total numbers in Canada and the States are not cause for alarm. Still, the fact that we Jews represent over half of all religious-based hate crimes in North America is troubling and, for some, calls for a reality check.

Acceptance in This Week’s Parashah and Haftarah

In today’s parashah, we see that Joseph is hated by his brothers. Surely, he must have known that he was hated. Surely, he must have wanted to be accepted by them. But the brothers’ hatred for Joseph grows to the point that they throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. Can you imagine how he felt? Instead of acceptance by his own brothers, he experienced complete and utter rejection.

We also hear of Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar. She’s a widow and is entitled to a child from her late husband’s family. Onan, her late husband’s brother, rejects her. Judah tells her to wait until his son, Shelah, grows up. He then instructs her to wait for this moment not in his household but in her own father’s house. He basically kicks her out. And when Shelah grows up, Judah doesn’t follow through. Rejected.

Then what of Potiphar’s wife? She wants Joseph. He doesn’t accept her advances because she is married. She wants to be accepted by Joseph. Instead, she is jilted. I think we’re all glad about that but, nevertheless, she sought to be accepted but wasn’t.

And then what happens to Joseph? He is jailed. Another rejection.

Additionally, in today’s haftarah, it is God who seeks acceptance – acceptance by Israel. Like Joseph, Tamar, and Potiphar, God doesn’t find the acceptance that God seeks but instead finds rejection.

Today

These days, it is difficult not to feel threatened. It is difficult not to feel under siege. We see the only Jewish state in the world, Israel, being subjected to demonization, vilification, and delegitimation. We see it happening in the Arab world, in the Muslim world, at the UN, by the EU, by academics, by NGOs, and by so many individuals around the world. We see Palestinian terrorists in Israel seeking to stab Jews. We see Islamic terrorists in Europe including Jewish targets in their vile schemes. We see the statistics in North America about how we are, by a significant ratio, the principal target of religious hate crimes.

Still, we, in Canada and the US, are a long, long way from 1939. We are a long, long way from the 1880s. Even with the unacceptable statistics regarding religious hate crimes, we find ourselves in lands where we are fundamentally accepted. While there are individuals who wish us harm, the institutions of government and society in general accept us in every way. Not only do we feel accepted, we feel that these countries are our countries. We are not merely guests in a host country as we once were.

Yes, we must still do everything we can to quell any religious intolerance – towards us and towards others. Yes, we must still do everything we can to insure the safety of the one Jewish state, Israel. But we must do so with the knowledge that we live in a place and a time when the light of the menorah is not extinguished, much less darkened, by outside forces. To the contrary. We live in a place and a time when that light is permitted to shine and to be seen by one and all, Jew and non-Jew.

Each Hanukkah candle that we light is a symbol of our identity as a people and as a religion. Each Hanukkah candle that is seen through our windows and in public is a reminder to us and to everyone that we, as a people and as a religion, are accepted in a way that history has never seen before. As each day of the holiday passes, a new candle is added, and the light increases. As each day of the holiday passes, as each candle is lit,  as each Jew lights a menorah, the light increases even more. As each year passes, as each Hanukkah is observed, year after year, generation after generation, the light will continue to burn well into the future. And if that light continues to burn well into the future, then there is no doubt that the future will be bright.