I cannot think of any festival that highlights the differences among Jews as much as Chanucah. For some it is the triumph of the religion over its enemies. To others it is the plucky victory of a small band of fighting men who stood up to an empire. And it can also be seen as yet another example of how often in Jewish history, what starts off as idealism descends into self- interest and corruption.
EH Carr, the English historian, said that before you study history, first you must study the historian. We all observe events and objects through our own prisms, and so it is with Chanucah.
With the eight days of Chanucah and the Copenhagen climate conference both concluding within a day, the Jewish media may soon be full of uplifting parallels between those Maccabean preservers of oil, and our own conservation needs. It is a nice analogy: switch the Maccabees’ fuel resource, olive oil, with our own oil, gas and coal, and the miracle of the Chanucah lights becomes the ideal narrative of the Copenhagen delegates — minimal amounts of carbon-emitting fuels, maximal progress and globalised development.
A rabbi goes to heaven and is invited to sit at a banquet attended by Moses himself. He makes a discreet enquiry and discovers that the food is under Divine supervision. The rabbi whispers in a waiter’s ear, “I’ll take the fish!”
Offence: The Jewish Case
By Brian Klug Seagull Books, £12
If they agree with nothing else in Brian Klug’s essay, many will ruefully nod in recognition when he says: “It sometimes seems that an entire people… are perpetually broiges”.
The urbane Oxford University philosopher certainly knows about broiges since he was at the centre of one nearly three years ago as a co-founder of Independent Jewish Voices, which was set up to challenge the default solidarity with Israel adopted by mainstream Jewish organisations.
‘Two are holding a garment,” begins the Talmud in tractate Baba Metzia. Each claims they found it. “One says, kulo sheli — all of it belongs to me. The other says, kulo sheli — all of it belongs to me.”
The first chapter of Baba Metzia presents a well-known scenario. Two people claim an object. The nature of the dispute is such that the original ownership cannot be established. Both claims are emotional, exclusive and absolute.
As the Jewish delegates strolled to the opening of last week’s interfaith conference on the environment at Windsor Castle, one in particular would have caught your eye: a man with a white beard, black hat and a multi-coloured tallit. Its wearer is one of the true innovators in contemporary Judaism, the neo-Chasidic rebbe who gave birth to the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, over here on a rare visit here from the United States.
For much of our history, it was perilous for observant Jews to engage in politics. Successful statesmen risked jealousy from within the Jewish community and almost anyone who accepted the patronage of a gentile knew that at some stage, they would be forced to compromise their religious beliefs or endanger their lives by upsetting their political masters.
When I was 18, some 20 years ago, I worked for a summer doing Camp America in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. But this was a camp with a difference: it was run by an Orthodox Jewish organisation which catered for children with physical disabilities and learning difficulties (or “mental retardation” as it was referred to at the time).
The problem with Jewish prayer books is that they are full of the statutory prayers, such as the Amidah and Alenu. To be fair, that is their job. But most Jews come to synagogue with other matters weighing on their minds, whether business, family or health issues. It is to fill this vacuum that a book of specially-written prayers has been produced by the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK to cover specific everyday situations from miscarriage to bankruptcy, insomnia to retirement, suicide attempt to drug addiction. They offer words to say when you don’t know what to say, or pray.
The scene that plays itself out on Simchat Torah each year in synagogues across the country is invariably the same. A small hard core of dedicated men with Torah scrolls in their arms do their best to circumvent the bimah against a riotous backdrop of noise and out-of-control kids fuelled by too much candy and fizzy drinks. Off to the side stand the rest of the adults, mostly parents and the occasional indulgent grandparent. Some are mildly amused. Most are bored stiff and cannot wait for the whole thing to be over.