If Antiochus Was My Rebbe

If Antiochus was my Rebbe (and such a thing is thoroughly impossible) he’d tell me how beautiful Judaism is.

Antiochus looks at his men, at his enemies, at his deities, and sees a sublime order. Each of them is part of a story, which is another way of saying they each want something that they do not have. Once the harmful and contradictory desires and false wants are recognized through self-reflection, they may be swept aside, and ordered wants true to the essence of every being will remain. This is called purpose. This is called vitality. This is called perfection.

Some view the whole story, the victory of the Maccabees and the long-burning oil, as miracles performed by the will of an omnipotent G-d. To Antiochus, all such tales are inelegant to the point of cruelty. In a world where four must be the sum of two and two, what beauty, what joy lies in such arbitrary whims?

If Antiochus was my Rebbe (a nightmare) I might ask him why G-d created the universe. He would gently, with his large hands made for twisting Jewish necks, waggle a knurled and scolding finger. “Only a madman could ask such a question expecting an answer,” he’d say. He is not an atheist. He simply wishes to teach you that G-d has a place in the story.

Antiochus rejects the weakness of transcendence. He has no patience for uncertainty, for the illusion of unlimited personal freedom. Antiochus tells his Chassidim (?!) to embrace their limitations, the obvious ends to which they have been created and set aside from beasts. Antiochus preaches restraint, clarity of thought, the conquering of emotions, and the courage to face the truth of our own limitations.

Why should every question be permitted and every answer sought? Can a bird ask whether to fly? Can a fish question the water? Man is the being who sees how things fit together, who has the unique ability to recognize the patterns of the story and find the soul of a thing. The soul of man is made to discover souls. We are built for self-discovery. And our highest selves and deepest motivations, our loftiest aspirations and our unifying dreams—these are G-d.

This is our Creator, Antiochus would teach: Our deepest truth, highest pleasure, and most basic cause. This is what we can know; it is whom the human mind is meant to find. It is infinitely greater than inhuman specters looming beyond the edge of space or the beginning of time. Such large propositions are redolent with the stink of the unknowable, and the unknowable is tantamount to torture. A man who does not know his set place in the world, who does not recognize his G-d, will face the terror of freedom even in victory. A man who knows his place as inferior and subservient can be happy even with Antiochus’s boot on his throat. So dream not of free-floating deities who may choose any course of action. G-d the Creator is merely the largest, oldest, and greatest actor playing his role in a script. And to a human being, the story is truer than anything.

And what is Judaism, says Antiochus, beyond a beautiful story, perhaps even the most beautiful?

G-d is in His place, man in his. There is a Torah which serves the role of G-d’s wisdom, explaining like an instruction manual where everything goes. Then there are the commandments, which serve to bring out the potential of every body and every soul.

“What potential do the laws of purity and impurity help us actualize, Antiochus?” we might ask.

“Fool!” he would comment. “Do not suppose a human being is simple. We have many hidden needs and subtle accomplishments. Sometimes the thing a human being needs most is a ‘meaningless’ ritual, something unquestionable or unchangeable to tie a community together, to add stabilizing ballast to a life, to distinguish us from our heathen enemies. G-d was wise not to convey the reasons for these commandments. They make the most sense as ‘senseless’ decrees.”

So, he’s obsessed with oil.

It’s not that he happens to capture the temple’s oil supply. Things that just happen are an insult to the beauty of Antiochus’s Judaism. The temple oil is the goal of all his yearnings. It is his lowest place, the location where G-d must be revealed, precisely because it most opposes His Truth. The oil is carefully guarded from an impurity no one can see, use, or understand. Antiochus rescues it from this meaninglessness, from its lonely sacredness. He brings purity and impurity into the realm of understanding and into the fold of beauty. He renders the Temple meaningful and magnificent.

At his farbrengen, Antiochus teaches: Truth is what works, and what works is beautiful, and beauty is truth. Since there are many systems and paths that work, there are many truths. As long as they are all consistent with reason, as long as the stories make sense, there is no reason not to keep them. Do not wonder why this involves statues of Zeus or Dionysus. They are archetypes, metaphors, members of a pantheon that the Hebrew G-d may join. They weave together in their interlocking domains of authority, and in their net are caught the essential rhythms of the story. They are not unique deities, but facets of the story, signposts along the way.

Let the Judaeans join the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Seleucids at the games, and let us learn from one another. What is sacred is not what separates us, but the pursuit of human perfection according to human reason that we share.

The only ugly thing in this whole plan is a Maccabee.

A Maccabee (Antiochus assures us with the confidence of a man who understands his enemy) wars against the very essence of Judaism. He has no respect for who is more powerful, who is greater, which story is more logical. A Maccabee does not consult the meaningful texts or the wise sages on whether he may pointlessly die for an illogical principle. These zealots do not seek their own perfection.

The Maccabees are like children throwing a tantrum, demanding they get their way without even understanding the necessity of what they reject.

The Maccabees, by their own choice, cannot fully define what they believe. They are for G-d as an individual, unique and unknowable, sacred and undefined. They have never heard of a single refined aesthetic principle. They do not sing in tune. They demand a knobbly, uneven Judaism, full of strange, hideous protuberances.

The Maccabees are the sort of people who, even possessing every excuse to use “impure” oil, even when lighting a false iron Menorah, even when they are already consigned to fulfilling the commandments in a compromised fashion, will wait for eight days to kindle the holy flames. They do not care that they are permitted to do less. They are not reasonable men. They cannot be convinced the Menorah is still wonderfully symbolic even with Greek oil.

The Maccabees, in their backward, exclusionary ways, in their condescension toward the stories that unite us all, and in their insistence that the ritual only means something if it means nothing, force Antiochus’s hand. The might of his armies cannot be turned aside; the conclusion is foreshadowed in the first moment of Matisyahu’s rashness.

I must, Antiochus tells his followers, eradicate them from the face of the earth.

It may not be pleasant.

But it is beautiful.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Why We Eat Sufganiyot On Chanukah

The Classic

Everyone knows we eat sufganiyot (Jelly Doughnuts! Пончики! Berliners! Pączki!) on Chanukah because they’re fried in oil, and the miracle of Chanukah took place with the oil.[i] They’re delicious, they annoy healthy eaters, boom – a custom.

This explanation is good, like all simple explanations. And like all simple Torah explanations, there is much swimming beneath that surface layer of puddled grease. But before that, how about this?


Chocolate-Filled (With a Side of Halva)

I once heard this from one of my teachers in Yeshiva, who ostensibly read it in a book of vertlach. It is hard to explain what a book of vertlach is. It’s like frum finger food, a kind of scholarly dim sum. Rather than rigorous (and therefore usually correct) examination of the sources, a good vort instead asks a perennial or unusual question, sketches one or two elegant connections, and sticks the landing, drawing it all together by the end of the page.

Instead of ornate gates of wisdom or vast pillars of reasoning, the vort is a single gem you can put in your pocket. They’re perfect for sharing at the Shabbos table or when you meet your friend in the street. Everyone should know a few. They make people smile, they’re genuine Torah study, and they often exhibit a certain nimble creativity that longer explanations can’t manage.

For example:

Why do we eat sufganiyot on Chanukah? According to Jewish law, all non-fried foods made of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) can be considered bread if prepared in a certain way or eaten in the right amount. Fried foods, however, can be eaten in any amount without becoming bread, since they are not baked.

Now, there are three types of blessing said after eating, depending on the food: The long Grace After Meals (Birchat Hamazon), the medium-length Me’ein Shalosh, and the short Borei Nefashot. The long Grace After Meals is generally said after full meals with bread, whereas the short Borei Nefashot is said after snacks. The middle after-blessing, Me’ein Shalosh, is said after eating food made of the five grains that are not bread.

In addition, of the three after-blessings, only Me’ein Shalosh, mentions the altar in the Temple (“Al Mizbechecha“).

Since Chanukah is, first and foremost, a celebration of the dedication of the altar (Chanukat HaMizbeach), it is fried doughnuts, which can never have the full Grace After Meals as their after-blessing, that allow us to thank Hashem for the miracle every time we eat them. L’chaim.

A vort! Savor and enjoy the Torah sprinkled like the sugar of the supernal Confectioner! Do not wonder why we do not then eat pomegranates on Chanukah, since the seven species of Israel (and wine!) also have Me’ein Shalosh for an after-blessing, and would have us thanking G-d for the altar just as much. Do not ask why we also eat latkes on Chanukah, if their after-blessing is the pedestrian Borei Nefashot that does not mention the altar at all. Neither of these are in the spirit of the holiday. It is much better to respond with the counter-vort I just thought up: that it’s the mention of the altar in Me’ein Shalosh which obviates the need for an addition to that prayer in honor of Chanukah.[ii]

Now, back to the grease.


Deep Fry

If the miracle of Chanukah was oil burning for eight days when it should have burned for one, why do we eat oily foods? We should just eat oil.

You might be thinking that sounds gross. The Talmud would probably agree, since it goes further: A glass of pure olive oil has no blessing at all, since it’s not considered food and is even damaging to one’s health.

That the body does not deal well with pure oil makes perfect sense in light of the story of Chanukah as illuminated by Chassidus.

The short version: Oil is wisdom, the innermost part of everything that can only be revealed by squeezing and crushing, the negation of the self and acceptance of the object of our thought into our reality in order to properly grasp it. Understanding can arise through my analysis of the matter, but wisdom (Chochma) arrives when I disappear and in my head only the thing I’m thinking about remains, perfect and whole, a vision of the other, a flash of insight.

The Seleucids and their leader Antiochus ransacked the Beit Hamikdash and profaned all of our sacred oil, just as the beauty and power of Hellenism arrived in the holy land and declared Jewish wisdom just another wisdom, another culture, something to be subsumed in the all-embracing weltanschauung of Aristotle, the Olympics[iii], and the subtle and complex idolatrous pantheon.

Indeed, whereas Purim as a holiday celebrates the Jewish survival of an actual mass-genocide plot in Persia, Chanukah celebrates the survival of Jewish wisdom – in short, of our Torah – in the face of Greek culture (and the force eventually used to try implementing it). Chanukah is a celebration of Torah qua Torah, of the gall of the Jewish people to say we know something not as a third-person universally-accessible philosophy but as a personal covenant with the Creator of heaven and earth. That is what the Maccabees fought for.

Antiochus and the Hellenists[iv] almost won. Nearly all the oil in the Temple was profaned. The Maccabees, however, had a secret weapon: their deep reserves of self-sacrifice, a part of their Jewish souls that refused to concede to even overwhelming odds, and refused to bow down even when Jewish law may have advised life-saving prudence. Their souls were not, in that instance, bound by Jewish law, the Jewish law rationalized and desacralized by the Greek influence. Their commitment to G-d could not be rationalized, and in this, the Maccabees taught something to the Torah itself. They tapped into a small jug of oil that could not be ruined, sealed by the High Priest, immune to the tampering of Antiochus. And from that one small jug, the oil within the oil, the deepest of all Jewish wisdom, came light for eight days.

That is the oil we wish to eat, to incorporate within ourselves, for these eight days.

And yet, pure oil is not food. It is not for daily consumption; to live on it is truly to exist in a miraculous state, to sustain oneself on one’s soul alone. To eat that oil, we must enclothe it in vessels; once the Maccabees were successful, the Hasmonean kings passed into history, whereas the lessons they taught the Torah live on. The one jug changed the very nature of all future worship.

So why do we eat sufganiyot on Chanukah?

We don’t.

We eat oil on Chanukah.

Doughnuts are just the vessel.


[i] An association going back not to the Israeli Histadrut (Time Magazine – though what a clever way to create jobs for workers!) but much earlier, to the extent it was mentioned by the Rambam’s father, Maimon (born c. 1110).

[ii] Do NOT question (you monster) why Purim also had no addition in Me’ein Shalosh.

[iii] We pay back the sacrifice of the brave Maccabean rebels against Antiochus and the Hellenists by naming our modern Jewish Olympics “Maccabiah.”

[iv] A great name for the Maccabeats’ sarcastic punk nemeses (someone, please).


Originally posted on Hevria.

My Question For The Modern American Jew

These are hard times we live in. The West fights the East, and no one knows who will triumph.

On the one hand, the West. The West brings freedom to the world. The West is the civilization of philosophy and science, of democracy and tolerance. They fight because the world is benighted, enslaved, and backward. They are confident that if the world but knew the way of the West, it would benefit thousands of lives. They fight not to spread their territory but to spread their culture. This is why, when a sports stadium opens in distant lands, it warms the Western heart. Not because sports are important, but because if there’s time for sport there is little time for oppression and backwardness.

Then, there is the East. The East tires of hearing it is backward. The East is a place of unity — some would say, totalitarianism. They have one god, and  there is no room for others. And where the West would see moral weakness, they see fortitude. In the East, they know what they believe; they are who they are. There is nothing to debate. They fight for their G-d, for His kingdom on earth. They want to tear down the stadiums and build worship houses. Where there is an altar to G-d, they are certain, there is civilization.

In the West, there is no doubt that the West will prevail. This is not just because the West believes it is correct, but because they have a far superior army and better technology of war, and are not afraid of a small band of sand-encrusted hoodlums. The only reason they have not crushed the East like an insect is because they prefer to spread democracy and prevent unnecessary deaths.

In the East, for those who fight, there is no doubt the East will win. They may have the smaller army, but they have conviction, and they know they have G-d on their side. And after all, if the Creator fights with you, then of what relevance is technology or the size of your host? Just as the West can be trusted to look at the facts of the situation, the East can be trusted to look for some Truth beyond the situation.

To the West, there is no greater evil than intolerance. “You can serve your G-d in the West,” they insist. “But others can serve theirs.” It is not G-d that they take issue with, but rather theocracy, totalitarian religion, the idea that the deity is an absolute that cannot be crossed, argued with, mocked, disobeyed. In the West, the rights of man are absolute, and if G-d says to violate those rights, it is G-d who must lose.

To the East, tolerance is an affront to the truth. “We allow life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they say. “But the way G-d, creator of the world, intended.” They have no problem with secular pursuits. But they will not deify this world; they will not let men act as G-d and declare what is ultimately right. The master must be served, and if that means the worship of other gods need be outlawed, so be it.

The Western battle cry is, “Liberty and justice for all.”

The Eastern battle cry is, “In the name of G-d.”

Both East and West claim to deplore violence. Both of them will use it to further their ideals. But due to their ideals, they see violence differently.

When the West slaughters pigs on an Eastern altar, when it exercises freedom of speech and mocks the Eastern G-d, they call it peaceful. To the East, it deserves violence in kind.

When the East responds to words with violence, they believe they are legitimately defending their honor. To the West, this is the baldest savagery.

This is the conflict. There may be some third option, some middle path, but it is hard to see. East and West are East and West because there is no easy compromise.

And so, the question:

If the East miraculously wins the war, and returns home tired and bloodied, will they find hiding in the wreckage a small cruze of untainted oil? Will its light burn for eight days? Will they remember, every year, to celebrate?

Will their children and grandchildren honor their legacy forever? Will they find their voice?

If they won’t, the light unto the nations will dim, lost to the Western cacophony. Their people will be an interesting footnote in history, and their grandchildren will remember the name “Maccabi” as a Hellenistic sports tournament.

But if they find their voice, if they own who they are, they will fulfill their destiny.

If they listen to the message of the Chanukah candles, darkness will be banished from the earth.



Originally posted on Hevria.