Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi
I recently read an article by an Orthodox rabbi which insisted on the necessity of keeping only to Jewish customs and not adapting to the customs of the society we are in. By contrast, Progressive Judaism encourages us to adapt, whilst at the same time observing our religion. These attitudes represent two poles of the response to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, when, after centuries of exclusion, Jews were at last permitted to enter into non-Jewish society as equals.
However, the issue is not new. We see it played out in our Sidra this week, when Joseph attains a high position in Egyptian society, takes an Egyptian name and marries an Egyptian wife. It is also central to the story of Chanukah. Whilst we talk about it as a victory of the Jews over the Greeks, in fact it was as much an internal struggle between Jews who chose to adopt Greek customs and Jews who saw this as a betrayal of Judaism. In some ways, it is a struggle that is still playing out, especially between Haredi (strictly Orthodox) and non-Haredi Jews in Israel.
It is also a tension that many of us feel in our individual lives in the diaspora. How much do we keep Judaism and how much do we adapt? For example, do we take our children out of schools for Jewish festivals? How far do we join in Christmas celebrations? If we reject an absolutist Orthodox approach, each of us has to find a balance in our lives. Our Synagogue, too, has to make decisions, for example about official participation in civic events on Shabbat.
For Progressive Judaism, the benefits of participation in the world around far outweigh the difficulties and tensions. We believe that it is part of our role to be ‘a light to the nations’ by working with others for the good of society. We also believe that we can learn from others and experience the joy of sharing in their celebrations without harming our own Jewish identity.
Joseph, too, adapted but did not assimilate completely into Egypt. Before he died, he asked that his bones be taken to the Land of Israel when his descendants left Egypt. He bequeathed to his sons Ephraim and Menashe their identity as Hebrews (they were not yet called Jews) so that when the Israelites were ready to escape Egyptian slavery, their descendants were amongst those that left for the Promised Land.
As we celebrate Chanukah, let us rejoice in having the freedom both to practice our religion and to enjoy the benefits of wider society, and let us rededicate ourselves to the practice of Judaism, continuing the chain of tradition which the Maccabees fought for two thousand years ago.
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