Defining Hanukkah: Assimilation

Acculturation versus assimilation, a question for Jews then as now.

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The paradigm of the Jewish way implies passing through a wide variety of historical situations and cultures on the road to redemption. No one section is indispensable; the Jewish community can always sit out one particular stretch of the road. But in general, the Jewish way implies the need and willingness to go into and through many cultures--participating, learning, filtering, incorporating, handling. Exposure and integration are the keys to coping, although overexposure can lead to a blank or totally dark record.

The Rabbis deepened Judaism to cope with a dynamic civilization, one with more highly developed cultural models. In that response, Judaism rose to new heights of competence and developed the ability to swim in the sea of Hellenism. The present host culture of Jewry is even more developed, magnetic, and challenging. Jews and Judaism will have to master the field. Properly done, acculturation (modernizing) is an alternative to assimilation. Since no one group can offer all the answers for all the life situations or cope with all the options in society, it becomes very important to form coalitions to cover the field, to correct one another, to give Jewry the strength of variety and numbers.

The further lesson of Hanukkah (as Purim) is not to write off assimilating Jews. In a showdown (as in 1967 and 1973), many more Jews will be with the cause of Jewish survival than appears on the surface. A coalition of traditional, acculturating, and assimilating Jews pulled off the Maccabee miracle. What is needed is a coalition and symbiosis of traditional Jews, modernizing Jews, and those assimilating Jews who can still be reached. The real task is to begin the "guerrilla warfare" that weans people from their excessive absorption in the status quo and liberates them for authentic Jewish existence.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).