What Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?

My parents are Reform Jews, nonpracticing for most of my life, who are rediscovering their heritage through some Chabad Lubavitcher friends in our town. My husband, raised in the Reform tradition, is now a Buddhist, and I was baptized into the Episcopal Church in June 2001 after many years of feeling that Christianity was like a thrilling ex-boyfriend I could neither live with nor forget about. Needless to say, this makes the Christmabuddhakwanzukkah season somewhat complicated, though not as bad as you might think. It’s one of God’s little jokes on me that the doctrinal relativism I routinely complain about in my liberal church is what keeps us from coming to blows over the Christmas turkey.

This past Friday we celebrated the first night of Chanukah with some Orthodox friends and their five wonderful children, aged 8 months to 7 years, with whom I played a game involving a war between miniature Barbie dolls and a Playmobil pirate driving a giant wrecking truck. (I was the U.N. negotiator, the kickboxing pizza delivery girl and the one-legged princess.)

The one disturbing note was a picture book that I tried reading to the kids (I say “tried” because they got distracted after about three minutes) about the story of Chanukah. I always thought of Chanukah as a holiday about faith in God and freedom of religion. God miraculously gave the Jews enough oil to purify their temple, after the Maccabee warriors defeated the Syrian king who had banned their religious observances and made them worship the Greek gods.

This little book really played up the culture clash between Jews and Greeks. The Greeks start out being persuasive, even seductive: why don’t you folks take off those long robes, compete in our sports events, and enjoy the nice statues? The Jews respond that they’re too pure for that sort of thing. They only care for inner beauty.  The Torah is all they need. One of the illustrations even shows a Jewish mother blushing and covering her child’s eyes so she won’t see the Greek statue. At that point the king blows his stack and tells them he’s going to ban Shabbat and force them to worship a pig. The rest is history.

This kind of thing makes me glad I forgot to put the little menorahs on the Christmas tree this year. Perhaps the best way for me to respect my ancestors’ traditions is to recognize that they’re no longer mine, rather than combining them with my current beliefs in a syncretistic stew. For me, religion is not like ethnic food day at kindergarten. It’s about finding the best possible description of how the universe works, and I don’t mean whether the world was created in six days. I mean issues like the balance between the individual and the community; what do I do about my own sinfulness and that of others; how do I cope with the impermanence of the material world; are evil and impurity localized in some group, trait or condition that we can improve or eliminate, or are they a universal phenomenon that binds us together in a radically equal brotherhood of sinners?

It’s this last point that sums up the difference between Judaism and Christianity for me, and is one reason I was so upset by this dumb little book. Asceticism and self-righteous withdrawal are certainly not unknown among Christian sects, but that path seems to me to go against the audacious intermingling of pure and impure known as the Incarnation. Whereas in hardcore Judaism, separatism is central.

Yes, earthly beauty can be a snare. Yes, some statues should wear pants. But a worldview based on fear of temptation can be a bigger, badder idol than a golden calf the size of Madison Square Garden. It means you’re obsessed with your own righteousness when you should be thinking about God and trying to see God in your neighbor, even if she’s a Satanist in a miniskirt.

Nathaniel Hawthorne got it right, I believe, in the story “Earth’s Holocaust,” a dark fable that shows preachers, social reformers and well-meaning citizens consigning one after another field of human endeavor, from pipe-smoking to Bibles, to a vast bonfire, in hopes of purifying the world for all time. As their hysterical enthusiasm mounts, a laughing bystander (whose aspect has become increasingly demonic) observes:


“Be not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There is one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all; yes- though they had burnt the earth itself to a cinder.”

“And what may that be?” eagerly demanded the last murderer.

“What but the human heart itself!” said the dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin. “And unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery- the same old shapes, or worse ones- which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by, this live-long night, and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. Oh, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!”

This brief conversation supplied me with a theme for lengthened thought. How sad a truth- if true it were- that Man’s age-long endeavor for perfection had served only to render him the mockery of the Evil Principle, from the fatal circumstance of an error at the very root of the matter! The heart- the heart- there was the little yet boundless sphere, wherein existed the original wrong, of which the crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify that inward sphere; and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms, and vanish of their own accord. But if we go no deeper than the Intellect, and strive, with merely that feeble instrument, to discern and rectify what is wrong, our whole accomplishment will be a dream; so unsubstantial, that it matters little whether the bonfire, which I have so faithfully described, were what we choose to call a real event, and a flame that would scorch the finger- or only a phosphoric radiance, and a parable of my own brain!

Religious suspicion of the arts (again, not unique to Judaism) is a subject for a whole ‘nother post, but let me briefly say that another way the kids’ book got my goat was its insistence that God can only work through certain approved forms of expression – specifically, verbal and intellectual versus sensory, visual and emotional perceptions of divine beauty.

I could say more, but I have to go bake peanut butter cookies for the winter solstice party at the sangha.

10 comments on “What Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?

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