“Put on your yarmulke;
It’s time to celebrate Hanukkah…”
Adam Sandler, “The Hanukkah Song”
“Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of Jewish backwardness.”
“Religion provides the solace for the turmoil that it creates”
“Those who love God are not always the friends of their fellow-men.”
I have always held a grudging respect (not the same as admiration) for true believers, fundamentalists, and others who cling tenaciously to their psychotic dreams. At least their convictions are pure, internally consistent, and adamantly maintained in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Their childish need for order, predictability, and the protection of imaginary friends supersedes reason, proof, and evidence and gives them comfort – even though it defies the very fabric of their existence, since all the modern conveniences they so blithely enjoy are the fruits of science, not prayer.
On the other hand, I have nothing but scorn for the wishy-washy sort-of believers who create their own religious observance patterns – just enough to get by and give them some comfort and sense of belonging, but not enough to create any major disruption in their lives.
The contrast is most obvious to me in Judaism, but that‘s probably because I know it best. Other religions have their own variations, no doubt (e.g., the “moderate Muslims” who observe festivals and holidays but ignore the Koran’s many commands to kill infidels).
BTW, the tepidness of wishy-washy Jews (hereafter WWJs) does not keep them from turning into racist fanatics when one of their kids contemplates intermarriage. In our family, Mother’s hostility to my first wife caused a decade of alienation but paved the way for my brother to have a tranquil marriage to a nice, wishy-washy New England Congregationalist – no conflict there: they have a Christmas tree and a Seder.
Less concerned with religion
Mother now professes to be not so concerned with religion anymore (but no apology for her execrable behavior toward me), so I won’t remind her that according to the widespread Jewish-womb definition of Jewishness, no child that sprang from my brother’s wife’s womb is Jewish – and that means all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It’s an uncomfortable truth which would only create cognitive dissonance in her well-ordered mind.
Getting ticket punched
Anyway. Despite the 600-odd commandments and the Torah’s death penalty for failing to observe ANY of them, WWJs get their ticket punched by (i) giving their children lavish bar/bat mitzvahs (after which the kid generally has nothing more to do with Judaism except to repeat his/her parents’ practices), (ii) going to synagogue for three days during the High Holidays (concentrated repentance presumably compensating for ignoring Judaism’s hundreds of rules and regs the rest of the year), (iii) holding a Passover Seder, and, right about now, (iv) doing superficial Hanukkah-related stuff like eating potato pancakes (which have nothing to do with the original Hanukkah, of course) and lighting the menorah (an eight-light candelabrum).
Also included are little net bags of chocolates wrapped in gold foil to simulate coins; real money as a gift; and actual gifts so that Jewish kids don’t feel slighted when their Christian playmates are visited by Santa. There’s also a game with a spinning top called a dreidel. South Park’s Cartman brilliantly skewers this bit of Hanukkah trivia, so I’ll say no more.
Wow! As Adam Sandler says, instead of one day of Christmas, we have “eight CRAZY nights.”
Somebody’s in control
I got yet another unwelcome look at the half-fantasy world of the WWJ in another eye-rolling conversation with my mother, whose theology is summed up in two sentences (actual quotes): “I feel better knowing somebody is looking out for me” and “Somebody has to be in control” (a variation of the intelligent-design doctrine).
And isn’t that what religion is really about – a sense that all is not chaos and that whoever organized the chaos is also looking out for YOU? (I once pointed out that God didn’t seem to be looking out for Dad, who died at the relatively young age of 69, leaving her a widow for 30+ years, but this is a major philosophical abyss, and we seldom go near its brink.)
In this conversation, Mom told me that her great-grandson Simon (about 6), son of my observant niece and husband, asked what Hanukkah was about, so she bought him a book. I didn’t bother to ask what was in it, because I knew, so I tried (in vain, of course, nothing gets past Mom’s fog of fantasy, but still, I couldn’t let it pass) to give her the basics:
(1) The rededication of the Temple was nothing to celebrate for anyone who believes in science and humanism, since all they did was re-establish the old-time shepherd religion, whereas the Greeks over whom the Jews secured this minor victory represented progress, sophistication, and rational thinking. I pointed out that I considered the Jews to be the hillbillies of the ancient world, defending their primitive faith against one sophisticated civilization after another: the Assyrians, the Phoenecians/Canaanites, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Romans (the 1st century Roman satirist Juvenal wrote a poem ridiculing them and their holy scroll). (OK, OK, I know that Greek culture went hand-in-hand with Greek imperialism, but the same is true of American culture/imperialism today. It’s beside the point.)
And let me head off the annoying rabbinical argument that Judaism was the more moral of the two. This is proved by selective quoting of the Torah portions that are little more than Morality 101 (don’t make your daughter a harlot). I read the Torah. There is a commendable concern for the needy, but this is hardly unique and is offset by the Torah’s many barbarous passages (death penalty for disrespecting your parents).
In Jewish lore, the Jews prevailed, with God’s help, against numerous, often more civilized peoples (exception: Nazis) who would destroy them, and much is made of the fact that Jews survived these many attempts at extermination.
(2) Hanukkah was grafted onto an ancient, already-existing midwinter Feast of Lights (in Hebrew, Nayrot) and moved to the time of the winter solstice (had to explain this word to her), just as Christmas was moved to the time of the Roman Saturnalia.
People like to light lights in winter. In India, there’s a celebration called Diwali – gifts, parties, lights, and, in some areas, paeans to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, to whom I would pray if I thought it would do any good.
(3) There was no miracle, in which a one-day supply of the holy oil for the Temple lamps supposedly lasted eight days, showing, obviously, that God was behind the restoration.
None of this made an impression. It’s a nice story but not the truth, I said. Her reply: she prefers “nice” to “truth.” At this point I gave up -- again. Nice is comforting, but the truth makes us free – free to think and act independently of imaginary entities and miraculous stories. That freedom is too much for some people. But nice stories, if preferred to truth, can lead to Crusades, Inquisitions, and all kinds of human misery for those who refuse to believe.
I assured Mom that her illusions would remain intact. My heart aches for Simon, because they’re turning him into another WWJ hypocrite, and just at the age when his little mind is reaching out to grasp the complex and confusing reality of the world. Simon’s mind needs the truth. But Mom’s 95, has not had a new thought for half a century, and, in Jack Nicholson’s immortal words, could not handle the truth.