Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Parashat Mikeitz & Channukah 2013

Parashat Mikeitz & Channukah
Rabbi Pete Tobias

29 November 2013

Oil and Dreams and Sacred Cows

I don’t know if Judaism has sacred cows. It has fat, healthy ones and thin, sick ones (seven of each to be precise, making their appearance in this week’s Torah portion) but unlike the Hindu religion, we don’t consider them to be sacred.· As a metaphor, of course, a sacred cow is something that we don’t dare to challenge, that we should not be able to criticise.

In my time as a Liberal rabbi, I’ve challenged quite a few sacred cows, and have often, in turn, been criticised for doing so. One of my earliest assaults on established Jewish wisdom was one of the apparent sources of that wisdom: the great King Solomon. History tells us that he inherited from his father David a kingdom that stretched from Egypt to the Euphrates (that’s also rather improbable, but never mind). After Solomon died, all that remained for his son Rehoboam was the tribal area of Judah and Benjamin, mostly as a consequence of Solomon’s inept and divisive policies towards the majority of his subjects. Despite this Jewish tradition continues to venerate him as a source of wisdom…

The divine authorship of the Torah is another sacred cow that I have spent much of my rabbinate challenging. I don’t want to repeat that here; there is plenty of evidence of this in various publications elsewhere. The festival of Chanukkah, which begins this week, provides another sacred cow to which I can turn my attention.

We live, thankfully, in an age of tolerance, in which schoolchildren are taught about the religious beliefs of others, and different festivals are noted in the public domain (indeed I shall be on BBC Radio Two on Thursday talking about Chanukkah.) Ask any primary school child what Chanukkah is about and they’ll dutifully tell you it’s about a day’s worth of oil miraculously lasting for eight days. If they had really been paying attention in their RE lesson, they would add that this miracle occurred at the end of a battle between the Greeks or Syrians and a group of Jewish freedom fighters called the Maccabees which, despite inferior numbers and weapons, was won by the latter. Then they might tell you that Jews celebrate this occasion by lighting candles in a menorah, eating fried foods like doughnuts and latkes, and improbably playing games with spinning tops.

The miracle of the eight-day oil is another of those sacred cows that is no more real than the creatures that appear in Pharaoh’s dream. The reason Chanukkah is celebrated for eight days is well documented. Having recaptured the city of Jerusalem and cleaned up the Temple after the Greeks or Syrians had desecrated it, the Maccabes decided to hold a festival of rededication. The most recent festival in the calendar was Sukkot – an eight-day festival. The Maccabees therefore decided to hold a belated Sukkot celebration. The details are recorded in the Second Book of Maccabees, chapter 10 (also quoted in Siddur Lev Chadash on page 396), a contemporary account. The story of the oil comes from the Talmud, written some six hundred years later, no doubt by a Babylonian rabbi seeking to address his colleagues’ concerns at the absence of any divine presence in an ancient tale of military victory.

Of course the idea of one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight is a great story. Why, as a rabbi, am I so determined to disprove it and consign it to the same place occupied by a figure with a white beard and a red suit who also makes an appearance at this time of year? (I’ve also got myself into trouble for saying things like that as well!)

The answer lies in my concern about the way in which religion is marginalising itself in an age that seems more occupied with secular values and material possessions. There is nothing wrong with either of those things in and of themselves, but I believe that such an approach to the world needs to be balanced by an awareness of greater values and a deeper sense of our purpose and responsibilities as human beings to ourselves, one another and our world. That is the role of religion. In an age that generally demands empirical proof in order for an idea to be taken seriously, religion does itself no favours by clinging to stories and beliefs that are clearly untrue, no matter how precious they may be.

That is why I think it is important to challenge these sacred cows. Religion is too important an aspect of human awareness and development to allow itself to be dismissed as outdated and unrealistic. Adhering to beliefs that are demonstrably untrue and perpetuating them in the name of ‘tradition’ is certain only to alienate current and future generations of potential adherents to our and any faith. We should not be afraid of challenging the sacred cows in our religion and our world, for only by making such challenges can we continue to develop our understanding and our awareness of our world and our role within it, and to shape a vision for the future. That is the purpose of religion: to encourage us to dream. And our dreams should not be about cows, fat, thin or sacred; they should be of a world living in harmony with itself and its Creator and inspire us to play our part in bringing that about.·

Happy Chanukkah and sweet dreams.