This essay was originally written and delivered on Friday, December 16th, 2022, as a pre-Hanukkah homily for the Shabbat service for the Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness.
I once heard a rabbi say that “a pomegranate has 613 seeds, the exact number of commandments in the Torah … So, if you ever wanted proof of God, just think about that!” I'm the type of person who actually would think about it. In fact, I actually counted the seeds in multiple pomegranates. Spoiler alert. It's not 613. In fact, I did some research. All I could find was a single obscure study that collected different pomegranate species in various amounts in order to artificially attain an average seed count of 613. So no, as far as I can tell, there are not 613 seeds in a pomegranate like some Torah video game Easter Egg.
I identify as a humanist and a cultural Jew, so I approach my religious heritage with speculation. I was always expected to accept what I was told by the rabbis and my elders about what “we Jews believe” or how “we Jews practice” and made to feel guilty if I didn’t “do” Judaism as expected. The fact is, I could talk extensively about my perspectives on numerous aspects of Judaism I actually investigated, where my conclusions did not align with the party line. What I have found most confounding, however, is that so many others don't seem to feel the need to investigate things that are, in my mind, obviously dubious.
I'm not saying this to either disparage religion or those who just take the rabbi at their word. I'm saying it because, given my respect for many of these religious leaders and followers, I was confused and led to consider what I might be missing.
The fact is, many Jews who keep kosher, for instance, don't do it because it makes dietary sense, as the heaping plates of fried foods we are all eating during this time of year demonstrate. Most religious Jews do it because they believe it's commanded by God and many other Jews do it because, for one thing, it connects them to their cultural heritage. To a humanist like me, that latter reason isn't unreasonable.
I realize now that for many, the connection to community that rituals facilitate, outweighs the need to anatomize and analyze everything from multiple angles, as is my tendency. I can see how something time-consuming, unnecessary, and frankly pretty damn messy like … well … counting the seeds in pomegranates, might be less desirable, as my pomegranate stained skin clearly demonstrated.
Being invited to sermonize about Hanukkah has given me another great opportunity to think more about the ways I make meaning vs. the meaning-making of others and if, or how, the two might overlap.
So … Hanukkah. You probably guessed that I did some research. I'm sure many of you are aware that the Maccabees likely weren't as deserving of all the reverence heaped upon them or that the story of the miracle of the oil is a fabrication.
The most important thing I came to realize in my investigation, however, was this; the fact that there are embellished and fictitious stories is irrelevant. It doesn’t taint the celebration for many as it did for me. Although many aren’t aware of the true history of the Hesmonian dynasty, most Jews I know believe there really was a miracle of the oil about as much as most Christians believe that Santa is real. Fidelity to fact and history is neutralized by an overriding fidelity to meaning-making and connection to one's cultural heritage. In fact, telling authentic stories would likely besmirch the cultural heritage, as it did for a long time for me. Some of it fairly and much of it unfairly.
This epiphany actually came to me when I read the parashot for the week of Hanukkah. Although Hanukkah is not a holiday prescribed by the Torah, the parashot read during Hanukkah includes all of parasha Naso, chapter seven of Bamidbar and, on the 8th day it dips into the first four verses of chapter eight, parasha Beha'alotcha. I won't get into all the plot lines but there is quite a bit about how to prepare the tabernacle, the portable worship space the Jews took through the desert. It gives detailed instructions about what is to be brought as offerings and sacrifices, which tribes had which duties for worship, and in those first four verses of Beha'alotcha it also says this:
1 וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
יהוה spoke to Moses, saying:
2 דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃
Speak to Aaron and say to him, "When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand."
3 וַיַּ֤עַשׂ כֵּן֙ אַהֲרֹ֔ן אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה הֶעֱלָ֖ה נֵרֹתֶ֑יהָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃
Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as יהוה had commanded Moses.—
4 וְזֶ֨ה מַעֲשֵׂ֤ה הַמְּנֹרָה֙ מִקְשָׁ֣ה זָהָ֔ב עַד־יְרֵכָ֥הּ עַד־פִּרְחָ֖הּ מִקְשָׁ֣ה הִ֑וא כַּמַּרְאֶ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֶרְאָ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֔ה כֵּ֥ן עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הַמְּנֹרָֽה׃
Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that יהוה had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made.
In reading this passage and all the rest about the preparations for the tabernacle, I thought of something I hadn't before. This is describing ritual, elaborate ritual that was certainly very meaningful during the time it was written and undertaken. What if Hanukkah, I thought, doesn't have to come from the historical heretofore? What if Hanukkah, thought the Grinch – I mean, the humanist – is actually just about ritual from lore?" In fact, the Torah passage above likely influenced the Hanukkah menorah lighting ritual, with an eventual addition of an eighth light being the perfect plot device for a story about a miracle.
I was struck by the obvious. The raison d'etre of Hanukkah or any other celebration is actually just that: not to chronicle history but to ritualize life.
Humans have always had the remarkable ability to convey complex, abstract concepts and wondrous imaginary allegory, through ritual. This ability predates language as a means to transmit cultural knowledge. Experiments have demonstrated that collective ritual increases generosity, among other things, that facilitate connection and communal functioning necessary for the survival of our species.
Maybe more importantly, rituals enable a shift into a "sacred" space where people can transcend, at least temporarily, the profane struggle of daily life. The feeling of control that ritual creates is powerful so, in situations that involve risk, fear, sadness, or are otherwise difficult, ritual helps with endurance and serves as a spiritual salve. Humans have always utilized ritual for meaning-making given the many and great challenges life presents.
And, ritual is crafted and performed through the lens of the proclivities, prejudices, and purposes of a certain society in a certain era, as well as vis-a-vis the morality and ethics of the people who live in and through it, in order to make meaning. It’s true that what the Torah and apocrypha scribes wrote was only tenuously connected to a knowable retelling of actual history or the commemoration of true-to-life heroic individuals. However, the ritualization of the tabernacle preparation as described in the Torah or the victory in war written in the Books of Maccabees or Judith for instance, was almost certainly about creating allegory that was needed to heal the spirits of the people of that time.
Since it was likely very meaningful to them, it saddens me that many don't feel the freedom to evolve ritual in conversation with modernity. It's also sad that, for a long time, as an atheist, I didn't feel I needed ritual at all. The truth is, for the last few years as a humanist celebrant and now as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I ritualize life in numerous and various ceremonies, and I often selectively retell and take liberties with stories.
Do you sing the National Anthem before a ball game? That's a ritual. Do you have a morning routine without which your day just doesn't go right? Ritual is everywhere and in almost all we do. If I were to dissect all rituals in the manner I do religious rituals, I’d unquestionably arrive at things that are troubling, and aspects of the ritual that could be done differently.
Does this epiphany mean I'm going to start saying prayers that venerate God as I light the menorah? No. Does it mean I'm going to stop dispelling untruths told to me about Judaism or other religions? No. Much of Jewish ritual is not directly meaningful for me, and some things about religious ritual are actually harmful. It's one thing to tell the story of oil burning eight days, knowing it's not true, in a way that facilitates positive meaning-making. It's another thing to glorify violence and war or justify the dismantling of the rights of others, even as you fight against the same for yourself, for instance, especially based on religious myth.
However, can I combine what is meaningful for me as a cultural Jew with that which connects me to my ancestors, and other things that speak to my own humanistic philosophy and morality, in order to craft ritual that is meaningful? Yes. If another Jew says I can't – that holidays must be celebrated a certain way – I'd remind them that Hanukkah is celebrated today significantly altered from the original. In fact, observant Jews of days past decided that, in order to redirect the meaning of the holiday away from the veneration of violence and war and satisfy their needs, desires, and worldview, they took Flavius Josephus' "festival of light" leitmotif, which had to do with commemorating the rededication of the Temple, and invented the story of the miracle of the oil burning eight days in order to redirect the meaning of the holiday toward a veneration of "God, the source of all miracles." I contend that all ritual celebrations are human-designed and evolve over time.
Why celebrate Hanukkah all? Why not create a new humanist ritual from scratch? I am inspired by the valuable nugget I mentioned earlier about connecting to my cultural heritage and a community of people with whom I feel I belong. Especially with antisemitism and Islamaphobia both on the rise, a connection to one’s cultural heritage is important.
If I believe I descend from people who were conscientious, thoughtful, and deserving of respect, the least I can do is consider how and why they did ritual the way they did. The least I can do is seek meaning in what they have passed down to me. I don't honor them, however, by doing tradition for tradition's sake. I honor them by doing what I believe they did, which was to start with tradition as inspiration, build upon it, change it, expand it, and make it even more meaningful and then pass it on to future generations who will do the same.
For example, many celebrate Hanukkah today by highlighting the struggle of the underdog against the overlord and connect it to the struggle of the marginalized in today’s Western Society against the often violent theft of resources and opportunities by the privileged elite. Another example is The Society for Humanistic Judaism who does a great job of reimagining the Hanukkah celebration with their meaningful interpretation of the eight lights of the menorah as reason, self-esteem, courage, freedom, love, loyalty, generosity, and hope. How will you prepare your sacred tabernacle by connecting your cultural heritage to what is meaningful to you today?
Joshua Lewis Berg is a native Detroiter. He was raised Jewish and now identifies as a culturally Jewish, humanist, Unitarian Universalist. He is a certified humanist celebrant and an ordained Unitarian Universalist Minister, currently working as a Chaplain Resident at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the Detroit Jewish News as The Wandering Jew, the Los Angeles Times online, Humanist Magazine, and other publications.