Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz

Henrik ter Brugghen, “Jacob Reproaches Laban” (c. 1625)
(A birthday cake for someone with a Pharaoh-sized ego! The hieroglyphic inscription reads, “happy birthday to me”.
Source: “The-evil-plankton” artisan crafts.)


“In the third day, Pharaoh’s birthday, Pharaoh made a feast for all his servants.”
Genesis 40:20

We make a big deal out of birthdays. Cake, parties, presents, people singing to you—what a blast!

Growing up, I NEVER suspected that in celebrating my birthday, I was imitating a Gentile custom.

But celebrating birthdays is not endowed with Jewish resonance. Being Jews, most of our songs are in the minor key, so to speak. We remember the yahrzeit dates, when people died, with religious ceremony, but birthdays? The only thing close is the bar mitzvah anniversary, but that need not fall on the birthday at all.

The non-Jewish origin of celebrating birthdays is evident in the Bible. Throughout the Scriptures, the only description of a birthday is that of Pharaoh--- most definitely, a Gentile.

Now, where is this going? Relax: I am not going to channel Savanarola, ignite the bonfire of the vanities, and call for an end to the goyish imitation of having birthday parties. Rather, I ask you to think about how we, as Jews, borrow from the non-Jewish majority culture, and still remain Jews.

It is almost Chanukkah. We are quite familiar with a particular (but superficial) reading of the holiday. It was the victory of the staunch traditionalists over the assimilationist Hellenizers. Now we can eat latkes (never mind that there were no potatoes back then in the part of the world where Jews lived…)

Like other superficial accounts, it is partially true. The Hellenizers were pushing the envelope too far. The Seleucid kings, as a group, wanted to promote their culture, and Antiochus IV crossed the line and seized our Temple, thereby triggering the revolt. But it does not follow that the Maccabees were the Hasidim of 2,000 years ago, holding the line against assimilation. In fact, our ancient sources do tell us of another group, the “Hasidim” (“pietists”), apart from the Maccabbees. Those Hasidim were not our familiar modern ones, to be sure…. No beaver-fur shtreimels in sub-tropical Israel for them! But they, and not the Maccabbees, were the staunch traditionalists.

The Maccabees were in fact moderate Hellenizers. Their most enduring religious accomplishment is something unheard of in the Bible. They created a holiday to commemorate their military victory. That is what victorious Greek leaders did. Joshua never created a holiday to celebrate his victories in Canaan. Moses did not create a holiday to celebrate the victories in the Golan. For the Bible, only God can establish a holiday. The Maccabees clearly had a different set of lenses.

We might say that the Maccabbees wore spiritual bifocals. They used both their Hebraic lenses and their Hellenistic lenses to see the world.

That’s who we are, as well. There is plenty of western culture that is part of our lives--- homes, dress, lifestyle, language, fondness for democracy, willingness to be a minority within a tolerant, pluralistic society. We borrow freely from that, because it is—or can be made to be—consistent with our inherited Jewish values.

It’s when the borrowing goes over the line that we cease to be Jewish.

What’s that line? It needs to be examined and negotiated afresh in every generation. But there is such a line. It needs to be defended.

That does not require self-segregation or ghetto mentality. It does require engagement with the world from a balanced basis: on the one hand, pride in one’s own culture, and on the other, willingness to learn good things from every one.

Shabbat shalom! And Happy Chanukkah!

Rabbi Michael Panitz