At our December 16th service, Rabbi Lizzi delivered a drash on the endless debate over the true meaning of Hanukkah, the Jewish story’s cycle of violence and victimhood, and the coming AI apocalypse. You can hear this sermon on the latest Contact Chai Podcast. If you have been inspired this year by the songs, sermons, and services from Mishkan, then we invite you to consider a donation of any size to help us bring more inspiration in the new year.
I wanted to talk tonight about the way Hanukkah speaks to the uptick in anti-semitic statements and hate crimes our country has seen in the past year.
But I just heard this chatbot that the kids are using to write their college essays and term papers…So I typed into ChatPGT “Write a sermon about Hanukkah and anti-Jewish oppression”. 5 seconds later, it spit this out. And let me just say… I’m going to riff off the back end of it, and I do have some thoughts of my own here… but this was too extraordinary, and I had to share this with you.
It is a Jewish value to share words B’shem omro, in the name of the author so… A Sermon About Hanukkah and Anti-Jewish Oppression, by ChatGPT.
As we gather to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, we are reminded of the story of the Maccabees and their struggle for religious freedom. The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebels who fought against the oppressive rule of the Syrian-Greek Empire, which sought to force the Jewish people to abandon their faith and customs.
The story of Hanukkah is one of resistance and resilience. It is a story of a small group of people who stood up against a powerful oppressor and fought for their right to practice their religion freely. The Maccabees’ victory over the Syrian-Greek Empire was a triumph not just for themselves, but for all Jews who were able to maintain their faith and traditions in the face of persecution.
As we light the Hanukkah candles, we are reminded of the importance of standing up against oppression and fighting for our rights. We are also reminded of the need to support and stand in solidarity with marginalized communities who continue to face persecution and discrimination.
Today, unfortunately, we still see instances of anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred and discrimination targeting religious and ethnic communities around the world. It is our duty as members of a compassionate and just society, not to mention, as Jews, to speak out against these injustices and work to create a more inclusive and equitable world for all.
So as we light the Hanukkah candles and celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, let us also rededicate ourselves to the cause of justice and equality for all people, and let us work to create a world where everyone is able to live with dignity and respect.
May the light of Hanukkah guide us on this journey towards a more just and compassionate world. Amen.
Ridiculous, right? The way Artificial Intelligence works is it draws from the vast amount of information available on the internet to answer whatever question or request you may have. (There has been a lot written about this in recent days, if you’d rather listen, the Daily did a nice piece on this this morning– both the benefits and dangers of this technology). One danger might be that it puts rabbis out of a job.
Because that is the sermon that rabbis around the country are giving this weekend, in some form or fashion, I promise you. The reason this drash is so on point is because the message of this holiday given the Hanukkah story, feels so obvious, so hard to miss. Of course this non-human non-Jewish robot got it right, because THIS is the drash that emanates from Hanukkah, in the world in which we live, with anti-semitism and hate crimes against minorities, on the rise.
But what this sermon didn’t address, is what happens when we win? What happens when we go from marginalized, scrappy minority fighting for our right to exist, let alone to have equality with our non-Jewish neighbors… to people who are part of the ruling class, so to speak? How do we wield our power, influence, voice… here in America, and also in Israel– remembering the persecution of the past, but not ignoring the privileges of the present?
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a modern Orthodox rabbi whom I frequently quote, writes about Hanukkah, In The Jewish Way, and not just the victory of the Maccabes and the rededication of the Temple, and of the rights of Jews to practice Judaism, which, unequivocally a good thing… but what happens after they overthrow the government, and assume power, and need to govern? (Short answer: it doesn’t go well)
There were, of course, different parties among the winners. There were the Hasmoneans (the dynasty of Judah Maccabee and his sons), the Pharisees– the predecessors to the rabbis of the great Jewish literature of the Mishnah and Talmud, the ultra traditionalist religious Pietists, the Chasidim… They didn’t all agree on governing strategy. After they came into power here’s what happened, write This is R’ Greenberg:
“The Hasmoneans, who were the priests (those are the guys lighting the menorah and making sacrifices), insisted on taking over the kingship, as well as the Temple priesthood. The Pharisees in the coalition opposed this unification of political and religious power in one group. With a deep historical wisdom, they realized that… when religion and state are totally identified, compromises turn into corruption, because there is no independent channel of criticism and renewal…. They foresaw that moral and religious contamination was the inevitable result of the union of priesthood and kinship. Religious concerns would inevitably be mixed up with the pure political interests of the ruling group, to the detriment of both religion and government. The Maccabees went ahead and united both powers.”
It wasn’t long before the internal fracturing among the rulers, made them weak and susceptible to defeat, and eventually they were fully defeated by the Romans– in a cataclysmic event that resulted in many hundreds of thousands of Jewish people being slaughtered expelled from their land. (See Tisha b’Av for more on that).
There seems to be another lesson built into the Hanukkah story. In the Jewish story, victimhood is cyclical. The victims become the oppressors, and rule with force, intimidation and corruption to their own detriment and the detriment of the people who they were supposedly fighting for, losing everything, and the cycle repeats itself. The parallels to the incoming government in Israel right now should be quite obvious here.
Another related lesson — Violence is a last resort in our tradition, but the tradition certainly permitted in situations of self-defense. But the tradition is wary when we begin to shift from defense to offense. It was this instinct to control, dominate and remain in power at all costs, that ultimately led to the destruction of Jewish sovereignty.
It seems that all of Jewish history after the destruction of the temple by the Romans in the year 70 became an attempt to correct the mistakes of The Maccabees. Because when the rabbis of the Talmud, the Pharasees, tell the story of Hanukkah, they barely mention the Macabbes, they talk instead about the miracle of the oil lasting eight days in the menorah, a miracle from God. The rabbis went the complete opposite direction, and rather than celebrating militarism, they Ignored it! They celebrated instead the divine grace of lighting up a candle in the night. So beautiful, so peaceful. And they even said… if you feel that putting a menorah in your window might be dangerous, don’t do it– put it on a table inside. We’re not trying to provoke anyone.
And many of us internalized that message too: lay low, keep to ourselves, and not fight back. But let’s be clear: that pacifist posture led many Jews to be slaughtered over the years because Jews were taught not to stand up against the aggressor, that it’s dangerous. That, too, is corrosive on the human spirit, over time.
It seems the balance is probably to be found somewhere in between the extremes of glorifying violent resistance in the name of survival, and glorifying pacifism in the name of survival. So I asked Chad GPT to write me a sermon about Hanukkah and the dangers of power. I will close with this tonight.
As we celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, we remember the story of the Maccabees, who fought against the powerful Greek ruler Antiochus IV and his attempt to force the Jewish people to abandon their faith and adopt Greek customs. The Maccabees were a small group of Jews who, against all odds, were able to defeat the mighty Greek army and reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
But as we reflect on this story, we must also consider the dangers of power and the temptation to use it for our own gain. The Maccabees were fighting for a just cause, to defend their religious freedom and their way of life. But power can corrupt even the most noble of intentions, and we must always be mindful of this danger.
The story of Hanukkah teaches us that we must be careful with the power we wield and use it for good. It reminds us to stand up for what is right, even in the face of overwhelming odds, and to resist the temptation to succumb to the allure of power and control.
As we light the candles of the Hanukkah menorah, let us remember the Maccabees and their struggle against tyranny. Let us also remember the dangers of power and the importance of using it wisely and justly. And let us rededicate ourselves to the values of freedom, justice, and equality that are at the heart of Hanukkah and our faith.
May the light of Hanukkah guide us as we strive to be a force for good in the world and use our power for the greater good. Amen.
Let’s Raise a glass!