do you believe in miracles?

Mai chanukah? So the rabbis of the Talmud begin their discussion of this holiday: “What is Chanukah?” The fact that they start with a question should be a big red flag that this will be an extended discussion, as scholars of the Talmud are apt to give lots of answers even when no question is posed.

It’s a good question, and the rabbis were fairly prescient on this point, as far as 21st century American society goes. Chanukah is the only holiday that the non-Jewish world is consistently knowledgeable of the timing of, even if it’s only because Chanukah is considered as the “Jewish Christmas.” To be fair, though, lots of Jews think of it that way, too. A little more on that below.

eighth night of chanukah; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Chanukah technically commemorates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE after the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids in Syria, who had outlawed Jewish religious observance. (The name of the holiday is derived from the Hebrew verb for “rededicate.”) After the battle, the Maccabees were able to light the menorah in the Temple for eight nights even though they found in the temple only enough consecrated oil for one night. Others have written better than I about the various interpretations of this rather strange holiday, but what I’ve been thinking about this year is the “miracle” of the oil.

In the second prayer after candle lighting each night, we say, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” I hadn’t thought about what that prayer really meant until this year, when the Maccabeats, the Yeshiva University a cappella sensation, released its annual Chanukah video. A cover of Matisyahu, the catchy song asks in its chorus, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Well, no. I don’t. At least not literally. I’m more of subscriber to Heschel’s dictum: “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”

What, then, do I make of the story of the small cruse of oil that lasted beyond what it should have? I don’t have the answer I want . . . yet. I hope that when I’m in rabbinical school I’ll be able to access textual and historical criticism of the sources for the holiday. At the very least, I can say now that the holiday’s proximity to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, perhaps accounts for the emphasis on light.

zechariah 4:6; print from my grandmother

For now, I really like what Michael Strassfeld says in The Jewish Holidays:

[T]he meaning of Hanukkah is that the miracle of that first day was the deep faith that it took to light the menorah, knowing their was not enough oil for eight days [the time that it would have taken to consecrate more oil]. The same faith led the Maccabees to revolt against impossible odds . . . They believed they would prevail “not by strength, nor by power, but through My spirit — says the Lord.” This faith allowed them to light the menorah, and it is this faith that made it burn for eight days.

The “miracle” becomes the commitment of the Maccabean army to principle — and its willingness to fight with only the slimmest hope of success. I can relate to that layer of meaning.

Despite my annoyance at the disproportionate importance given to Chanukah by the non-Jewish world, I do tend to associate Chanukah and Christmas together in my mind. There’s the obvious: Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev, as Christmas begins on the 25th of December. And Christmas commemorates its own miracle, the virgin birth of the son of G-d. (I imagine there are Christians who believe that, too, might not be literal.) More personally, my grandfather died at the end of 2004. His birthday was on Christmas (he would have been 93 this year), and he died on the first day of Chanukah (which that year was December 7, Pearl Harbor Day). I now look forward to the holidays at the end of the year to remember him on both his yahrzeit and his birthday. As the rabbis finally answer, Zot chanukah (this is Chanukah).

the test

I walk to an office building in downtown D.C. early on a weekend morning. I take the elevator to the second floor and enter a room where lots of other people are sitting on chairs, waiting. I show my ID to check in; the man at the desk scrutinizes both me and and the picture on my driver’s license, literally squinting and looking between both several times.

what my cursive looks like

Then he hands me a confidentiality agreement I’m meant to sign — but not before I write, in cursive, the three-sentence statement at the bottom of the page. I haven’t written in script since third grade, so I anticipate that this may be the most challenging part of my day. I began the laborious task of writing with loops and linking letters together; I can’t even get the sentences to fit in the space prescribed, and I am barely halfway through when he asks if I’m ready to move to the next step.

When I finally finish what cannot seem like an adult’s rendering of the statement, I’m directed first to put all of my belongings into a locker and then to proceed to the next room with only my ID and the key to the locker. I sit down in front of another man, who again checks my ID — and then asks me to stand up so he can wand me. He directs me to lift up my shirt so that he can see my waistline, then to pull out all of my pockets — why did I choose to wear cargo pants today? — so that he can verify that they are empty. He warns me not to make any unusual movements once I’m in the next room, and not to take off my sweatshirt. I begin to worry about whether it’s going to be hot in the next room.

He hands me back my ID, points to the line on the paper to sign in, and hands me approved pencil and paper. I enter the next room and am led to my seat by yet another staff member. I leave the room three times and return twice during my four-and-a-half hours inside, and each time I go through the same process of ID check, signing in and out, wanding, and pocket inspection. I’m also reminded that accessing my cell phone during these breaks will lead to my being kicked out of the facility. Finally, while I’m sitting in my cubicle, the innermost room staff periodically walks by to adjust the angle of the camera that is trained on various parts of the room.

And this is how you take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in the U.S. today.

Obviously I am terribly naive, because this shocks me. It beggars my belief that anyone would cheat on an admissions test, even as I question its value as a predictor of success in graduate school. But apparently all of this rigamarole is the logical response to past scam attempts, so I have to concede that it’s necessary.

You may be asking, “What relevance do analyses of your writing, verbal reasoning, and high-school math abilities have to do with rabbinical schools, especially since applications to those institutions are compromised principally of multiple essays?” And the answer clearly is, “Very little if at all.” Two of the schools I’m applying to require the GRE, but one does not; the fellowship I’d like to get only requires it if the school does. I don’t know what accounts for the difference between otherwise fairly similar schools.

I prepared for the exam in the simplest and cheapest way possible: I worked my way through the official GRE book published by the Education Testing Service. I’m guessing that the decision to admit or not admit me to rabbinical school will not hinge on my GRE scores; it seems most likely to me that it’s some kind of idiot check, which is still odd because it’s not like these schools haven’t already met everyone who is applying. I’ve certainly talked at length with the admissions directors of all three schools.

But I am a neurotic student, and I hate taking tests that I can’t fully prepare for. I found myself disagreeing with the “correct” answers of more than one “verbal reasoning” question and was annoyed that I won’t be given the chance to argue my point.

what quantitative reasoning looks like

The math drove me even crazier. I actually like math, and in high school, I was pretty good at it: I got a 5 on the AB Calculus exam. In college, I considered double majoring in math and Classics. So I was frustrated by my complete inability to figure out how to proceed on many “quantitative reasoning” problems. The book takes what in my mind is a puzzling attitude to this. First, I was never able to discern a pattern for the questions — but the book’s explanations were always of the sort, “Of course, it’s clear that you should do x  approach (and obvious from first glance that y approach is not going to work).” And there was no big-picture guidance whatsoever about how to recognize which approach — solving the equation, plugging in numbers, estimating, etc. — would be best. Maybe there are students who just get math — in the way I just get verbal reasoning — for whom this is not a problem. Ultimately, all I was able to do was to tell myself that it simply wasn’t worth the time it would take to get really good at the math section. Math, I’m guessing, is not going to be a large part of my rabbinate.

crying to the walls

Note: I updated this post on 12/21/11 with a photo that better illustrates it.

On Thursday night I went with my friend Noah to see singer-songwriter David Broza at Sixth & I Synagogue. It was an awesome night, not least because, since the concert was sponsored by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Israeli Embassy, it was free! Noah first introduced me to Broza years ago, with the song “Crying to the Walls.”

As with most concerts at Sixth & I, Broza played in the sanctuary, on the bimah. Noah and I were in the balcony, looking down on the “stage.” I followed the lights that were coloring the wall behind Broza to the ark. Two nights ago, I had stood in front of the ark with the members of my adult b’nai mitzvah class while the rabbi explained the significance of its architecture.

david broza at sixth & i; photo courtesy of embassy of israel

And then I had a moment that made sound fade away and time slow down: I realized I was looking at a scene that perfectly expressed the confluence of the past, present, and future of Judaism. Thinking back, it seems so simple; I feel like this should have occurred to me before, at previous events. But of course, I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently.

The ark at Sixth & I holds four sefer Torahs, each of which had been hand-lettered by a scribe’s quill on pieces of animal skin that were stitched together into scrolls — as they have been created for generations. The features of the ark itself — the parokhet (curtain), ner tamid (eternal flame), menorot (candelabras), and ten commandments’ tablet — all have their roots in the first temple.

An Israeli, Broza himself presumably led to the search of attendees before the concert — byzantine security measures that have come to characterize any event in the United States having to do with the modern state of Israel. And he sang that night to a crowd of diaspora American Jews in Hebrew before the Israeli ambassador addressed the crowd.

Sixth & I is an unique space: a synagogue, turned church, almost turned nightclub, turned non-membership, non-traditional, non-denominational synagogue. It’s where young Jews connect to their Judaism in often non-religious ways. (I saw Ani diFranco in the same place six weeks earlier.) Attendance at its events continues to increase even while synagogue membership is down.

The ancient, the contemporary, and the world to come, all swirled together in a mix of rainbow lights and guitar strums and stained glass. I looked at the salmon-colored walls of the building and thought, “Remember this.”

Crying to the Walls

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