Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
It will be a subdued Hanukkah this year, no doubt.
People gather around a menorah lit up for Hanukkah, placed at the former site of a police station that was overrun by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, in Sderot, southern Israel, Thursday Dec. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
(RNS) — Hanukkah is complicated. Is it purely Jewish? Or does it express more universal themes? What really was the miracle? And how can we celebrate miracles at all this year, following Oct. 7? We can’t even decide how to spell this enigmatic holiday in English. According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are 24 ways.
Nothing about this festival is as it seems. For one thing, it’s the holiday the ancient rabbis wanted to get rid of. They hated the Maccabees — primarily because their descendants, the Hasmoneans, became corrupt rulers — and devoted very little space in the Talmud to discussions of this holiday. Purim gets an entire tractate, Hanukkah barely a page. But it was too popular to get rid of. So, the rabbis tried to gerrymander it to adhere to their non-militaristic vision.
Some have asked me how we can say, in the blessing, that we are “commanded to light the Hanukkah candles,” when Hanukkah is not in the Torah and doesn’t seem to have been commanded anywhere. The rabbis got around that one by invoking a verse from Deuteronomy ascribing special authority to sages living during the Second Temple period. The idea is that the verse gave these sages authority to give a non Torah activity “mitzvah” status, to be included among the 613 commandments. So a new commandment was shoehorned into the Torah for a holiday that’s post-biblical.
Even the simple dreidel game, one of Hanukkah’s best-known customs, is complicated. It’s in fact derived from an English and Irish medieval Christmas custom. Sorry, Virginia, it’s one of those freaky ironies of Jewish history that in order to celebrate a holiday that marks our victory over cultural assimilation, we play a game that resulted from cultural assimilation.
As we delve more deeply into Hanukkah we find other examples of cultural borrowing with a common theme. What this season is about, after all — for so many cultures — is the spiritual power of fire and night, a motif that fits right into this eight-night celebration.
In a technological society, one of the great purposes of religion is to enable human beings to return to the bare essentials of life. In our age, religion serves as a sort of paint stripper, removing layer upon layer of artificiality, reminding us of who we are and where we come from, begging us to embrace simplicity. With artificiality currently a major concern and authenticity at a premium (“authentic” is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2023), we yearn to get back to basics.
Hanukkah is the holiday of fire and night, two of creation’s most basic, necessary and feared phenomena. The festival comes at a time when the days are shortest and even the night sky is at its darkest since it’s the end of the Jewish month. With no sun or moon to light up the sky, and December’s winds blowing briskly, it is up to us to create the fire that will sustain us physically and spiritually while the days begin to grow longer and the moon larger.
On Hanukkah we light that fire, demonstrating that human beings have the capacity to create light and harness the power of fire. That’s why it’s possible for so joyous a celebration to occur at so dark a time of year. The fact that Hanukkah begins on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev and Christmas occurs on the 25th of December is not entirely coincidental. Both holidays are responding to the universal and ancient (and, originally pagan) need to light up the night of winter as the shortest day passes — it’s a need that gave rise to all the winter festivals celebrated throughout the world. It is the bond that links the flickering Hanukkah menorah to the Christmas tree, and it is a need that predates both.
Christmas originally was moved to the winter months in order to compete with Zoroastrian and then European pagan celebrations. Also, at this time of year, Hindus in India and all over the world celebrate Diwali (or Deepawali), a festival of lights as big as Christmas is for Christians. And the Chinese New Year, which is close at hand, is also a festival of light featuring lanterns and flames.
So, cultures share. That is a fact, and one Jews should celebrate. We are all human beings, after all, with the same fears and hopes.
But Jews also celebrate the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, with our great heroes of the battlefield and of the spirit. Which is why the Hanukkah menorah that is glowing this week in Sderot on the ruins of the police station destroyed by the attack of Oct. 7 is so brimming with resonance. The fact that our ancestors had the faith to light the lights of the temple, even when all seemed so hopelessly dark, is reflected in those lights in our own day.
It will be a subdued Hanukkah this year, no doubt: to speak of divine favor at a time when no Maccabean miracle was in sight on Oct. 7, when so many had to wait for what must have seemed like eight days for help to come. And some are waiting still. And for some, time ran out all too soon. Too many lives have been extinguished to focus on cheap candle tricks right now. We are aiming for a much bigger miracle.
One that began, for Jews, with the return to their homeland in 1948, but also, for all of humanity, much, much earlier, long before monotheists roamed the earth. The miracle is one of the human spirit and the Jewish spirit. Not one or the other, but both simultaneously. What we see this week in Sderot has been seen so often before: the quest for spiritual resilience and hope, generated not by might nor by brute power, but by the illuminating spiritual power of a flame in the night and the courage to light one singular candle.
"The Light That Was Not Extinguished": The charred menorah that appeared on the front page of Yediot Ahronot following the devastation (I originally shared with you here), "a silent witness to the inferno," was lit last evening by Tamir Hershkowitz, who returned to Be'eri to light it in memory of his parents who were killed there.
German Chancellor Scholz is first German chancellor to light a menorah at Brandenburg Gate, such a contrast to what Elie Wiesel z'l experienced a generation ago (see below a tweet from his son Elisha):
Below is Elie Wiesel's description of Hanukkah in Auschwitz.
And so, I wonder what you are feeling about menorah lightings. Obviously no one should do anything they are uncomfortable with, and there are plenty of reasons to be uncomfortable. A man was arrested in Albany just yesterday for firing shots at a synagogue. Even in Talmudic times (see below), rabbis instructed Jews not to put their menorahs in the window or outside if it was just inviting trouble. So what do you think?
...But first, a word about darkness (courtesy of T'ruah)
To light the lights
we need a
Above: A great moment in TBE recent history. We came together on Zoom at the height of the pandemic in 2020 to light our menorahs as a community.
WHO WILL BE OUR SHAMASH?
Henry Kissinger, who died last week accomplished something highly unusual for an American. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. It happened in 1973, honoring his participation in the Vietnam peace negotiations in Paris. Whether or not he deserved it – and, depending on your point of view, similar arguments can be made against other American winners, including Presidents Obama and Carter and Vice President Gore, there is one thing that nearly all ofthe 24 American winnershave in common, save for two: they were known for being political movers and shakers rather than moral beacons. Only two people even remotely fit that description, Martin Luther King (1964) and Elie Wiesel (1986), and only one of them was an actual religious leader.
It's not as if spiritual leaders have been lacking among non-American Peace Prize recipients. The overall listincludes such luminaries as Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Albert Schweitzer, Andrei Sakharov and this year’s winner, Narges Mohammadifor her work fighting the oppression of women in Iran.
Although Nobel Peace Prize is hardly a perfect determinant of virtue (Yasser Arafat won it, and so did the United Nations), it’s an indicator of where a nation’s priorities lie. Americans have won 40 percent of all Nobel Prizes – over 400 – including 80 in chemistry alone. But when it comes to the Peace Prize, we find just one American-born religious leader, Dr. King.
On Hanukkah, we light the menorah using an added helper candle, known as the Shamash. The word Shamash comes from Shemesh, which means sun in Hebrew and is a term actually derived from a Mesopotamian sun godwho exercised the power of light over darkness and evil.
From the perspective of Jewish law, which predated electric lighting by a millennium or two, this added candle does all the grunt work of bringing light to the room for practical uses, like cooking, reading, and household chores, so that the other candles might use their glow to exclusively proclaim the miracle. The Shamash does the hard work of bringing everyone together, like Mother Theresa in the alleyways of Calcutta, while the other candles bask in the glory of just standing there and melting. But all their illumination could never happen without the the sacrifices of their humble servant, the Shamash.
What we’ve discovered recently is that there are no more Shamashes to be found.
A half century ago. America was blessed with a galaxy of saintly religious leaders. Martin Luther King was the best of them, to be sure. But there were others, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. And the Roman Catholic cardinal who was particularly revered in my house – Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston.
Where are such leaders today? Have we been too burned to trust our religious leaders, what with all the clergy sex scandals, partisan politics and corruption – and the utter lack of courage to stand up to a would-be dictator who occupied the White House? Or more to the point: Assuming there are no great religious leaders around anymore, does that bother us in the least? Do we really care?
Several years ago, Rabbi Steven Listfield wrote, “What has changed drastically over the past few decades is that people no longer seem to expect - nor is it clear that they get or respond to - anything of overarching moral challenge or communal purpose from the organized religions of America.”
In other words, the problem isn't just in the leadership, but the flock. The sheep would prefer to go it alone, sans shepherd, rather than risk being fleeced again.
So how are we doing, without great prophets to cry in the dark, and apparently without the desire on our part to hear them? The world is a far more dangerous place now than it was then, even though back in King’s day the Soviet Union was still flexing its nuclear muscles. Racism is as virulent now as it was then, though at times more subtle than the 1960’s strain.
But when racial, ethnic and religious attacks occur, such has happened increasingly recently. where is that clear voice, the one voice, respected on all sides, with the ability to drown out all the others? Where is that commanding call to eradicate the evil? There has been none.
Matthew Arnold, the 19th century English poet, wrote, “The true meaning of religion is not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion.”
I think people do care. We are still looking for the next Abraham Heschel and Martin Luther King, just as the political dreamers among us are still in perpetual search of another Lincoln or JFK. If some appear complacent, it's only because we've gotten used to mediocrity - clergy who attend to basic pastoral needs and do little else, and churches, synagogues and mosques that educate but neglect to inspire, and because there are so many conflicting voices now, so much noise, that they tend to cancel each other out.
Norman Lear, who died this week, produced programs that brought Americans together through a weekly collective exercise in the mockery of bigotry. He was a prophet of sorts. But were it to be produced these days, "All in the Family" would be instantly cancelled by both extremes of our political universe. We've come close, perhaps, but television has not produced a producer like Norman Lear since Norman Lear.
Americans continue to pile up Nobels in every branch of the sciences, But an entire generation has come of age, and our educational system has failed to turn out a single great moral voice. And now there is a real fear that all voices speaking truth will be silenced or overwhelmed by the false voices of artificial intelligence and the propaganda silos of our increasingly suspect media.
What we need is a Sputnik of the spirit, something to jar American educators and religious leaders to rearranging their priorities. We won the race to the moon, but we're losing the race to repair the Earth.
We need to have a voice of incorruptible and uncorrupted moral power, one that Trump is afraid of, one that can pierce the echo chambers of academia that rationalize the genocidal brutality on October 7, one that can proclaim, "Love is love is love is love is love," but get us far beyond that simple proclamation. We need a voice of true moral courage, touched by outrage, but motivated only by love.
We need someone to light a fire under us.
We need a shamash.
Mazal tov to TBE's own Jewels Harrison, who on Monday night be will be introduced by Jon Stewart and play with Stephen Colbert's band at the Beacon Theater in front of an all-star cast. I could not be more proud of Jewels and admire hnow far he has come. Mary Harrison, Jewel's mom, will shortly be coming out with a book, Autism Grows Up.....Then WHAT? - her attempt to help parents navigate life with autism as they prepare or facilitate their children's transition from childhood to adulthood. For more info and tix (very few remain) click here.
Below, an old favorite: Shalom Sesame's Hanukkah episode
A great idea! ADL, AJC, AIPAC, Federations, President's Conference....Hmm. Real unity. Except... Do you think this might finally be the time to invite progressive Jewish organizations to the dance? From what I can see, the excommunication of the progressive organizations (in particular, J-Street) from the Conference of Presidents back in 2014was an enormous error that has helped lead us to the deep generational split among Jews today. It's time to correct that historic blunder. I refer you to comments I made in 2010 following the Ben Ami - Dershowitz debate at TBE, when today's undergrads were still munching latkes in Hebrew School. Little did they know that their elders were already kicking them off the island.
I'm a signatory to this rabbinic letter that has not yet been released but is timely and important:
On December 7th, NBC News reported that, “Hundreds of Jewish organization staffers call for White House to back Gaza cease-fire.” As the letter states, the signatories seek “to demonstrate broad support within the Jewish community for a ceasefire.”
This data is wrong. There is not broad support within the Jewish community for a ceasefire. Not now.
More than 20 percent of the above-mentioned letter signatories signed anonymously. Beyond demonstrating a lack of courage, it is hard to substantiate and verify an “anonymous” petition. Further, the majority of pro-Israel Americans, especially clergy of all denominations, believe that a ceasefire before the eradication of Hamas leadership and a return of all hostages, is a grave danger to global security.
The implications of comments made by Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’ decision-making political bureau, are clear: “The al-Aqsa Flood [October 7 attack on Israel] is just the first time and there will be a second, a third, a fourth because we have the determination, the resolve and the capabilities to fight.”
The people of Israel cannot be expected to return to their homes in the south of Israel until Hamas is removed from military and political power. The citizens of Gaza should be afforded the opportunity to build a future without the threat of tyranny and terror of Hamas running rampant on their streets.
The fastest way to end the bloodshed in Gaza is for Hamas to surrender, lay down their weapons and return all the hostages they continue to hold. This is the only way to end the loss of life that we all deplore and enable Israelis and Palestinians to begin to rebuild in peace.